MISSOULA — University of Montana students have expressed mixed feelings about a new tutorial and quiz aimed at curbing sexual assaults, with some saying the mandatory program is raising awareness while others say it’s creating a campus-wide “rape scare.”
Students enrolled in the fall semester at UM have entered a new academic year still clouded by allegations of sexual assault that occurred last school year.
In response to the cases, UM has implemented a number of policy changes to address the issue, one President Royce Engstrom has called “extremely serious.”
UM’s new policies include changes to its student-athlete conduct code, a new mandatory reporting policy, more campus security, and the sexual assault video that’s generating so much discussion both on and off campus.
Known as Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness training, or PETSA, the new tutorial includes seven video segments followed by a quiz, along with a list of emergency contacts. Every student, regardless of age or academic year, is required to watch the video and pass the quiz.
“It didn’t teach me anything,” said Blake DeShaw, a junior majoring in international business. “I support the help system they’ve created, and I think that’s great. But the mandatory tutorial is overkill.”
DeShaw believes the tutorial focuses on the obvious — don’t drink alone, make smart decisions, don’t hang out with jerks who are aggressive toward women, and don’t rape.
His sentiments were similar to some of his peers, who struggled to define drunken consent, or an absence of consent, as rape. Many students believe the video fails to hold individuals accountable for their decisions, regardless of gender.
In a letter to the Montana Kaimin, the school newspaper, UM student Anthony Trujillo said the university is correct in taking steps to create a safer campus. On the other hand, he wrote, forcing the “rape scare” on all students makes the problem worse.
“If you’re the type of person who makes regrettable sexual decisions when you’re drunk, (then) perhaps you shouldn’t drink as much or at all,” Trujillo wrote. “At some point, personal accountability has to take effect or in the very near future consent won’t even be consent anymore. When everything can be called rape, it just invites the possibility of using that crutch.”
Created by associate professor Danielle Wozniak and others after months of collaboration, the PETSA tutorial has generated national discussion, including recent coverage in an article dubbed “The Counter-Rape Culture” published by Inside Higher Ed.
The PETSA video delivers a powerful message, saying rape is rape regardless of whether it’s committed forcibly or under the influence of alcohol. It notes that consent must be given verbally with a definite “yes,” and it suggests that no answer is the same as “no.”
But many students this week questioned that message. They made their own distinctions between “forcible rape” and what they view as the muddy waters of alcohol-induced sex, regret and how consent is or is not given.
While the tutorial suggests that false rape reports are rare, a handful of female students said they’ve known young women who have made accusations of sexual assault to compensate for their own sexual regrets or to save face after dashed hopes of a relationship.
Other female students argued that their female peers should empower themselves by being responsible for their own actions, including the way they dress, and, as some women put it, the “mixed signals” they send.
“Look, we’re in college and most of this stuff my parents taught me,” said Stephanie Frazier, a sophomore studying history and pre-law. “Girls need to take some responsibility on how they act, and boys need to take responsibility on how aggressive they are.”
Seated in the University Center, Frazier and a female friend held a lengthy discussion on the video and its message. They talked about the bar scene, drunken parties and the regrets that sometimes come the next morning.
They both agreed that while the tutorial intends well and hits the mark when it comes to rape, it misses on what they described as the nuances of young adult dating, dancing, carousing and drinking.
“I get that they (UM) have to do something about what’s going on, and I think it’s great that they’re trying to figure out a way,” said Frazier. “But I don’t think this video is the way. I think some of these things are common sense they’re telling us.”
Everyone has to watch
While some questioned the success of the tutorial and the university’s mandate that everyone watch it and pass the quiz, others believe the program has been helpful in generating discussion and raising awareness.
Bryn Hagfors, a student and vice president of ASUM, watched the video two weeks before it was unveiled to the student body. While he was skeptical going in, he found the video worthwhile.
“I found it to be a really powerful piece,” said Hagfors. “I was very impressed with the content. I think it will invoke strong reactions, both positive and negative, but it’s a good thing for students to have to reflect on the message.”
Hagfors said campus conversations have focused on the tutorial and its message, including a segment on “bystander intervention,” or how friends should keep friends from making bad decisions.
While Hagfors believes the female population has generally accepted the message with appreciation, male students, he feels, have been a little more defensive.
“While the natural response from men is to be more defensive, the conversation that comes from it is worth that response,” Hagfors said. “I think it’s backed up with enough facts in the video. It creates a dialogue and self-reflection and makes you think about the issue.”
Between classes, Kristin Geer, a soft-spoken freshman, said her fellow students should already know how to behave around the opposite sex, and how to make smart choices.
But even so, Geer added, the tutorial is better than nothing at all.
“Maybe it’s just supposed to remind people,” said Geer. “I agree with the video in that rape is bad and it’s against the law. But it’s kind of weird, too, because it suggests that you might be confused on whether you raped someone. I think you’d know if you did.”