Project Safe and the Power of Language


The power of language becomes very evident when trying to tackle issues that are very prevalent yet rarely discussed. With sexual assaults increasing at alarming rates throughout the nation, we are at a point wh

ere it is time for a change. Recently, many universities were placed under scrutiny and investigation for the way their institution handles sexual misconduct. Vanderbilt University was one of them. In an attempt to salvage its image, Vanderbilt devised several ways to “combat” the issue of sexual assault. One of the solutions was the development of the course which has taught me much more useful, long-lasting information than any Green Dots (another implementation put in place to educate students about bystander intervention tactics) training session could. A criticism of the Green Dots program that was established is that this is a more reactive measure than a proactive measure; thus, many students feel that this program will not do much to combat the issue of sexual assault on this campus.

According to Vanderbilt University, sexual assault is defined as :any forced or coerced penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth, by any part of another person’s body or by an object, or unwanted contact with the genital area, inner thighs, buttocks, or the breasts of a female, (clothed or unclothed) or forcing a person to touch another’s intimate parts.” This definition of sexual assault can be problematic because of the term penetration; penetration is typically associated with heterosexual relationships which can be misleading and may result in someone questioning whether or not they have actually been sexually assaulted.

Project Safe, which is also one of Vanderbilt’s new implementations, is a center where students can go to speak with Prevention Educator and Victim Resource Specialists about sexual assaults that they have been directly and/or indirectly affected by. Project Safe is a great resource and provides students with great benefits that include aiding these students in determining whether or not they want to file charges against their perpetrator, relocating them to different dorms if requested, providing counseling to these students, and speaking with professors in order to reschedule exams that these students may be too stressed to take. However, Project Safe has received a lot of backlash for not being a confidential resource; however, there are other confidential spaces on campus that are available to students.

During her presentation, Cara spoke to us about the new twenty-three page definition of sexual assault that she and her colleagues have compiled. While she seemed very excited about this new expanded definition, I found that to be very problematic. When I conducted my interviews for my final project (which was geared towards exposing how misinformed Vanderbilt students were about sexual assault), most students were very confused as to what sexual assault meant.  When I asked one student what she thought about Vanderbilt deciding to implement a twenty three page definition of what sexual assault entails, she was taken aback. While she did acknowledge the fact that wanting to include everything under this umbrella term of “sexual assault” sounded good in theory, it really was not good in practice. Much like me, she believed that no one would bother reading this document; thus, this was an inefficient measure of preventing sexual assaults because if they relied on students reading the twenty three page document to know what sexual assault was, a majority of students on campus, unless they did their own research, would not know because the would not read the document.

Furthermore, I think that the biggest issue surrounding sexual assault is the term “sexual assault” itself. What I found during my interview was that most students considered this to be an umbrella term under which a lot of terms fell under; however, many students did not know which terms fell under the umbrella of sexual assault. The most astonishing response I received was that a student did not know how differentiate rape from sexual assault though rape and sexual assault are not two different entities. I think that this is a result of the language we use when discussing sexual assault; the most commonly talked about form of sexual assault is rape. For instance, from what I have heard, when people speak of sexual assault, they commonly say “I was raped” and not “I was sexually assaulted.”  Maybe students do not understand the term sexual assault because 1) it is not mentioned enough or 2) it is mentioned too much. Furthermore, this is why I am against the twenty three page document that details what sexual assault is because while I understand that the authors did not want to simplify the definition too much, I think that they have expanded the definition beyond the point that students will be willing to comprehend. Also, adding too much detail will cause our misinformed students to be even more confused and will result in a decrease in the amount of sexual assaults being reported by Vanderbilt students.

How do you think the discourse surrounding sexual assaults has changed over time? How do you think the expansion of the definition of sexual assault will affect the way that Vanderbilt handles these cases of sexual misconduct? Also, do you think that this is a genuine effort being made, or is it simply a way to protect the reputation here?



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