Cody Koch looked a wee bit uncomfortable.
The freshman on the Santa Rosa Junior College football team was ambling through campus Wednesday afternoon in a snug pair of faux-leather heeled mules.
“It’s pretty rough,” he said. “I’m having a little trouble right now.”
Koch was part of the first “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event at SRJC, a partnership between the college, Sonoma State, Verity and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office to bring attention to sexual assault and domestic violence. About 220 soccer, football, basketball players and others gathered at Bailey Field Wednesday afternoon before walking — some of them in high heels — around campus with signs saying things like “Consent is sexy” and “Put yourself in her shoes.”
The swapping shoes part was a simple, and a bit painful, way for men to literally put themselves in a woman’s place, however briefly.
“This is a real, direct, easy way for people to participate; just to really do a little thing to step out of your own perspective,” said Zach Neeley, prevention educator for Verity, a sexual assault awareness advocacy group that has provided support to the JC’s effort to make violence awareness and prevention something more student-athletes talk about.
Koch might argue the description of walking in high heels as easy, but the point was made.
“I know people” who have been abused, he said. “It happened to them.”
That doesn’t surprise Matt Markovich, the SRJC athletic director who orchestrated Wednesday’s mile-long walk around campus.
“I would venture to say that a lot of these kids have seen it,” Markovich said. “I feel like we need to have the conversations.”
Those conversations are ongoing at the JC.
In the fall of 2015, Markovich began pushing the athletic department to do more to speak openly about violence against women.
The football team hosted a sexual assault prevention game and teams started going to training sessions.
When the athletic department hosted an event featuring the story of Yeardley Love, a University of Virginia lacrosse player murdered in 2010 by her ex-boyfriend, hundreds of student-athletes attended.
“We broke up into about 15 groups, mixed sports,” Markovich said. “We were training the kids for an hour after that: What does it mean to be an active bystander? How do you prevent it? What are the warning signs? I was kind of blown away about how engaged they were.”
That’s what Markovich calls it — training. Just like weight training or conditioning or film study. He said SRJC prepares student-athletes for academic life and athletic life, but wants to do more to prepare its students for dorm life, apartment life, social life.
“So now it’s on us to make sure we take care of each other outside at a party or outside on a road trip,” he said. “It’s an ongoing campaign to institutionalize this idea that we can do a better job of preparing our kids socially.”
One in four women and one in seven men have been the victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And more than one in four women and more than one in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.
If 220 women marched around the campus Wednesday afternoon, by the CDC’s reckoning, as many as 55 of them have suffered severe physical violence at the hands of a partner.
It’s an appalling number.
“You know a sexual assault victim and you know a perpetrator,” Neeley told the crowd of Bear Cubs and Seawolves gathered on the track. “You can be the generation that can end sexual violence.”
The notion of the bystander was especially powerful.
“People need to look at their friends and people they hang out with and check their behavior,” Neeley said.
Football coach Lenny Wagner had his team out Wednesday afternoon, some of whom who squeezed their plus-sized feet into not-so-plus-sized pumps. He called sexual violence and domestic violence “an epidemic” on college campuses.
Wagner worries that the sheer prevalence of high-profile cases could make students numb to reality.
“You hear so much of it,” he said. “In a weird way, it almost desensitizes it; it seems like it’s normal. We are trying to create a normal that that doesn’t exist in.”
Studies show that incidents of sexual violence and assault spike for college-aged people. But Neeley sought to find the positive in that demographic — the capacity and tools to create a ch