Alcohol Presentation Strikes Wrong Note on Sexual Assault

A presentation entitled “Haven – Understanding Sexual Assault,” led by Cory Rosenkranz, coordinator of Substance Abuse & Violence Prevention, has received negative feedback from peer facilitators, students, faculty and alumni who said it focused too much on the responsibility of the victim in preventing sexual assault.

“[Cory] started the presentation by talking about preventative measures…but then it became kind of peculiar, the extent she was taking it to,” said Brandon Molina, who is a returning peer facilitator. “She was saying that women need to watch their body language and that women should practice how they articulate their face [in a social setting] by practicing in the mirror.”

The presentation was implemented this year as part of the “AlcoholEdu” presentation, an annual presentation that informs new and returning peer facilitators about the choices first-year students make in relation to alcohol.

“Haven educates students about the elements of healthy relationships, the importance of sexual consent and the role of bystanders in creating safe, healthy communities,” Judy Green, director of the Center for Health and Counseling Services, said in an email.  

During the hour-long presentation, which also covered alcohol consumption and abuse, Rosenkranz said female students needed to be self aware about actions that could invite sexual assault. Those included, Rosenkranz said during the presentation, how women dress, how they interact socially, how much they drink and how their body language and facial expressions could be interpreted.

Rosenkranz, who is also a counselor at the Center for Health and Counseling Services, did not respond to a request for an interview, instead forwarding it to the college public relations department.

The campus response to the presentation was not limited to the peer facilitators who sat through the training, but instead reached hundreds of students and faculty members via word of mouth and social platforms.

While the bystander education contained in Haven supports the College’s Green Dot campaign, which aims to systematically reduce violence within any community, a number of members of the Ramapo community were displeased with the focus of harm-reduction in the form of self-awareness through body language in this year’s alcohol presentation.

However well-intentioned the presentation was with regards to women taking precaution for their demeanor, it does not address the core issue, which is that it really has nothing to do with what the victim is doing, but everything to do with perceived male entitlement by some to females’ bodies.

While the majority of men are respectful of women, there are some who view women purely as sexual objects. That is where the danger lies, experts say.

“My thought the whole time was maybe women shouldn’t practice how long they’re blinking, men should just not rape people,” added Molina.

The use of victim-blaming in teaching sexual assault prevention places the burden of prevention on the targets of sexual assault and creates a culture in which survivors are shamed, perpetrators are excused and society is given no responsibility to end the pandemic.

Paul Reck, professor of Law and Society, who did not attend the presentation, heard about it from students in the Diversity Action Committee Student Club and said he was dissatisfied by its implicit message.

“Any efforts to address the issue of sexual violence on college campuses must start with interrogating and challenging the gender norms that legitimize and sustain such violence,” said Reck. “If we focus on what it is that victims need to do in terms of their dress, their demeanor, it takes complete focus off of the real issue here, which is the behavior of various perpetrators and what it is they think they are entitled to.”

Other members outside the Ramapo community were also unhappy with the perceived message of the presentation.

“I’m a little perplexed as to how body language would be an invitation to sexual violence,” said Caitlin Eckert, a prevention coordinator from healingSPACE, the Bergen County’s only Sexual Violence Resource Center, when told of the presentation. 

Kaitlyn Maglione, administrative assistant at healingSPACE, also added, “When you’re constantly told that it was something you wore, your facial expression or because you were drinking, you start to convince yourself that maybe it really was your fault.”

The National Research Council reports that as many as 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Victim-blaming not only deprives survivors of justice, but also allows perpetrators to potentially never see punishment for their actions.

The outdated idea that victims have a responsibility to prevent their own rape is continued through prevention techniques that encourage women to avoid seducing men, either through their behavior or dress.

“Males’ sexual assaults of females, both historically and today, occur regardless of what females do,” said Reck.

It is important to note that the College does not condone sexual violence or violence of any kind and that it holds students accountable for their actions by the guidelines set forth in the Code of Conduct.

“The College provides support services to students who have had violence perpetuated against them through access to the Assault Contact Team and by providing counseling and medical services through the Center for Health and Counseling Services,” said Green. “The College takes seriously all allegations of sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking.”

The presentation by Rosenkranz, however, has an implicit message to students that if they are victimized and seek help that they are not going to receive the necessary treatment because they will believe that they are partially responsible for their behavior. That could have the unintended consequence of acting as a deterrent for people actually reaching out and seeking help when they have been sexually assaulted.

“Students are going to feel that somehow they have brought on whatever consequences occur and that they are relatively powerless to change the larger culture that is being accepted as the status quo that cannot be altered through any collective efforts on campus,” said Reck.

The college should address the fact that anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual assault and a presentation should be created that addresses the gender hierarchy that eroticizes women’s bodies, endows men with a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, and reinforces sexual violence.

Such a presentation would go a long way in shifting societal attitudes toward women and preventing sexual violence.

“I would encourage everyone, not just females, to avoid a situation where they lose control of their faculties and where they put themselves in a vulnerable position by all means possible; however, that does not change the underlying premise here,” added Reck. “What I’d like to see is a workshop that focuses on teaching men not to rape.”

Additional reporting by Alex Hoteck.