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A dangerous trinity: grad student researches alcohol, sexual assault and silent bystanders

First-year graduate student Lauren Sherrard is researching a topic that has recently dominated national conversation: sexual assault. Specifically, she studies the intersection of alcohol, sexual assault and bystander intervention among undergraduates at Miami University.

According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, 16.7 percent of Miami University students reported experiencing sexual harassment and 20% reported non-consensual sexual contact in 2017. From her post in the Department of Kinesiology and Health, Sherrard investigates the external factors -- environment, alcohol use -- that influence whether a bystander will intervene in a situation where a sexual assault may occur.

She has been working on a bulk of the preliminary work in formulating a research question and project: conducting a literature review and critically evaluating the campus climate at Miami. Sherrard will conduct surveys, and use that information to improve the sexual education programs Miami has in place. The preliminary work completed thus far will help her tailor the surveys and ask appropriate, high yield questions.

Sherrard's research coincides with increased national attention on sexual assault. Sexual assault is an issue that is becoming more openly discussed in our society and on university campuses with initiatives like the #MeToo movement, Denim Day and Sexual Assault Awareness month. Incidents of sexual assault and harassment are also being discussed in academia, with serious investigations led by organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and American Chemical Society (ACS). Women at ACS are discussing sexual assault they experienced during graduate school from professors in positions of power, while the NSF is investigating recipients of their grants and removing funding if professors are found guilty of sexual assault.

Sherrard's interest in her research stemmed from her undergraduate involvement in a program similar to Miami's Peer HAWKS, in which she taught incoming undergraduate students about sexual consent and alcohol. Additionally, her time serving as a traveling and leadership consultant for her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA), also helped to ignite her passion in this area of sexual and alcohol use education. In this role, Sherrard traveled across the country giving presentations about sexual assault and how to be a supportive sister in these situations.

"That's where I saw the programming gaps," Sherrard said. "I realized Greek organizations were getting extra programming that general students aren't, and wondered if the extra programming is more helpful and something we can open up to the public."

During orientation, first-year students at Miami University receive training in consent, sexual assault and how to respond or intervene in these situations but the topic is rarely, if ever, revisited.

This is a topic that is hard for a lot of people to talk about, said Sherrard, but it needs to be discussed so we can figure out what needs to be done and how to give students more confidence in intervening. Sherrard's research goal is to pinpoint where students lack confidence in these situations and tailor a program to address those insecurities.

Her research also investigates the bystander effect, a phenomenon where the more people witnessing a distressing situation the less likely any one person will be to attempt to help or stop the situation because each person thinks someone else is going to do something about it. The most notorious occurrence of this phenomenon is the 1964 murder of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese, which was watched by 38 citizens for 30 minutes, according to the New York Times.

"There are a lot of different ways to intervene," Sherrard said. "It's okay to be unsure in these situations because sexual assault situations are rarely black-and-white, there is a lot of gray area especially when you include different external factors like alcohol. The main thing would be learning to be an active bystander."

Her research experience, Sherrard said, has helped her to improve interactions with survivors of sexual assault, develop relationships with professors across campus and gain a well-rounded experience. Though her research is somber and can be disheartening, the process of the study and knowledge gained excites her.

"I love doing research, there is a lot to learn outside of the classroom," said Sherrard. "My research is continually growing and adapting."

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