• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


How I Can Help …

Strategies and actions to prevent sexual assault on campus.

December 14, 2014

I concluded my last blog with the question of how I can help in the upsurge of concern over sexual assault and rape. Noted in an earlier blog, none of this news surprises. The work I did on gossip sites gave me yet a window into some of these issues because many of the posts that revolve around the same matters: fraternity parties, drinking, drugs and discrimination. Mainstream media is now in full tilt.

So here are three ways in which I will use this bully pulpit to help. 

1.  Bring the %^&* drinking age back down to 18.

Attribute this one to my ethic roots (Irish, English and Italian) but I, and most Europeans, think the drinking age at 21 is a joke in the U.S. Whatever problems E.U. society has, irresponsible drinking and a near-epidemic of sexual assault and rape in fraternities in particular is not known to be one of them. Keeping the drinking age at 21 might be a primitive swipe that the insurance industry, as well as special interest groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD … correctly noted by a commenter to an earlier blog) made to correct drunk driving a generation ago. In my experience with young men in particular, the one thing that they seem to get even when drinking to excess is a designated driver. Here, then, is what remains as the disadvantages of the heightened drinking age:

  • Creates a forbidden fruit, which is always a dangerous action to take among adolescents because it is designed to backfire. 
  • Creates criminals of a whole generation … not a good message to send especially when institutions of higher learning are dedicated to fostering citizenship.
  • Encourages stupid drinking games, binge drinking, and a “shots” culture. 
  • Does not encourage responsible drinking as a part of culture, society, meals and family life. 
  • Siphons students into fraternities as the only place where as an underage undergraduate one can drink alcohol, which we all recognize is at root part of the sexual assault and rape challenge because of it medically it is well known to lower inhibitions.

2.   Create safe places for lots and lots of education and discussion between men and women about sex and mainstreaming the LGBT community within that discourse.

  • Raising sons, I no more want them to be caught in a web of cultural confusion than I want young women to be victims. And a lot of cultural confusion exists: the numerous ways in which society sends mixed signals to youth about everything from intellectual property to sex. And while there are always a few truly bad apples, there are also many more young men who might be genuinely unsure about how to manage themselves with women … and visa versa, about and within the LGBT community too.  We all have a lot to share with each other about these challenges.
  • Historically, the U.S. has celebrated violence and been prudish about sex. That pattern continues today notwithstanding the “hook up” culture. In fact, the very extremes of that design arise in part because we don’t talk about sex enough with youth in a way that matters. Instead, we allow the entertainment and fashion industries to supply the values that may not be healthy, appropriate or meet the needs of youth exploring their sexual identity and relationships.
  • That culture is all about commodification, whether rooted in information or tangible things. Based as it is on consumer capitalism, the market cannot help but to commodify people. The problem lies in how much power our society gives a market that operates in this manner. Relatively unchecked by government, the dominant factor no matter what the issue at hand – note, for example, how much of a role the economy plays in politics when by definition politics can do little to control the economy – the market becomes larger than life in the imagination unchecked by other influences such as religion and spiritual life, family values and even the critical thinking skills that are an integral part of a good education. 

3.  Let’s bring our academic tool kits to bear on the global illegal drug culture, the insidious ways in which it operates in our society – including the entertainment industry as well as in the pharmaceutical industry -- and what higher education might do.

  • I was 14 in 1972 when The Godfather was released. My mother wrote me a note to be excused from school to see it in a matinee premier. Four decades later, two advanced degrees and a life devoted to education, I think I can separate the metaphors about American culture, upward mobility, race and ethnicity, drugs and violence that are a part of that landmark film and its progeny such as Goodfellas, Scarface and the Soprano’s. If it has taken me roughly that long to piece it apart, how can we possibly expect youth to understand and appreciate the very real and awfully destructive forces that lie buried in the cacophony of glamourized messages. 
  • For some students, going to college is a way to get out of the buzz saw of a living drug culture around them.  For other college students, it is a place to experiment with it (although most do so in high school first). And for some, college is the place where they become victims to it. In all cases I recommend: 1. Make the full narrative of drugs and drug culture a specialized topic area of study much as we have done with racial and ethnic studies or environmental sustainability. 2. Bring awareness and critical thinking about drugs – illegal and the pharmaceutical industry – out of mental health and into the center of student life.  If we add together the number of students who are on so-called legal medications with those who indulge in illegal drugs, that number surpasses a majority. Let’s talk from an informed perspective about the drinking and drug culture in our college life today. 3. For faculty and students with an activist bent, let’s make this a big issue much like we did with women’s rights, anti-apartheid, or the condition of workers in foreign countries who make our collegiate emblem wear. The global drug culture touches every issue of importance today: terrorism; organized crime; the Janus face of the international banking industry; crime internal to law enforcement and civil corruption; the tension between developing and developed countries; poverty, want and oppression. Even from an academic perspective, never mind an activist one, I cannot think of a topic that brings together so many vital issues and disciplines.

None of these recommendations contain anything terribly new (except perhaps the emphasis I am giving the third) and are done very well by experts in related fields. Who are those leaders? Do we have any good online materials to share? Does your school have a program that has proven helpful? In keeping with our collaborative traditions, let’s trade ideas and share resources. If I am suggesting anything, it is to elevate the profile of these issues today to the highest level of awareness in our colleges and universities, for our children, students and a healthy future. 


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