SPEAK UP blog article: Suzette Walden Cole

I am humbled and grateful to serve as a contributor for CAMPUSPEAK’s sexual misconduct prevention effort, SPEAK UP. Participating in this program allowed me to share my experiences with students with the hopes of helping them to make good decisions in college. While serving as a director of student conduct and conflict resolution, I heard a number of cases regarding sexual misconduct. I use the term “misconduct” versus “assault” because not all of the cases involved physical aspects of sexual activity. In fact, on a number of occasions, I found myself in a position where someone sent sexually graphic text messages, photos and/or videos through social media platforms as a means of “flirting” or “asking someone to hang out.” All too often the proverbial “birds and the bees” conversation did not include anything about consent, qualities of a healthy relationship and/or risky behaviors. Recognizing when situations are becoming risky for involved parties, and when it is necessary to step in and speak up are essential skills.

As a student conduct officer, I dealt with one case that significantly impacted my life. On one occasion, a prank gone awry resulted in an individual being referred for sexual misconduct. He exposed himself in a room full of individuals by placing his genitals on someone else. In his mind he was kidding, his actions were not motivated by malicious intent. He thought it was a joke–an acceptable joke. “She laughed,” he said to me at one point. When we walked through the situation, highlighting along the way how his impact could not be measured by his intent–they were not the same. He recognized that he negatively impacted this woman’s collegiate experience–there was harm to her. In that moment, he was quiet, contrite and distraught with himself. The reporting party shared that she wanted him to learn from this experience. She wanted him to know that what he did was not okay, and it should never be done to someone else. She believed that college is supposed to be a place where one learns and grows. It was a profound experience for me to navigate the case because it was different than the sexual assault cases with which I had prior experiences. The level of ignorance and inexperience that some students bring with them into the start of their collegiate experiences are recipes for disaster.

SPEAK UP excels in that the program highlights the detriment of risky behaviors in a module to reduce the prevalence of these behaviors on campuses. SPEAK UP uses real situations from real people who offer true insight into how students can tackle the issues of sexual misconduct on campus and beyond. While experiments with sexuality are often natural byproducts of one’s journey in college, it is imperative that students feel empowered to engage one another in those situations from a place of respect and informed decision-making. Alcohol is not an excuse to take advantage of someone. Drinking doesn’t mean that you cease being responsible for your actions. SPEAK UP allows students to better understand the impact sexual assault/misconduct can have on individuals, even when unintended. Bystanders, then, take on a greater role when alcohol is present. This is especially true in fraternities/sororities where we emphasize the familial relationship we have with each other.

In my travels across the country speaking about this topic to college students, I discuss the fact that alcohol can impair the judgement of those directly involved in a potentially risky situations. Fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, friends, classmates and others need to be prepared to say something. Often, students discuss how fear prevents them from doing so. I then pose the question which emotion is more powerful–fear or regret. At the conclusion, we revisit that topic and the answer is always regret. Fear is temporary, regret lingers. SPEAK UP reinforces that we need to lean into our fear so we do not have to live with regret.

The sexual violence prevention program addresses this topic among others. It is a comprehensive online education experience that can be unpacked in a variety of high-risk groups, specifically. As a result of this program, I believe that individuals will be able to recognize risky behaviors and situations differently. If we are to affect change on campuses, we must change the conversation and cultural norms surrounding sex. SPEAK UP can help us realize that goal.

Credit // Author: Suzette Walden Cole


Sexual violence is a real issue impacting real people. Now is the time to start the conversation. SPEAK UP is an interactive online sexual violence prevention education program that uses true stories told by survivors of sexual violence to help students understand the issues of sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking, bystander intervention, and support. Learn more at campuspeak.com/speakup.