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From Defensive Bras To Mandatory Training: 30 Years Of Sexual Assault Awareness At UCSD

The front door of UC San Diego's Sexual Assault Resource Center is shown in t...

Credit: UC San Diego

Above: The front door of UC San Diego's Sexual Assault Resource Center is shown in this undated photo.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But for UC San Diego’s Nancy Wahlig, it’s been every month since 1988. That’s when she joined the school’s then-brand-new Sexual Assault Resource Center as its director.

Now called CARE at SARC, the center offers confidential services for survivors of sexual assault, as well as help for students and staff experiencing dating or domestic violence, and campus-wide prevention training.

Wahlig sat down with KPBS to talk about how the conversation and how campuses deal with sexual assault has changed in her 30 years on the job. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: What kind of prevention methods and services were around in the ‘80s and how does that compare to what the campus is doing today?

A: So often back then it was about stranger rape. Even though individuals were coming forward and saying, “No it wasn’t a stranger who sexually assaulted me, it was somebody I knew.” But the efforts were very much about stranger. So a lot of times it was to improve lighting across campus, which was important to do but it wasn’t addressing the entire need.

At that point there was a product that was on the market. It was a small device (for) a woman — because the message was that the only victim of a crime would be a woman. We knew that that wasn’t true, but that was where all of the energy was going. So it was a capsule and a woman was to stick it inside her bra, and if she was attacked she was to smash this capsule so that it would break and (release) a skunk-like smell. And the idea was that it would be so unpleasant that the attacker would run away.

It’s absurd when we hear that, and it wasn’t that long ago. There were so many myths and misconceptions in that whole product development: first of all, that it was always going to be a stranger, and second of all, that (the motivation) was sexual desire and an awful smell would somehow send someone away, instead of the issues of power and control.

So we’ve come a long way because now we’re talking about consent, and affirmative consent.

Q: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Sexual Assault Resource Center at UC San Diego. How did you get here?

A: It’s pretty common that people start from a real grassroots effort, and for us, it was students that were speaking out and saying this needed to be done.

Back in the late ‘70s, the UC system got a small grant from the government and each campus could develop their programs. At that point, UC San Diego chose to have a task force. (The members) were individuals who had other jobs on campus. They weren’t making a lot of progress, and that was when the students came forward and said, “We want more.”

Q: And at UC San Diego, there’s now almost a lifeline, 24 hours a day seven days a week, for students. And that line goes straight to you or two of your coworkers?

A: Yes, people can call whenever a situation occurs. But a lot of times it’s the friend who’s calling for the survivor, and it’s the friend who’s saying, “I don’t know what to do, but I went through my mandatory orientation training, I know about CARE at SARC and I’m hoping that you can tell me how I can help my friend.”

Q: So we’ve come from that capsule in your bra to the #MeToo movement, and you say that there’s something missing from that conversation. What is that?

A: We love the #MeToo conversation because here’s one individual who’s stepping forward, and here’s another individual in another industry stepping forward and saying, ‘I want to speak out, I want to report.’ But what’s being left out now is there are individuals who don’t want to speak out. And because they don’t want to speak out, they’re feeling as though they’re not giving any sort of legitimacy to the movement.

So what we’ve been saying to individuals is we all make choices about how we want to handle trauma, and it doesn’t mean that at this point in time you need to speak out — you may never speak out. But there are so many other ways that you can be supportive of the movement.

RELATED: How Sex Education Is Evolving In The #MeToo Era

Q: Another recent development is support for people who say they’re wrongly accused. Last year, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a meeting of people who say they were wrongly accused. In 2015, in a decision that UC San Diego successfully appealed, a judge sided with an accused student who said he didn’t get a fair trial. Where does UC San Diego stand on this issue?

A: We provide support on campus for both the individual who is the survivor, as well as the individual who is accused if they’re a member of our community. And we have a special individual who is called the respondent services coordinator who makes sure that, let’s say they’re two students, that both students are able to finish their classes, to get the support that they need. That’s not done in our office. That’s done in another office.

RELATED: California Defiant In Early Talks About Rollback Of Campus Sexual Assault Protections

Q: April is Sexual Assault Awareness month and there are a lot of events planned here on campus. Can you tell me what students can expect?

A: Our first event is our Day of Action, and that’s really a time to recognize that we are all a part of changing the culture. What ways can we take action in our lives? How can we be a responsive bystander? How can we support survivors, whether it’s legislation or supporting a friend?

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, but one woman has been working to spread awareness at UC San Diego just about every month since 1988. She sat down with KPBS to talk about how things have changed in that time.



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