Addressing Sexual Assault, Westporters Create A National “Culture Of Respect”

A Columbia University undergraduate hauls a mattress around campus to protest the school’s lax handling of her sexual assault charge against a fellow student.

At Yale, fraternity members taunt advocates of a strong sexual assault policy: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

Nearly every day, it seems, there’s a new twist on an old story: sexual assaults by college students on classmates.

But despite all the talk — and countless task forces, reports, videos, workshops and whatnot — there has not been one national, coordinated, clear and comprehensive place to gather facts, offer resources and provide help to everyone affected by college sexual assault: victims; their friends and parents; university administrators, professors and coaches.

Now there is. It’s called Culture of Respect — and the social norm-changing organization that launches officially tomorrow is spearheaded by a strong, committed group of Westporters.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

Culture of Respect board members (from left) John and Sandi Fifield, and Anne Hardy.

John Fifield is an architect. His wife Sandi is a photographer. But they — and a corps of friends and strangers-who-soon-became-friends — quickly became experts on federal, state and local law; police and medical procedures; brain development, alcohol, fraternities, athletics, and politics as practiced at the national, state, local (and university) levels.

“We wanted to do something positive for young women on campuses,” John explains. “It didn’t take long to realize how much was lacking.”

They reached out to the best people they could find: legal experts, educators, folks at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Westporters opened doors for the Fifields, and the equally dedicated Anne Hardy. There were introductions to college presidents and deans. Leads to marketers, fundraisers, publicists. An invitation to a small roundtable discussion with Vice President Joe Biden.

All agreed on the need to provide one place where anyone could find information on what to do in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault; how to follow up; which prevention programs already work — even how parents and other adults can talk to young women (and men) about the issue.

And it’s all free.

So was the website design. Gina Nieves of MarkNet built it all, pro bono.

The Culture of Respect home page.

The Culture of Respect home page.

Through it all, the Culture of Respect organizers kept their focus on “culture.”

“We go beyond what happens in one relationship,” Sandi says. “This is about changing a culture. It includes all students, and all adults in a college. It speaks to parents of boys and young men too.”

Culture of Respect is not about looking backward or pointing blame, Anne says. The emphasis is on moving forward.

That’s not easy. Every college is different. But they’ve created a flexible framework. Schools as diverse as Dartmouth, Brigham Young, the University of Florida, Prairie View A&M and Kalamazoo Valley Community College can find something there that will work for them.

Users find an impressive array of information. One section offers help and resources for victims of sexual assault, friends and parents. Another is aimed at college administrators, in the form of vast research and over a dozen successful programs already in place.

A section on “activism tools” provides links to powerful videos. Here’s one example, from the University of Arizona:

Amazingly, none of the data and resources has been available in one place before. It’s a fantastic, surprising — and, unfortunately, eye-opening — website. It’s stunning in its depth, powerful in its breadth, and inspiring in its potential for a true cultural shift.

College sexual assault is a national problem. Today, the best tools to fight it are offered from right here in Westport, by a passionate, well-organized group of neighbors. They believe every college and university in America can must create a true “culture of respect.”

(For more information, and to see the website, click on


13 responses to “Addressing Sexual Assault, Westporters Create A National “Culture Of Respect”

  1. Cheryl McKenna

    How wonderful and yet simple idea this is. So proud to be a Westporter after reading this blog and going to the web site
    Thanks again for a pleasant read.

  2. How about showing the video at staples during health classes, video was nicely done..kudos to the founders of this organization..I feel lack of respect is at the root of a lot of today’s ills, problems…

  3. Brilliantly conceived and implemented. Sadly – a greatly needed resource.
    Bravo / Brava to everyone involved. The statistics on the site are harrowing.
    This is a huge step and a very practical move forward in the fight against sexual violence. Well done!

  4. Thank you, Dan. We’re delighted the national conversation has brought this issue into the limelight with the work of the President’s Task Force and recent legislation regarding affirmative consent. The laws are critical but it takes ALL constituents on campus to change the tide – Culture of Respect provides the roadmap and the tools.

  5. Dan – Thank you! Like many great things that got their start in Westport, Culture of Respect came via a local grassroots movement and with the assistance of nationally renowned, leading experts in the field advising us— among them Interpersonal violence expert Dr. David Lisak and Diane L. Rosenfeld, LL.M, Director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School. We believe this excellent duality has helped us grow quickly and smartly. Hope readers interested in staying abreast of this important topic will go to and sign up for email updates on the homepage and follow us on Twitter @CoRespect Sharing this resource with their own students, fellow parents and schools can make change happen on campuses. Overused, but apt — “It takes a village!”

  6. Thank you again, Dan. We’re grateful for the support of fellow Westporters in helping to bring our efforts to the national stage. Friday, we will be on a panel in Hartford hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the CT Department of Education – Senator Blumenthal is giving the keynote address. Culture of Respect is honored to be included — it’s certain to be an illuminating event and is free to the public…join us!

  7. This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this, Dan, and thanks to the group of people who made this happen. If anyone in our communities is disrespected/mistreated, then it means our communities are not safe. Everyone must be respected. This organization is helping to make that happen.

  8. Makes Sense - anonymous

    It makes a lot of sense that this sort of initiative would come from Westport. I myself am one of the several Columbia University Victims that filed complaints with Fed Dept of Ed-OCR & civil courts during last couple of years, albeit my complaint was filed separately and was against professor and head of one of Columbia University’s several Human Rights centers. In the early stages of just getting complaint recognized by Dept of Ed – OCR, Congressman Shays Office was critical, fantastic. (His successor’s office ‘didn’t want to get involved’)

    I say it makes a lot sense that this sort of initiative comes out of westport because where I went to safely clear my head and sort of recuperate was Westport. It took a few years out of my normal life but it was the right town and right community of people to be surrounded by.

    Good luck with this & major thank you to Westport for being so considerate and good to me when I needed it (and without knowing why I especially needed it 😉

    • Dear Makes Sense – Anonymous,

      I’m sorry for what you have endured. We realize campus sexual assault leaves many students reeling from its repercussions rather than flourishing in an environment that supports one’s dreams. Every survivor is entitled to his / her own road to recovery; your decision to report and to bring this Columbia University staff member to justice is a brave one. The higher the reporting numbers climb, the closer we come to eradicating campus sexual assault.
      I’m glad Westport was a welcome reprieve for you – it is indeed a supportive community!

      All best to you.

  9. The Fifield’s vision and call to awareness, action and accountability for a situation that has long been ignored or tolerated is nothing short of game changing.Thank you to both of you and all the people who helped you create this revolutionary tool for a better world.

  10. And then there is the hazing problem.

  11. Dan,

    This is an extensive response — and I don’t know whether you will post it to the entire group — but I’d love for you to forward it to John and Sandi. It is from a colleague.


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    Want to End Campus Sexual Assault? Tackle the Primary Issue Being Ignored

    Posted: 10/08/2014 12:42 pm EDT Updated: 10/08/2014 12:59 pm EDT


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    From college campuses to major media outlets to the White House, it seems that everybody is, at long last, talking about sexual assault prevention. This discourse, sense of collectivism, and energy and interest around the issue elicit an overdue optimism that something is finally being done, that things will finally change. But until a major part of the problem is adequately addressed, strategies, especially those targeting binge drinking, are practically for naught.

    Consider the following tactics that have been pursued to date. Nowhere is there mention of tackling students’ anxieties around sex, and how their discomfort, guilt and angst lend themselves to binge drinking and sexual activity, including assault.

    – The White House’s “It’s on Us” campaign focuses on men and collective peer group responsibility, encouraging students to intervene in situations where someone may be at risk.

    – The California Senate has passed a bill mandating ‘affirmative sexual consent’ (as in voluntary and conscious) between college students at state-funded schools, with consent recognized as impossible if a person is drunk, drugged, unconscious or asleep.

    – As reported on NPR, local law enforcement is seeking to change the culture around drinking, e.g., encouraging liquor stores not to sell ping pong balls, thus supposedly making it harder for students to get drunk faster playing beer pong.

    – Bars are making it harder to get alcohol, providing better training for bartenders when it comes to spotting fake IDs.

    – And universities, like Frostburg State University, are brainstorming ways to discourage binge drinking. So far, strategies have included establishing joint jurisdiction agreements between campus police and local law enforcement, offering on-campus alcohol-free parties and events, like dance classes, and using powerful images in social marketing campaigns.

    While all of this is admirable and critical components of preventing sexual assault and violence, we need to address the fact that many young people feel like they need to get drunk in order to be sexual and sexually active.

    We need to own the fact that we’re a society that sexualizes its youth, but that ultimately does not support them in the fact that they’re sexual human beings. This is exemplified in a lack of comprehensive sexuality education, a lack of adequate sexual and reproductive health services, and a lack of human sexuality courses on college campuses.

    Instead, we send our young people off to college, expecting them to be sexually confident in their abilities to refuse sexual advances or to be turned down; to manage sexual, romantic relationships, amongst life’s other demands and enticements, with seasoned mastery; and to be sexually savvy, particularly when it comes to issues of health and safety.

    So is it any wonder that young people see alcohol as an easy solution to their sexual ignorance, decision-making, and anxieties? If wasted, one doesn’t have to deal with underlying discomfort and Puritanical guilt around sex, or worry about the impact of sexual intimacy on another human being, or get submerged in the experience, including matters of the heart. Drunk hook-ups allow youth to keep emotions separate from sex, to skirt commitment issues, to avoid romance, and to stay focused on the self and all of the other reasons they’re in college.

    Young people also drink because they know alcohol facilitates having sex. They know that it impacts negotiations and how a sexual event is construed. They know that, in impairing memory, alcohol enables them to distort or rewrite what has taken place, including making it easier to pretend that the sex never happened.

    If drunk, they haven’t said “Yes” to being intimate. If drunk, they can’t be faulted for overlooking cues that somebody doesn’t want sex or isn’t able to give consent. If drunk, women, in particular, can’t be accused of being “sluts.” If drunk, one is excused from taking responsibility for their behaviors, desires, and any consequences.

    Until we’re willing to address this mentality, and this misguided, positive association between sexual activity and being intoxicated, efforts to counter sexual assault as it relates to binge drinking are futile. Until we’re willing to deal with the fact that young people are sexual people who need more realistic, developmentally appropriate guidance when it comes to sexual expression and satisfaction, the situation is not going to change.

    Until we, as a society, are able to get over our discomfort and anxieties around producing young people who are sexually healthy adults, we’re going to continue to have the all too prevalent problems of sexual assault and rape.

    So where do we begin? Strategies that can get results include:

  12. Thank you, Bob. We agree that basic human decency, contemporary citizenship and understanding of healthy intimate relationships needs to be taught an an earlier age – in middle school, high school and of course, in our homes. Research says however, that while 22% of women and 6% of men (according to the CDC) are being assaulted on college campuses, 22% of students are not rapists. Dr. David Lisak’s research proves that serial rapists are committing a high proportion of sexual assaults on campus. In these cases alcohol is not causal; it is being used as a weapon to further inebriate vulnerable victims and they are specifically targeted. The two most important things our colleges can do to combat serial rapists is to encourage reporting and have robust bystander programs in place at all levels of the university.
    With appreciation,