Nothing beats a South Bend autumn. The humidity disappears, the air gets cooler and the leaves dance between shades of yellow, brown and red. There’s a sense of in-betweenness, of transition, ghosting through the wind. First-year students feel this most, as this time involves many new experiences: first time being in a dorm, first time pulling an all-nighter, first time being away from home, first time partying, first time drinking, etc.
Yet this newness and unfamiliarity can also create vulnerability; undergraduate women are more likely to report nonconsensual sexual contact in their first year, according to a 2019 study by the Association of American Universities (AAU). And as the leaves go from green to red, universities across the country go into “the red zone” — the period of time from the start of the fall semester to Thanksgiving break when 50% of sexual assaults occur on college campuses, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Red Zone Awareness
From Sept. 4-8, the Notre Dame Student Government organized “Red Zone Awareness Week.” Junior Lena Dougherty, the director of gender relations for Title IX and women’s initiatives for student government, spearheaded the initiative. Dougherty described wanting a “push in programming and events” with Red Zone Awareness Week “at the very start of school so that [student government] can educate and spread awareness right off the bat.”
Events of the week included an Instagram takeover by Dougherty, tabling events to share resources, distribution of pledges to “Shatter the Red Zone” for dorms to sign and a “Wear Red Day” on Friday, Sept. 8.
Dougherty describes the tabling events as particularly eye-opening: “It was really interesting getting to talk to students and explain what the red zone was, and they were shocked, they had never really thought about it,” said Dougherty. Combatting the ignorance of the red zone was a main priority. “Bringing awareness to this very vulnerable time was important to me, especially because [it seemed like] nobody had ever heard of it before,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty also described seeing people on campus dressed in red for “Wear Red Day,” saying, “Red is such a bold and bright color, it was nice, walking around campus, to see and know that [a student] wore that red shirt for Red Zone Awareness Week … It’s also super comforting as a survivor, and also as a woman, to know that there are people who support you and will believe you if this was ever a situation you were in.”
Substances and Self-Blame
According to Notre Dame’s 2022-2023 Title IX Campus Climate Survey, 6% of women have personally experienced non‐consensual sexual intercourse while attending Notre Dame, and 3% responded they were “not sure”; for men, the numbers were 1% and 2%, respectively. Of the students who had personally experienced a sexual assault, 52% of the respondents said they were “unable to provide consent because they were asleep or incapacitated as a result of drugs, alcohol, etc.” RAINN described alcohol as “the most common substance used to perpetrate drug-facilitated sexual assault.” These statistics illuminate and attest to alcohol’s pervasiveness in sexual assault, especially on college campuses.
Combating shame and self-blame was another goal of Red Zone Awareness Week. As Dougherty said, “It is never — even when drinking is involved or drugs are involved — it is never the fault of the survivor.” RAINN echoes this sentiment, and the organization describes how many survivors of drug-facilitated sexual assault blame themselves for their own assault. In response, RAINN stated, “When you choose to use drugs or alcohol, you are not choosing to be sexually assaulted. The blame for this crime falls ONLY on the perpetrator.”
Of the sexual assault survivors who filled out the campus climate survey, only 13% of respondents said they reported it to the university. In response to a question about barriers to reporting sexual assault, 62% of respondents blamed themselves for the incident, and 42% reported being unsure of whether what happened constituted an offense.
Campus Culture and Sexual Assault
According to a 2019 survey of 33 schools by the Association of American Universities, 26.4% of female undergraduate students and 6.9% of male undergraduate students experience nonconsensual sexual contact through physical force, violence or incapacitation during their time in college.
Notre Dame is not immune to the dangers of the red zone. “It’s a college campus culture, in general, you’re going to have the red zone,” said Dougherty. But on this campus specifically, Dougherty said, “There are more [parties] at the beginning of the year, there are more Welcome Weekend events, the weather is nicer, people are going out.”
Dougherty described the student government’s Safety after Parietals initiative as a particularly important step towards making campus safer. For the past five years, the student government cabinets have been advocating for changing the language surrounding sexual misconduct in du Lac (the student handbook) and spreading awareness of university policy surrounding leaving unsafe situations after parietals. As it stands now, the university policy (as outlined in the “Procedures for Resolving Concerns of Discriminatory Harassment, Sexual Harassment, and Other Sex-Based Misconduct” on the Office of Institutional Equity’s website) states, “Students who feel unsafe in a residence hall after parietals should leave the hall, regardless of the time, without concern for a parietals violation.”
Dougherty said that there is “definitely work to be done as far as awareness goes,” which is why the student government pushed awareness of the red zone. The Title IX survey found that 40% of undergrads have experience with a fellow student disclosing a sexual assault, so while the chances of becoming a survivor are low, the chances of knowing one are not.
The Gender Relations Center’s Work
One organization that makes continuous efforts to increase awareness of sexual assault and abuse in romantic relationships is the Gender Relations Center (GRC). As a branch of the university’s Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the GRC office is located on the second floor of LaFortune Student Center. The GRC offers opportunities for students to get involved with programs and initiatives surrounding gender relations. “It is student-led staff-assisted programs and we have different groups that work on student topics,” said Arlene Montevecchio, director of the GRC. The 40 student leaders, or “FIRE Starters,” make up four groups that each focus on different issues: gender equity, healthy relationships, violence prevention and LGBTQ student support and inclusion. Each group plans events and initiatives to raise awareness throughout the school year. Montevecchio said, “The healthy relationships group might do something like healthy dating culture in the winter, or Pal-entines Day, things about communication in relationships.”
October is Relationship Violence Awareness Month. Having events and programs during the fall months is especially important to the GRC, being that the red zone is that period of time between the beginning of the school year to about Thanksgiving. “We did a talk last week on dating and emotional abuse and how to help a friend who might be experiencing emotional abuse. In the past we have done things based on global gender-based violence or how to help a friend through the Title IX process, so we always do some programming in the month of October,” said Montevecchio. January is Stalking Awareness Month and April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month, so the GRC will have events during those months to help educate the student body about these specific topics.
These events are helpful, but how do we increase awareness to the general student body who may not attend? According to the American Psychological Association (APA) and a 2007 study on campus sexual assault, first-year female college students are the most susceptible to becoming victims of sexual assault. But the beginning of the school year, especially for a first-year, is jam-packed with meetings and events around campus, on top of adjusting to a college level workload and attempting to navigate the social scene. The university has made changes so that before students get to campus in the fall, they have some background knowledge on the issues surrounding sexual assault and violence.
“The Gender Relations Center has been a part of creating the university's curriculum ‘Building Community the Notre Dame Way’ and that is something that you do before coming to campus. One of the videos covers consent and one covers GreeNDot and bystander intervention. That is the first step, we think of these educational building blocks that the GRC, [the office of ] Title IX, and GreeNDot all do on campus together,” Montevecchio said. This program is catered towards first years, along with class sessions in Moreau First Year experience on consent and bystander intervention.
Looking beyond education for first-years, the GRC has also hosted discussions in residence halls to reach students of all grade levels. However, unlike GreeNDot training which counts towards Hall of the Year points, fewer students engage in these events hosted by the GRC. Montevecchio noted, “We don't have the capacity to [host residence hall discussions] campus wide but last year we did it in four or five residence halls, and we have two scheduled this year.”
These educational conversations have brought awareness to men and women's dorms. Montevecchio said, “I was in Stanford Hall doing an ally training in early October and I was asking some of them what other kinds of conversations and programs would you come to involving being a healthy man on campus.” Even within the GRC itself, only five out of the 40 FIRE Starters identify as men, but steps are being taken to engage more with male students.
About Catholic Values
The GRC’s website notes that its programs are “consistent with the Catholic character of the University.” Montevecchio elaborated, “When we do our consent training in the residence halls, we always remind students that chastity is a part of the Catholic tradition which said that sex outside of marriage is not permissible … We want to teach students that we use consent in everyday life. You aren’t gonna use your roommate’s hairbrush without asking their permission. You are not gonna do certain things in a romantic or intimate space without asking permission of the person. So we do teach [chastity] upfront, knowing that our students may be sexually active.”
Speaking up or reporting a case of abuse is a difficult feat as is, considering it requires the retelling of a traumatic event, the possibility your story may be twisted by someone else’s claims or the possibility of not being believed. “I would say that I can’t imagine anyone from the counseling center, Title IX or the GRC victim blaming or shaming people for having sex [or for being] assaulted. The church calls us to honor the dignity of every person and so we are certainly going to want to hear the stories of survivors and not blame them and honor their dignity,” said Montevecchio.
Both the GRC and student government emphasize support for sexual assault survivors. “I think that survivors want nothing more than to be believed,” said Dougherty, “a huge thing is just standing with survivors.”
There are also numerous ways to get involved through the university. The GRC is one, as is student government, which is “always looking for more support” according to Dougherty. Further, dorm culture plays a large role in social life and emotional support on campus, and Dougherty believes showing support within your dorm is crucial: “If you want to start making change, especially in this case with shattering the red zone, I think that working in your residence halls is a great way to start.”
Now, when you see the leaves start to change and bright-eyed first-years come to campus for the first time, remember that this period of time is as dangerous as it is beautiful — but it doesn’t have to be.
University Counseling Center: ucc.nd.edu, (574) 631-7336
S-O-S Rape Crisis Hotline of St. Joseph County: www.fjcsjc.org/sos, (574) 289-4357
Gender Relations Center (double check w Annie on this): grc.nd.edu
Notre Dame’s Title IX Office: titleix.nd.edu, (574) 631-0444
Notre Dame Police Department: firstname.lastname@example.org, (574) 631-5555
University Health Services: uhs.nd.edu, (574) 631-7497
St. Joseph Regional Medical Center: www.sjmed.com, (574) 335-5000