Combatting Sexual Assault: A Talk with Elaine Pasqua

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but for motivational speaker Elaine Pasqua, combatting sexual violence on college campuses takes more than awareness alone. 

Delivering her interactive talk “An Unheard Voice” to over two dozen students, faculty and staff in the Lecture Center earlier this month, Pasqua set out to inspire healthy communication between students and encouraged them to make safe, preventative choices to reduce instances of sexual violence.

Pasqua, herself the victim of an alcohol-related acquaintance rape, knows firsthand the long-lasting emotional trauma survivors of sexual assault endure. She has spent the past 19 years delivering informative talks across campuses nationwide, authoring numerous books on safe decision-making and producing and directing public service videos. She is a five-time nominee for Best Speaker of the Year for Campus Activities Magazine Readers Choice Awards.

Her talk defined the often misunderstood concepts of affirmative consent, sexual assault and rape; discussed the consequences of high-risk behaviors, like heavy alcohol consumption; and urged the need for greater bystander prevention. 

“We need to have the luxury to know that our friends have our backs,” Pasqua said. “We have to know that our friends are going to look out for us and do everything that they can to keep us safe. And what we find is that the power of peer intervention is so much more powerful [in preventing sexual assault].”

“Starting tonight,” Pasqua said, “you are going to be part of a national initiative of bystander intervention.” 

Each year, 97,000 college students are sexually assaulted. In 90 percent of cases, the victim knew the individual who assaulted them. In 90 percent of cases, one or both individuals were under the influence of alcohol.  

Reducing the amount of alcohol consumption — and consuming it safely, making sure not to leave cups unattended or allow strangers to prepare our drinks — is the first step towards prevention.

“Alcohol is breaking down the communication between people,” Pasqua said. “They’re not able to talk to one another the way they should be communicating in an intimate setting.”

 Beyond cutting back alcohol intake, Pasqua emphasized the need to “cue in” to other people’s body language. If someone seems uncomfortable by another person’s advances — or if they are simply too intoxicated to give informed, affirmative consent — Pasqua says intervening may save that person’s life.

She explained that understanding and respecting the signs of consent through open communication is the hallmark of a healthy, intimate connection.

“We need to talk about things, set things ahead of time, set our perogatives, say what our expectations are,” she said. “I find that if you’re talking to one another, you’re showing that other individual that you really care about their needs.”

“Sometimes we treat sex like it’s a sport,” Pasqua continued. “Are both people walking away from this experience feeling good about what happened? Or is somebody walking away feeling used?”

 Other topics of discussion included date rape drugs, signs of a potential perpetrator such as using derogatory language or shaming others for refusing sexual advances, as well as the protocols and resources available to sexual assault survivors. 

Pasqua’s talk was sponsored by Safe Campus Outreach, Prevention and Education (SCOPE) and the Office of Compliance and Campus Climate. 

Title IX Coordinator Tanhena Pacheco Dunn and Deputy Coordinator Emma Morcone organized the program to help raise awareness about campus support services for victims of rape or sexual assault, while demonstrating how students can apply the concepts of consent and bystander intervention to real life situations. 

 To Morcone, education about sexual assault and proper means of intervention are key factors in helping to save someone’s life.

“That’s a lot of knowledge that we don’t get in other places,” Morcone said. “When I was in high school, I didn’t have this type of programming. I didn’t know what consent meant. I didn’t know the importance of being an active bystander. These are things that I really didn’t learn until I came to college.”

Both Morcone and Pasqua stressed the importance of helping survivors gain back their sense of control in the wake of an assault. This means providing a wide array of contacts and services to walk survivors through the process of healing and recovery in whatever way they feel most comfortable.

Students who wish to report an incident of sexual assault, those who wish to discuss an incident confidentially, or those who are unsure about filing charges have access to several safe contacts on campus, including the Psychological Counseling Center, the campus’s Crime Victims Advocate, or the Title IX Officer. 

“When you come [to the Title IX Office’s office] to report something, we would never force you to give any specific amount of detail,” Morcone explained. “One of the things that my office specifically does is go over the support services and options that you have here on campus. Often students feel like it’s going to be a really intense interrogation — that’s not the case at all. Our main role is just to make sure that you do feel supported.”