A group of fraternity brothers from Yale University found their seats at the back of the room, slouching in their chairs as they lazily perused their phones. Owing to their limited knowledge of sexual assault, they waited in reluctant anticipation of the morning’s speaker, until Ted Bunch, a bulky former college football player, walked on stage and addressed the crowd.
“Men, we need to start crying more,” he said.
Madeleine Lippey ’18 recalled that the men in the back of the room straightened up and began to pay close attention to Bunch’s engaging workshop on healthy definitions of masculinity and consent at the New York FEARLESS conference on Sept. 18.
“Ted Bunch runs sports camps for guys ages 12-18 and talks to them about masculinity and consent while they are literally throwing around a football,” Lippey said, recollecting Bunch’s workshop at the New York conference. “This is just one example, but that energy sustained itself throughout the day.”
Lippey organized the first FEARLESS symposium on sexual assault as a model to bring diverse groups of people, from fraternity brothers to parents, into a single space. She hopes to bring the conference to Stanford in the spring.
“The overall goal of the conference was to figure out a way to take this conversation that was being had in so many places and in so many separate strands and really unify it in one place, make it as inclusive and intersectional as possible,” she said.
The FEARLESS conference is one of the many recent student-led initiatives for sexual assault education. Since the Stand with Leah movement in 2014 and the Brock Turner incident last winter, students have used various tools including workshops, theater programs and academic seminars to educate each other about sexual assault prevention.
“There have been a lot of conversations about administrative response, which is super important, but I think that we wouldn’t even have to worry about administrative response if [sexual assault] didn’t happen in the first place,” Lippey said.
The FEARLESS conference
Lippey came up with the idea for the conference during her summer internship at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering and healing survivors of sexual assault.
However, her work with sexual assault began in high school when she founded the Do Write Campaign, a nonprofit organization that encourages dialogue through the online exchange of creative writing and expression. As part of her foundation, Lippey held mini conferences in countries such as South Africa, India and Myanmar to empower women with diverse experiences ranging from domestic violence to sex trafficking.
“I felt very strongly about anti-sexual assault activism because most of the girls who did these conferences with me had experienced some form of sexual abuse,” she said.
Working closely with two individuals at Yale involved in their school’s anti-sexual assault coalition, Lippey reached out to colleges in New York, where the Joyful Heart Foundation is based, to hold the conference in the area. She also networked with students at these universities to create “deliberately diverse” delegations of interested student representatives who attended the event.
“It felt like there was a real camaraderie around this issue between really different groups of people that I had never seen before,” she said. “My 60-year-old dad, who is very conservative and doesn’t really know that much about this, was there. And literally, after watching ‘The Hunting Ground’ [a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses], there were tears in his eyes.”
The conference featured four workshops, including the call to men to become involved, a demystification of university sexual assault, the role of parents in teaching consent and an examination of the rhetoric of rape culture through creative expression.
According to Lippey, the FEARLESS conference is expanding this year to the Yale and Stanford campuses. Lippey is currently looking for co-sponsorships and recruiting students to become involved in an organizing committee that will be responsible for putting on the event in April 2016, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
In order to make the content more community-specific, she plans on substituting the parent workshop in New York with an academic perspective on sexual assault. Instead, she would like to hold the parenting workshop during Parents’ Weekend to “build momentum” for the conference.
“We are trying to figure out a way to emulate the spirit of this conference that we thought was really successful and really moving in New York and bring it here,” Lippey said.
Tanvi Jayaraman ’16, co-chair of the ASSU sexual assault prevention committee, learned about FEARLESS through her friendship with Lippey. She said the conference is a great model to approach this issue by providing both education and action items for attendees.
“It comes at a really good time near the end of the year, when people can reflect on what they want to do or change for the next year, and it’s after recruitment for Greek life,” Jayaraman said. “You leave the conference with this impetus to do something, and I think that’s really, really key.”
Leading up to the FEARLESS conference, Lippey is launching a campaign for comprehensive sex education at Stanford, which she feels is integral to sexual assault prevention.
Having attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Lippey laments the lack of sex education at her high school. In fact, seniors from her class put condoms on bananas in the front of the dining hall as part of a senior prank to spoof their school’s substandard quality of sex education.
Her failed attempts to bring sex education to her high school reflect similar experiences among other Stanford students. According to a preliminary survey that Lippey emailed out to Stanford students in October, 68 percent of the 135 respondents did not feel they had comprehensive, medically accurate sex education.
One such student, Tashrima Hossain ’19, said that her only exposure to sex education was through a middle school class in Texas taught by a teacher who felt “uncomfortable” with the material. With no direction from her parents, Hossain found herself relying on information from social interactions.
“A lot of what we know about sex comes from friends, and sometimes that’s dangerous, because there are myths and things that are not actually true,” Hossain said.
According to a mentor who works at a research center at Stanford and who previously worked at Planned Parenthood, Lippey added that insufficient levels of sex education could be attributed to a gap in the early 2000s during which California was the only state in the nation to offer federally-mandated sex education in public schools.
In addition, she said many high schools assume that colleges will provide formalized sex education for students, while colleges assume the opposite.
“There’s this assumption that when you get to college, you’re supposed to know everything there is to know about sex, and you’re supposed to go to the fraternity party and just have at it — and that’s the problem,” Lippey said.
She said that bridging this gap for freshmen should be a priority in order to address the sexual assault epidemic.
“With my work on sexual assault, I am really of the belief that the two are so inexplicably intertwined,” Lippey said. “If you are a freshman going into New Student Orientation [NSO], and so much information is being thrown at you about sexual assault, and you don’t even know what sex is, you’re not going to fully understand it.”
To remedy this issue, Lippey believes that formalized sex education should be a mandatory part of the freshman curriculum, whether through NSO or through a class taught by the Peer Health Educator in the dorms. In either case, she said conversations about anatomy, safe and consensual sex and hookup culture should be held in tandem with those surrounding sexual assault.
Based on her experience at NSO, Hossain said she supports Lippey’s ideas and forwarded Lippey’s survey on sex education to her freshman dorm, Donner. She added that incoming freshmen all have very different levels of experience with sex education and would benefit from mandatory instruction.
“Because we come from so many different backgrounds, I think it’s good for Stanford to find a way to reconcile those differences,” Hossain said. “In the same way that we have PWR to ensure all of us are brought to the same level of essay-writing skills, having a formalized class would bring us to a certain threshold for our knowledge of sexual education.”
Currently, freshmen are required to take an online course on sexual assault called “Haven,” as well as participate in mandatory activities during NSO such as “The Real World: Stanford,” a bystander intervention theatre program.
Although she feels these programs are beneficial, Lippey said they can seem “foreign” or “overwhelming.” Hossain added that many of her peers skimmed online materials and did not take all of the information seriously.
“A lot of teenagers and incoming freshmen lack formalized experience and are ignorant about their lack of experience,” Hossain said. “And that leads to issues on campus where people don’t really understand what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
However, Hossain said that the small-group discussions held in her freshman dorm following NSO events did resonate with her. During these discussions, students worked through how to act in specific scenarios while also sharing their own concerns and questions about these issues.
“It was cool to hear other people’s insights and to have a safe space to talk about it,” Hossain said. “If we have more things that are less formalized and more focused on just talking about sexual assault, it creates a less condoning culture and a more aware campus.”
Another program to encourage this kind of open dialogue is the Peer Health Educators program, led by Jayaraman. The program will consist of training student educators who can provide information on topics such as healthy sexuality, the gender spectrum, communication and respect.
“We are envisioning this as a brand new program where students can use these peer educators as touchpoints for resources and education on these topics of gender-based violence,” Jayaraman said.
She said the peer educators would serve as the student outreach force for the office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education and Response (SARA). They would begin the program with a fundamental workshop or presentation on these topics followed by a “potluck” of more specific workshops from which students could choose.
Jayaraman is currently talking to students and staff, community centers, SARA, Residential Education, Vaden and the Stanford Sexual Health Peer Resource Center to firm up the curriculum. She envisions that peer educators could present to freshman dorms, community centers and student groups.
“Primary prevention targets the culture behind the community or society that eventually leads to a sexual assault happening,” Jayaraman said. “Students, in the end, learn best from other students and their peers, and especially as freshmen, that’s a really powerful tool to utilize.”
As a staff member for the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies, Jayaraman has worked closely with sexual assault programming since her sophomore year. During that year, she said she came to realize that the majority of her peers had been impacted in some way by gender-based violence, motivating her to get involved.
Through her years of experience, she said that a multi-pronged, community-specific approach to sexual assault is the most effective way to spur cultural change.
“As I’ve become more and more involved, I’ve realized the need and the urgency for this education to be given through every outlet,” Jayaraman said. “If students can get it from various channels and they hear about it all the time, that’s how we create a campus culture of respect.”
She also said that her ASSU committee is planning on being able to fund student initiatives for community-based education programs. For example, she partnered with the Spoken Word Collective to put on a spoken word event during the first week of November in Xanadu’s backyard in order to provide a healing space for survivors of gender-based violence.
“The issue of sexual assault manifests itself in very intersectional and nuanced ways with people of varying identities, and the best education for people in those communities comes from within,” Jayaraman said.
Lippey also became passionate about this issue when she worked as ASSU Executive Fellow during her freshman year. Her past work inspires her to become a victims’ rights lawyer in the future.
“In freshman year, I fell into what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing for the rest of my life, which is an awesome feeling,” Lippey said. “And now, I’m just trying to sustain that and really make that a big part of my experience here at Stanford and the experiences of other people too.”
Jayaraman agreed with Lippey’s conviction to make an impact on the Stanford community.
“If there’s something that I can dedicate these four years of my undergraduate time to, it is to make a dent in changing the campus culture that results in the violation of someone else’s dignity,” Jayaraman said. “That’s something I feel that no one should stand for and I think that if everyone works together on ending this issue, it will happen.”
Contact Deepti Kannan at dkannan ‘at’ stanford.edu.