The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday December 9th

Column: At UNC, sexual assault has always been a problem

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated when Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced UNC would commit $2 million, over the next five years, for a senior level position focused on sexual violence prevention. He announced this in January at the Summit on Safety and Belonging. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

Editor's note: This column discusses sensitive topics such as sexual assault.

One in three female undergraduate students at UNC has been a victim of sexual assault during their time in college.

That was a key finding of the Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, released by the University in October 2019.

But what you may not know is that 34 years earlier, a survey conducted by the then-UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication yielded nearly identical results.

“Three out of 10 female students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been victims of rape or attempted rape, according to a survey completed this fall by students at the School of Journalism,” an article published in the November/December 1986 edition of the UNC Journalist said.

In recent years, the University drew controversy after the 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground” exposed the culture of sexual assault at UNC and the many institutional barriers to justice for victims. Sexual assault is, frankly, one of the more unwelcome parts of the UNC experience — it existed long before the documentary aired, and still does today. 

A search of the Daily Tar Heel’s archives revealed the issue of sexual assault has concerned students for decades. In 1992, The Daily Tar Heel reported the number of sexual assault reports had risen more than 50 percent from recent years, and statistics show the number of rapes reported on campus in the 1990s were far higher at UNC than at Duke or N.C. State. 

Yet, despite negative media attention and ongoing pressure from generations of students who have demanded a proactive response, UNC continues to betray its students by sweeping sexual assault under the rug. 

For years, UNC violated the Clery Act by misrepresenting and underreporting campus crime statistics, including sexual assault, failing to properly alert the campus community to serious crimes and inadequately operating its system of ensuring campus safety, a review from the U.S. Department of Education found in 2019. And just last year, the University appointed David L. Perry, who faced criticism for his handling of sexual assault cases during his tenure at Florida State University, as its next chief of police. 

The continued prevalence of campus sexual assault is proof of the University’s unremitting failure to adequately confront the issue in a preventative way. Granted, the importance of better lighting, strict disciplinary policies and similar measures that restore some semblance of safety and justice to victims cannot be understated, but it’s not enough. 

In order to successfully confront sexual assault, a more holistic approach is required — one that radically addresses the larger cultural perceptions that normalize and sustain such behavior. Sexual assault isn’t an issue limited to college campuses, of course, but it’s especially pervasive in these spaces, and universities possess a unique ability to educate their students by targeting rape culture directly.

The Campus Safety Commission recently put forth a number of recommendations regarding sexual assault, including creating a senior level administrator role to oversee prevention, and establishing an interpersonal and sexual violence center. In January, at the Summit on Safety and Belonging, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced UNC would commit $2 million over the next five years for a senior level position focused on sexual violence prevention. 

One can only hope this will be the first of many steps taken by the University to foster a culture of consent on campus and beyond. We’re tired of empty promises and platitudes that not only allow sexual violence to fester, but make no effort to dismantle the axes of oppression and privilege underpinning the issue. 

The University must begin by acknowledging that ultimately, sexual assault is not merely a result of unfortunate circumstances such as poor lighting or alcohol. It’s undeniably a symptom of larger patriarchal narratives that provide men with a sense of entitlement, dehumanize women and rob us of our sexual agency. So, too, it must recognize sexual assault is an intersectional issue, and marginalized groups — people of color and LGBTQ+ folks especially — are disproportionately affected. 

Students — especially women — are tired of living in fear. The fear of walking home at night, the fear of strangers, the fear that comes with the parts of life that are supposed to be fun. It’s a feeling as innate and universal as our love for Carolina blue skies, or our hatred of Duke. 

We deserve better. And we’ll keep fighting until we get it. 

@paigemasten

opinon@dailytarheel.com

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