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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Progress in reshaping the hunting ground


Sexual assault awareness; advocacy in UC Davis, larger community

Sexual assault is defined by the Center for Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) as any unwanted, nonconsensual sexual act in which a person is threatened, coerced or forced to comply against their will, or where a person is unable to give consent because they are a minor, unconscious, asleep or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol.

But is addressing this issue as straightforward as defining it? Resource centers such as CARE and Student Health and Counseling Services, both of which took part in April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, along with various UC Davis students and ASUCD members, are trying to help survivors navigate this complex experience and work to raise awareness about this issue on our campus and in our community.

Anastasia Ruttkay, an ASUCD senator and a fourth-year international relations major, ran on a platform of sexual assault advocacy. She first became involved with this issue when she joined Georgia Savage’s staff and collaborated on her “Let’s Talk About Sex” campaign.

Me being in Greek life, and Greek life being a high risk population, I thought that was something really important that we should be participating in,” Ruttkay said.

Continuing to work toward Savage’s goals in her own term as senator, Ruttkay has drawn some of her inspiration and the template for her work from that of students fighting against sexual assault in greek life at UC Berkeley.

“I reached out to Berkeley at a symposium that I went to and I saw that they have sexual assualt prevention posters within every chapter house, […] like a safe space initiative,” Ruttkay said. “Especially with all these open parties happening all the time, Greeks pledging against sexual assault [is] a step in the right direction.”

Modeling her work after Berkeley’s prevention posters, Ruttkay created posters headed with the words: “Greeks Against Sexual Assault: Put an End to Sexual Violence.” They contain the contact information of the president and risk management official for the house, the UC Davis and Davis Police Departments, and a list of confidential and non-confidential resources. Ruttkay met with Panhellenic, CARE, IFC and Student Housing to implement her design, and finally, the day before this year’s Picnic Day, was able to nail in these boards.

“These are now up in every [social] fraternity and sorority house,” Ruttkay said. “It’s basically a pledge against sexual assault and it’s keeping chapters accountable for what goes down in their chapter house. This is not an incentive to point fingers at anyone. The point of these is to make [each] chapter a safe space and hold them accountable for what goes down in [their] chapter.”

These posters are symbols of progress and accountability, and Ruttkay believes their physical presence is hard to ignore.

“These posters are up — they’re not a sheet of paper; they’re nailed into the walls,” Ruttkay said. “Chapters know what they are. The members know what they are. It’s taking a stand against sexual assault.”

However, Ruttkay and Rachelle Fishbin, a third-year women and gender studies major, and chair of the Sexual Assault Awareness Advocacy Committee (SAAAC), both agree that this progress is relatively recent, and that progress in general when advocating for this issue is slowed by stigma and a lack of sufficient support from campus administration.

“It wasn’t until my junior year that I saw that [sexual assault advocacy] was something students were passionate about,” Ruttkay said. “[It] was getting shoved under the rug for way too long, and needed to come out. I don’t think we started transforming this culture until last year.”

Fishbin and her committee are trying to make up for the lost years in advocating for this issue by addressing the cross-section between politics and sexual assault.

“The committee [… is] really centered around policy and laws,” Fishbin said. “Especially right now, there’s like a lot of crap happening with [gender violence issues] because of the Trump Administration. So I think we are coming in at a good time to educate students.”

Fishbin is especially concerned about Betsy DeVos’ appointment as head of the Department of Education and how this will affect justice for students in public institutions.

“When Betsy DeVos was appointed, that was a huge concern to a lot of advocates and people who do work within sexual assault,” Fishbin said. “She, until this date, has yet to commit to upholding Title IX regulations for dealing with sexual assault.”

Although Title IX gives students the rights and a venue with which to file reports, filing a report itself can be a long-winded and frustrating process for anyone to navigate, let alone a survivor who must also deal with the emotional scars they are left with.

The process when it comes to filing a report is kind of burdensome,” Ruttkay said. “It’s very complicated, and I honestly say that’s why a lot of students deter from filing a report. A lot of the times [the report] will get looked at and [discarded with the notion that], there [wasn’t] enough evidence to prove [it].”

A UC Davis fraternity, Theta Xi, has been under investigation for almost a year now. According to Ruttkay, the case has yet to result in a conviction.

“It’s just really sad to watch that someone had the courage to report, and yet [heard that] there’s not enough evidence to validate that report — it hurts me to my core,” Ruttkay said.

Marginalized communities such as the LGBTQIA community are especially vulnerable. They often suffer from higher rates of abuse, but their voices are not heard at an equivalent volume.  

“Rates of sexual assault are usually a lot higher in [the LGBTQIA] community, especially for transgender women,” Fishbin said. “Trump and DeVos have rescinded guidelines put in place by Obama that specifically protect the transgender community and specifically mandate that Title IX be applied to all students regardless of [their] gender identity. That’s really concerning. Without it, doesn’t seem like there’s any way to hold schools accountable who don’t protect transgender survivors.”

Another marginalized population that suffers from sexual violence is the incarcerated. This population is not one that is often thought of, and even when media does highlight it, it is overridden by misconceptions and romanticised notions.

Anusha Sundar, a second-year cognitive science and philosophy double major, is the president of Tutors For Inmates, an organization that reaches out to various state prisons and juvenile halls and tutors the inmates to help them succeed academically. As a part of sexual assault awareness month, they held a prison sexual assault awareness seminar.

“It’s been my personal intent to start this sort of awareness in this local community, because so many people have misconceptions and preconceived notions from the media about sexual assault and rape in prisons,” Sundar said. “You see those kinds of misconceptions in prison rape jokes — no one really takes it seriously — and it dehumanizes [the inmates].”

While Orange is the New Black, a popular television series available on Netflix, may provide fulfilling entertainment to some, it certainly skews the perception of this already complex scenario.

“In Orange is the New Black, they have two characters who they portray as falling in love,” Sundar said. “One is a guard and one is an inmate. That’s not a really good portrayal, mostly because it’s not very accurate. No sexual act between a staff [member] and inmate is ever consensual […] you can’t with the structure and the hierarchy within a prison. A staff member is in a position of authority, and there is no way for an inmate to say no. There is no true consent.”

As is evident, UC Davis students, despite the setbacks, are tackling the issue of sexual assault from multiple angles and are trying to help diverse communities both on campus and in our larger universe. Whether it be through spreading word about resources, safe-space initiatives, designated awareness months or even advocating for those we don’t ever see, Aggies are courageously fighting a tough battle.

“I think a common thing that [should be looked at] is humanizing people,” Sundar said. “One person at our seminar asked why it is that in those victims’ videos, the crime he or she performed [isn’t mentioned]. Another person [responded that] it doesn’t matter [what the crime was]. No one deserves to be raped.”


Written by: Sahiti Vemula — features@theaggie.org


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