There is something missing from the conversation about sexual assault on college campuses across the country. Amidst very important discussions about consent, the intersection between sex and alcohol, and the role of residential college life in incidences of sexual misconduct, I wonder if we aren’t missing the big picture: sexual assault as an issue of public health.
Sexual assaults are happening in schools of all sizes all over the country. This is a public health threat that affects us all. No matter one’s gender or sexual orientation, any person can be a victim of sexual assault, or know someone who is. I am heartened that discussions about this very serious, very complicated issue are surfacing at many colleges but perhaps there is a different way to approach the conversation.
Much of the dialogue in the media around issues of sexual assault address the threat that women face at college, often citing questionable statistics about incidences of sexual assault that are meant to, and do, frighten female students. I also worry that young men who sit through lectures about sexual assault at orientations at campuses walk away feeling targeted by the discussion, worried that they will be accused of rape. There must be a better approach to promoting discussions about this issue that are more open and less accusatory.
I think this issue needs to be faced and addressed as a public health threat. The sphere of public health is interested in sustaining health and decreasing risk of harm in populations through various forms of organized initiatives. College happens to be a transformative time in which students might be malleable to taking part in public health efforts to influence behaviors for better health outcomes. So why not use this framework to talk about sexual assault?
The truth is that there are serious immediate and long term health consequences for the victims of a sexual assault, along with their friends, as well as their family. The extensive research of medical doctors and nurses, including Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins University, attests to these health threats. In a 2002 study on intimate partner violence, Campbell wrote that sexual assaults, and the associated stress, fear, and injuries, often lead to a high use of health services and an overall poor health status. Medical consequences often include diagnoses of gastrointestinal, gynecological, and mental health problems. Although the morphology of such health effects differs from person to person, the medical cost of sexual assault is very real.
There are advantages to framing sexual assault as a public health issue, including legitimizing the health problems faced by the victims and their loved ones. Rather than blaming each other, perhaps, in time, there will be a change in the stigma that survivors often face.
A public health framework shifts responsibility from individuals to the public, and encourages a community to take care of each other. Rather than just seeing this as a social issue that affects only certain parts of a student population, if it is a matter of public health, then it is implied that all persons share a responsibility for promoting one another’s well-being. I’d like to think this is an idea that is ingrained in us from the time that we learned to wash our own hands and cover our coughs. I hope that seeing this as matter of public health will help people set aside their discomfort talking about this issue, as well as step outside of the gendered social ideas surrounding the subject. As a point of social responsibility, we have a duty to think through this issue together, without placing blame or judgment, and without targeting or shaming any particular gender. Maybe this will help us have an inclusive discussion about how this issue is affecting the health of our community as a whole, and what we can do to stop it.