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Eckerd president blames college sexual assaults on excess drinking, casual sex

Eckerd president Donald Eastman III sent an email to students.
Published Jan. 22, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid a national discussion about how colleges and universities respond to campus sexual assaults, Eckerd College president Donald Eastman III is urging students to "do your part."

How? By drinking less and abstaining from casual sex, he said in an email to students Sunday to underscore a campus awareness campaign.

"Virtue in the area of sexuality is its own reward, and has been held in high esteem in Western Culture for millennia because those who are virtuous are happier as well as healthier," Eastman wrote to Eckerd's 1,800 undergraduate students. "No one's culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex, and the physical and psychological risks to both genders are profound."

Eastman, 69, suggested students drink less alcohol because "you know that these incidents are almost always preceded by consumption, often heavy consumption, of alcohol, often by everyone involved in them."

Eckerd students said Monday that Eastman's email casts blame on victims for sexual assault, calling his message disturbing and out of touch.

"I'm pretty p----- off. That's a pretty insensitive thing to say," said Marlene Heyning, a 19-year-old sophomore. "Instead of teaching people that it's wrong to have casual sex and drink alcohol, how about teaching them that having sex with someone who says 'no' is not okay?"

Katie Wheeler, an 18-year-old sophomore, said, "I don't think casual sex is in any way related to sexual assault; the problem is people breaking boundaries and not learning respect from a young age."

Eastman's letter was well-intentioned, said Adrien Krajnik, a 22-year-old senior.

"However, it's also very clear he doesn't understand the problem, nor does he understand his students very well, which is a little scary," Krajnik said. And, "the word 'disgust' has been thrown around."

An alumnus of the school has started an online petition saying Eastman's letter failed to address the deeper, root causes of sexual assaults such as objectification and disrespect. It calls for a broader discussion on the topic.

Across the country, colleges are working to improve their handling of sexual assaults after reports of glaring flaws at campuses big and small. At Northern Virginia's Patrick Henry College, for instance, female victims were reportedly questioned about what they were wearing, whether they were flirting, and in one case, assigned to read a self-help book on modesty.

Eckerd College, a liberal arts college on the Gulf of Mexico, has a Presbyterian affiliation, although the faith is not formally taught and all religious practices are allowed on campus. There have been more than a dozen sex offenses on the private school campus since 2011.

In an interview, Eastman told the Tampa Bay Times he was not blaming victims of sexual assault, nor does he believe victims of sexual assault should be blamed for what happened to them.

"I was trying to say that we would have a healthier and less dangerous campus if people drank less and took their sexual relations more seriously," said Eastman.

When asked if he believes that not taking sexual relations seriously enough leads to assaults, Eastman replied, "I think maybe that's right. I think that could be right."

Ian Kane, a 21-year-old junior, said he didn't see why so many of his fellow students had taken to social media to protest the email. "Personally, I'm confused about why it's a big deal," Kane said.

Eastman said he had received about a dozen responses from students as of Monday afternoon. "The ones that are unhappy are really unhappy and the ones that really appreciate the email thought it was great," he said.

The president characterized the negative responses, which he did not release to the Times, as "kind of don't tell us this is the fault of the victim, don't blame sexual assault on alcohol, don't blame sexual assault on casual sex.

"But so far," Eastman said, "they haven't told me what you really ought to blame it on."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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