Adkins: UO needs to reevaluate its prevention courses

The University of Oregon  recently launched a new online program for alcohol education and prevention with “Third Millennium Classrooms” as part of an effort to reduce substance abuse and sexual misconduct on our campus. All incoming students are required to go through the two-part program during freshman orientation. With lengthy sessions on sexual assault and mandatory “Get Explicit 101” meetings, the message is clear: the University of Oregon takes sexual misconduct seriously.

I recognize that there is no perfect way to discuss the issue of sexual assault, and that there are very dedicated staff working all the time to improve the UO’s programming around this issue. But the portion of the course titled “Consent & Respect,” which is a new addition to UO’s alcohol prevention course, was tasteless and poorly executed. While UO acknowledges that going through this module can be “difficult or triggering” for victims of sexual assault and provides the standard list of safe-space resources, I’d rather not have to bring up those emotions again in the first place.

A culture shift needs to occur around the manner in which universities talk about and address the issue of sexual assault. Rolling through the classic scenarios between a male and a female where the male takes advantage of a female who’s gotten too drunk at a party are just insufficient and often only invalidate the experiences that don’t fit into this model.  

A few months ago, I was finally able to tell my parents about my sexual assault after spending years feeling invalidated, repressing my memories and forcing myself to believe that what had happened to me was perfectly normal, and it was the most difficult conversation I’d ever had with them.

Then, in the UO online module, I watched a parallel scene: a cartoon girl saying to her cartoon male friend, “I think I was… raped,” and breaking into dramatic cartoon tears.

I felt angry. One of my most personal, distressing and confusing experiences was reduced to a crude cartoon experience. It felt like the sad-face emojis that people have been commenting on one another’s “Me too” Facebook posts — like a pat on the shoulder, a minimization of the shock and grief that characterized that time in my life.

Having to click through the incessant number of slides in the UO online module, along with sitting through a long Get Explicit session on top of everything at freshman orientation, I didn’t feel triggered — I felt bombarded. And even worse was when I heard two students sitting behind me bursting into laughter in reaction to a crude student-actor portrayal of one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

The problem with dramatizing these scenes in this way is that it reduces these painful, distressing experiences to nothing but juvenile role-plays or animations, which, though well-intentioned, create opportunities for these issues to be mocked instead of taken seriously.

That’s one of the reasons it can be so difficult to process experiences of sexual assault — people often unknowingly invalidate your experience, and you start to wonder if what happened to you was actually real. Hearing someone making fun of this situation, I felt more invalidated than ever.

Though I was instructed to “take care of myself” and spaces were provided for me to speak with someone if I needed it, I felt as though leaving the classroom in the middle of the session would be drawing attention to a very personal experience, in front of peers I’d only just met.

What would it look like if victims of sexual assault were given different material and messaging that didn’t degrade or invalidate their experiences; that didn’t force them to watch distressing scenarios over and over or to relive their experiences if they didn’t want to?

The reality is that sexual assault prevention and education simply cannot be one-size-fits-all. The messaging that would wake up would-be predators is neither acceptable, accessible nor helpful for victims. If the University of Oregon truly wants to prioritize this issue, then there needs to be a real overhaul of these programs.

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Maddie Adkins

Maddie Adkins