Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2013 | People

Sex Education

By Kathryn Howe

College is a time to break away from parental rules, to experiment and take risks with relationships, alcohol, and sex. At times, this combination proves dangerous.

At the University Counseling Service (UCS), Director Sam Cochran and his colleagues see their share of sexual assault survivors—but also men, confused and unsure of events and their actions, who occasionally say: "I think I might've raped someone."

About two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, whether an acquaintance, friend, significant other, or spouse. Familiarity between victim and perpetrator further blurs the lines of ambiguity about what actually happened in a sexual encounter. And, with alcohol involved in about 90 percent of campus rapes, alleged attackers often claim—and may even genuinely believe—that the sex was consensual. Cochran points to studies that show first-year college women in their first six weeks of campus life are most vulnerable to rape. From freshman orientation and onward, the UI offers students proactive information to stay safe sexually—not just how women can protect themselves, but how everyone can contribute to a safe campus environment.

As the former social coordinator of a fraternity, Jacob Oppenheimer witnessed firsthand an environment fraught with potential trouble. "Punch-bowl parties" enticed women over to drink for the sole purpose of having sex; "Brother of the Week" went to the student who had slept with the most women. Upset by his own behavior while trying to fit in with the crowd, Oppenheimer could ultimately no longer ignore the fact that such attitudes and actions often lead to sexual assault. He challenged men to get involved in changing rape culture, a movement that starts with talking with younger boys and girls about the virtues of compassion, tenderness, respect, and vulnerability.

Oppenheimer and Cochran both agree that a cultural shift will only come when more men become part of the answer. Says Cochran: "We must raise our voices to say, 'Enough.'"

For his part, Oppenheimer became the coordinator for the Men's Anti-Violence Council at the UI Women's Resource and Action Center (WRAC). He started by working to educate fraternities and other groups about the rarely discussed topic of consent. Over the last academic year, the "How Do You Ask?" campaign has made its way around the UI campus, teaching students about the importance of obtaining verbal, mutual confirmation between sex partners. In addition, the "bystander intervention" program urges students to rise above peer pressure and intervene—whether telling someone to stop certain actions or not leaving an alcohol-impaired friend in jeopardy— before the bedroom door closes.

"If we can make consent 'sexy,'" says Oppenheimer, "and if we can change the culture so that speaking out is the norm, then we'll really have come a long way."