Ferguson: Let’s change the way we talk about sexual assault in class

Danielle Ferguson

It happened in one of my classes, when a loop in the syllabus provided the opportunity to watch an unplanned documentary. We had the choice between two. One about undocumented workers and another about rape in Middle Eastern countries.

One of my classmates said we can’t watch the second one.


With a quaver in her voice she again said, “We can’t watch the second one.”

I spoke up and said, “The first one sounds more interesting.”


She left the room close to tears.

Something like this has happened in at least one of my classes almost every semester. The syllabus will list a few sentences’ worth description of what is going to be covered that day, but one day, the PowerPoint includes the topic of rape or other forms of sexual assault, something not mentioned in the class description for the day.

I’ll be sitting in class, resisting the urge to sneak a glance at my phone, the slides at the front of the room clicking by slower than the seconds on the clock.

Click, and the slide shows some sort of fact or statistic about rape or sexual assault.

I sit up a bit straighter.

The professor goes on nonchalantly about the topic, as if it’s another item on the grocery list and just a bullet on the slide.

I’ll start to look around the classroom thinking, “What if someone in this class had been raped or sexually abused and forgot to look at the syllabus today?”

Yes, the syllabus lists what topics are on the agenda and what readings are necessary for each day. Those assigned readings might include this topic, therefore providing the necessary warning for what’s to come during class.

Most students have around four, sometimes more, other syllabi in addition to your class to keep up with and are rushing from club meetings, jobs and other activities that occupy our coveted time. You can have all the syllabi quizzes you want, but I guarantee you not every student checks their syllabus every day to remind them of the approaching discussion.

Especially not one who still might be learning to re-navigate campus life while recovering from a sexual assault.

The assault could have happened two days ago or two years ago, but you talking about the rape culture of our society in the casual manner I’ve heard is probably not going to sit well with that person and could very well be a trigger shooting them to the past.

I have sat through too many classes where conversations about rape and sexual assault are thrown around like this weekend’s plans without a second thought to it being a trigger to someone sitting two rows back. I remember looking up the syllabus each time this happened, and most of the time, what’s listed for that day included nothing on that topic.

Don’t get me wrong, rape and sexual assault in any situation or cultural context is an important topic and must be discussed. People must be educated on the subject and a university is the place to challenge your ideas and sometimes even make you uncomfortable.

Yes, talk about sexual assault. Talk about how more than 90 percent of sexual assault survivors on college campuses do not report the crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Talk about how only about 29 percent of ISU students reported being “very or extremely knowledgeable” about the university’s definition of sexual assault, according to the results of the 2015 American Association of Universities Sexual Assault Climate Survey. Talk about how about 78 percent of people who saw what they thought might turn into an unwanted sexual encounter said they did nothing to intervene.

In fact, everyone at some point should take a class that brings in an advocate, university official or ISU PD Outreach Officer Anthony Greiter to talk about sexual assault on college campuses and how to report and if necessary, intervene.

Not every class is going to warrant the topic of sexual assault. It’s probably not on the lesson plan of theories of quantum physics, but those students still need to know about what to do and how their professor is going to react or what steps their professor is going to take if they miss class because of sexual assault recovery, appointments, etc.

When it comes to talking about the subject in class, a trigger warning is the simplest, most considerate way toward helping sexual assault survivors reclaim their college experience.

And I’m not talking about an, “OK class, today we will be talking about rape and sexual assault. If you need to leave do so now.” That’s going to single them out and make them feel more embarrassed than they already do.

Instructors, professors, lecturers, etc., you already do so much for us. You usually do a great job of creating a safe space for discussion and an open exchange of ideas. You work to help us succeed. You listen to the lame excuses we dish out for not getting our homework done. You watch a mass top of heads distracted by an electronic rectangle while you attempt to nourish our minds and expand our thoughts.

We appreciate you. And we know you expect us to keep up with your lesson plans, and rightfully so.

I combed through some of my past syllabi saved on my computer. They always contain a disabilities accommodation and diversity section, and most contain a short section about creating a “safe space” in the classroom, respecting each other’s opinions. All extremely important and necessary.

But not one contained policy about if a student would happen to be a victim of sexual assault or other forms of abuse. No information about what to do if such a thing happens to a student during the course of a semester.

What if that student’s rapist was in the same class? After all, more than 75 percent of sexual assault victims, on average, are assaulted by someone they know.

But bet your bottom dollar you’ll see a no-cell phone policy.

I can’t imagine being a victim of a sexual assault sitting in a class and an unexpected sentence is thrown out, forcing vivid memories to flood through my mind. That could throw off someone for the entire day.

The university provides a multitude of resources, and ISU PD works closely with the university and local health centers and advocacy organization ACCESS. It has an office dedicated to handling sexual misconduct.

Students often confide in their professors because they interact with them more than they do with upper administration, so it would make sense that students would more easily go to that figure opposed to an office full of people they don’t know. The university even provides step-by-step help to instructors about what to do if a student reports being sexually assaulted.

This isn’t to say the university or its instructors don’t want to help students. Doing so is usually the main goal.

All I’m saying is, an email the day before class and a section in the syllabus could help a lot of victims. A personal statement on how you would help assault victims would be even better.