Over the past year, two friends have shared their experience of recent sexual assault with me. Other courageous friends have spoken out about the sexual abuse they experienced as teens. The statistics are shocking: one in four college women report surviving rape (15 percent) or attempted rape (12 percent) since their fourteenth birthday.
Many who learn about sexual assault look the other way. Some grieve privately with their friends. Some downplay the problem and make excuses for perpetrators or attack the credibility of victims. A few courageous men and women stand up for victims rights and work to prevent sexual assault in the future.
Dr. Jackson Katz, gender violence educator, author and founder of MVP Strategies, calls this last group of individuals true leaders. Katz believes that a crucial component to combating violence against women is men who decide to speak up against abusive attitudes and actions: “leadership is stepping forward when no one else does,” he says.
In the summer of 1989, Cuccinelli, then a college student at the University of Virginia, learned that his friend was the victim of attempted sexual assault. He could not be a disinterested bystander. “I started learning more about sexual assault on campus,” Cuccinelli recalls.
“I was alarmed to learn that the main danger was not what happened at my house that summer – assault by a stranger – rather, the primary danger on a college campus was sexual assault by someone the victim knows. I began trying to figure out ways to attack the problem. Looking around the country, there was nothing that I could find that college students were doing to specifically target date rape and acquaintance assaults. So, I started planning and recruiting to start something new.”
Cuccinelli’s research became the focus of his women’s study class, where he received an “A” for researching and developing an informational pamphlet for incoming students on the subject of sexual assault. He co-organized a 134 hour student protest (one hour for each reported sexual assault the prior year), which led the university to hire a full-time sexual assault coordinator. Cuccinelli also spearheaded a campus program called S.A.F.E.: Sexual Assault: Facts and Education, recruited about 20 other students to help him as peer educators, and arranged training from the Charlottesville Sexual Assault Resource Agency. He also negotiated a small budget from UVA administration to pay for training materials. “Off we went,” Cuccinelli explains.
“We would visit student groups, fraternities, sororities, dorms, whatever kind of group would sit and listen. Once we were in front of our audiences, we were very blunt in delivering our educational information. All with the hope that we could help prevent future assaults, and offer some help for those who had already suffered from an assault.”
S.A.F.E. is now one of three peer education groups at UVA coordinated by the Sexual Assault Leadership Council. Students can also receive assistance from Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at UVA’s Women’s Center. Today, these resources are expected on any large campus but they are there because a group of students stood up against a campus culture that used to ignore victims of sexual assault.
Jackson Katz believes it’s time to stop calling violence against women “a women’s issue.” “I’m suggesting that we need to say it’s a men’s problem. We need to say it’s a men’s issue… We need a whole lot more men involved and we need a paradigm shift in our thinking,” says Katz.
For Ken Cuccinelli, it’s been his issue for more than 20 years.