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Research indicates persistent rape culture, Orchowski says

Alternative lecture on sexual assault suggests researchers must work to find public health solutions

Lecturing to about 70 community members Tuesday afternoon, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Lindsay Orchowski discussed the prevalence of a rape culture perpetuated by popular media. Jokes, graphic images and advertisements all “make (sexual assault) seem normal,” she said. “People believe rape is inevitable.”

Orchowski’s talk, held in the Carmichael Auditorium in the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, took place from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., overlapping with the first hour of a Janus Forum debate entitled “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The Janus Forum debate featured Wendy McElroy, who argues that rape culture does not exist in the United States, and Jessica Valenti, who argues that it exists and must be combatted.

In a community-wide email sent Friday evening, President Christina Paxson wrote that Orchowski’s lecture was organized by students and administrators to “provide the community with more research and facts” about sexual assault and organized as an “alternate” to the Janus Forum event.

Focusing on rape culture on college campuses, Orchowski said data from surveys show that the “rate of sexual victimization is greater on college campuses than in the general population.”

In a study conducted in 1985, Mary Koss, a Kent State University psychology professor at the time, found that 54 percent of women reported experiencing “some form of sexual violence” between the approximate ages of 14 and 21, Orchowski said. Twenty-five percent of men self-reported having had “perpetrated unwanted sexual contact.” Because the study was retrospective, questions arose about whether the acts of violence were occurring in high school or college, Orchowski said.

What makes these findings more impactful is the lack of change in the data reflected in a 2006-09 Ohio State University study, Orchowski said. The same surveys were used, and the data “remained remarkably consistent over time,” she added.

Research on assault characteristics has revealed that about half of reported incidents involve alcohol, Orchowski said. Many sexual assault perpetrators are repeat offenders — though perpetrators comprise a “heterogeneous group,” they are often angry, “hypermasculine” and see acquiring sexual partners “as a game,” she said, adding  research also shows that victims often know their offenders, and victims tell others about assaults about half of the time.

Orchowski said only about 20 percent of sexual assault victims correctly labeled their assaults as “rape,” often reporting them as results of miscommunication or bad dates.

Only about 1 percent of assaults are reported to the police, which means researchers may be working with statistics that do not accurately reflect the prevalence of assault, she said.

Orchowski began her lecture by defining her “public health approach” — researchers must find the best preventative strategies to ensure public safety as well as the best methods to assist those affected by “tragedies,” she said.

“In order to end sexual violence, teamwork is vital,” Orchowski said. “From a public health standpoint, we all need to work together to help those affected by the experience and also promote change.”

For researchers dealing with issues related to public health and safety — such as those focused on sexual assault — the key steps researchers must take include defining the problem, discerning the factors of risk and protection, identifying and testing preventative strategies with the community and, once solidified, implementing the programs nationwide.

But these steps have yet to be completely fulfilled by sexual assault researchers, Orchowski said. While “great strides” have been made in sexual assault prevention work, researchers have not yet developed a program that is effective enough to be disseminated nationally.

Researchers must overcome the “lack of consensus” in the definition of sexual violence, Orchowski said. To compare studies, researchers need an “operational definition” that is specific, but  such a definition has yet to emerge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have categorized different forms of sexual violence, all of which are non-consensual and include abusive sexual contact, non-contact sexual abuse and rape, which they define as a completed sex act, she said.

“Across definitions, consent is vital to our understanding of what constitutes sexual violence,” Orchowski said.

Orchowski broadly defined consent as the “overall ability to agree to or refuse an experience.” More specifically, “consent is defined as words or over-actions by a person who is legally or functionally competent to give informed approval,” she said. Vital to this definition is the acknowledgment that individuals may be unable to give consent at certain times or “unable to refuse,” she added.

“Rape myths,” such as blaming alcohol or the victim for assaults, often contribute to perpetrators not considering themselves to be rapists, Orchowski said. “There is a misperception that false accusation is common,” she added. Across studies, only 5 to 7 percent of accusations are false, Orchowski said.

On campuses, “deliberate targeting” of victims, the purposeful use of alcohol and peer reinforcement that certain actions are okay are prevalent, she said.

To make their communities safer, bystanders must intervene, Orchowski said. By becoming more vocal, the silent majority of students against sexual assault can “shift the culture.”

Students who attended the lecture said it was informative.

Tiara Mack ’16 said it helped her to realize that sexual assault “is not something that can be cleared from campus during my time at Brown.”



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