Students move their belongings into a dorm at the University of Maine in August 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Kimberly Simmons is a part-time associate professor at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and she does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

This column mentions sexual assault, which may be hard for some readers. If you need support, please call 1-800-871-7741 to talk with an advocate. This service is free, private and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Students are filling college residence halls this week, nervous and excited. Staying safe from COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind, and prevention and intervention plans have been urgently implemented. We can bring the same commitment to addressing sexual harassment and assault on campus, an epidemic more common and with more severe consequences than almost any other. The first few weeks of school are known to be the most dangerous, the “red zone” for campus sexual violence, but it doesn’t have to be true forever. Together we can create (and demand) safer, healthier and more pleasurable college experiences.

Converse about consent: Most college students know the risks associated with sex, but report few conversations with adults in their life about their unique sexual identities, the challenges of navigating romantic relationships or the awkwardness of new sexual interactions. We tell them to seek affirmative consent — that is, an explicit “heck, yeah” —  but need to provide more opportunity for practice. Maine is lucky to have many community organizations that offer trainings and most of us can encourage more open conversations.

Address misogyny/ misogynoir: Sexism encourages gender-based violence. Student offenders are disproportionately male, and describe a complex set of conditions that support sexual misconduct, despite official prohibitions. The dehumanization of people based on their sex, race, gender identity, national origin or religion spurs and rationalizes sexual violence. An intersectional anti-oppression framework strengthens prevention programs. Maine Boys to Men supports the development of nonviolent expressions of masculinity as a prevention pathway, and restorative justice projects scaffold active restitution and meaningful apologies.  

Value pleasure:  Rape culture reduces women and gender nonconforming people to  sexual objects, to be desired but without desire of their own. Racism further endangers women of color. In contrast, advocates suggest amplifying our universal capacity for and right to pleasure (sexual and otherwise). If “good sex” involves the pleasure of all involved, it is less likely to involve coercion or nonconsenual force or lack of reciprocity.  If all people are understood as equally capable of joy and entitled to pleasure, logics of oppression falter.

Space for more genuine fun: Colleges can offer better alternatives to alcohol-laden fraternity parties. Most students do not actually enjoy the “fun” sold to them by movies, porn, and the alcohol industry, but participate to fit in. Funding alternatives, particularly those led by feminist and Queer student groups, reshapes campus culture.

Survivor-centered interventions: Too often, survivors are further harmed by the response they get when they report assault. Student-survivors offer many concrete recommendations for improvements. The Every Voice Coalition advocates for: Free legal, medical and counseling services; confidential advising services to clarify a survivor’s rights and options; anti-retaliation protections for reporting parties; transparent, public data through anonymous campus climate surveys; and annual, evidence-based prevention and awareness programming.

The coalition has a bill pending in Maine. Activists are currently working to improve Title IX rules to better reflect the perspectives of survivors while also encouraging students to fight for compliance.

Support for healing: We can all prepare to better respond to disclosures. We should share confidential support resources widely and with everyone, ahead of a crisis (statewide hotline numbers include Maine Coalition To End Domestic Violence 1-866-834-HELP and Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault 1-800-871-7741). Chanel Miller’s extraordinary memoir, “Know My Name,” and Tarana Burke’s forthcoming “Unbound” provide new narratives about healing that we can explore together. And, for many, activism helps us personally heal, and collectively imagine a future where sexual and gender-based violence rarely takes place and is never tolerated.