Real Talk About Sexual Violence On College Campuses [Lady Bits]

Trigger warning: this article deals with accounts of sexual assault and sexual assault statistics, and could be triggering to some people.

Sexual assault on college campuses isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s an epidemic – one in four college women reports having experienced rape or attempted rape, and according to the National Institute of Justice, college students are more likely to become victims of rape than their non-college student peers.

Over the past few months, a series of stories have come to light about the apathy – and even hostility – experienced by victims of sexual assault when they report attacks to their schools. Colleges and universities should be safe havens, not places that turn a blind eye to violence. It’s time for some real talk.

Back in October, former Amherst student Angie Epifano wrote an incredibly brave article for The Amherst StudentShe told the story of her rape, which occurred on campus, and the Amherst administration’s utter failure to address the situation properly. She was told by the campus sexual assault counselor to “forgive and forget,” and the school refused her request to change dorms. When she saw her rapist on campus, he would wink at her and pat her on the back. Amherst also denied Epifano’s plans to get away from campus by studying abroad. Eventually, she left the school. Her rapist graduated with honors even after she reported him.

Epifano’s story was shocking, but unfortunately, she was hardly alone. In the weeks following the publication of her article, other Amherst students came forward with stories of their own assaults. Student Dana Bolger posted a photography project featuring Amherst survivors of sexual assault holding signs with some of the ignorant, hurtful things people have said to them, like “Why couldn’t you fight him off?” and “Was he drunk? Well, that’s not as bad.”

The problem of sexual assault, and the careless, sometimes cruel treatment victims face from peers and administrators is hardly isolated to Amherst. Countless stories have surfaced of nightmare encounters similar to Epifano’s. One of the most recent is that of Landen Gambill, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. Last spring, Gambill reported her rapist, who is still on the University’s Chapel Hill campus. Gambill was raped by an abusive boyfriend, and when she reported the assault to UNC’s Honor Court, she was met with disbelief and victim blaming. They asked her why she didn’t just leave him, and treated her as unstable because of her history of depression.

Gambill teamed up with Melinda Manning, UNC’s former Dean of Students, and a group of current and former UNC students. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Manning was pressured to under-report cases of sexual violence. (All schools that receive federal financial aid funding must report on-campus sexual assault statistics.) After the complaint was filed, Gambill received word that she had been accused of violating the school’s honor code by “intimidating” another student – her rapist. If found guilty, she could face suspension or even expulsion. All for reporting a crime and trying to stand up for herself in the face of her school’s pathetic response.

If you need any more evidence that the problem is widespread, look no further than a 2008 Princeton survey recently leaked to The Daily Princetonian. In the survey, about 1 in 6 Princeton women reported having experienced non-consensual vaginal penetration, but only 40 forcible sex offenses were reported to Public Safety between 2009 and 2011. In other words, the number of sexual assaults on campus was vastly higher than the number that was reported. But Princeton never published the survey. Why?

As a big-name school, nearly everything Princeton does becomes news. So it seems the school was looking to avoid a controversy. You might think they’d want to use their platform as a well-known university to begin a process of change, but apparently not.

So here are the facts:

– 1 in 4 college women reports experiencing rape or attempted rape

– Only an estimated 5% of sexual assaults on college campuses are reported – compare that to the national rate of 40%

– More than 80% of women who report being raped were under 25 at the time of the assault

– 2/3 of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim

– Though women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, it’s important to remember that men can be victims as well, and that sexual assaults perpetrated against men are even more drastically under-reported.

So what can we do about it? I hate to say it, but this question is tough to answer. Sexual assault is a complicated and touchy issue, and most schools would rather turn a blind eye than do anything about it. But there are a few concrete steps all of us can take:

DON’T RAPE. You’d think this one would be obvious, but according to those statistics, it’s not. So: unless you have your partner’s enthusiastic consent, stop. Right away. There is absolutely no excuse for engaging in non-consensual sexual activity with anyone.

Never blame the victim. Rape is never, ever, ever, ever, EVER the victim’s fault. Whether someone is drunk or stone-cold sober, wearing a turtleneck or a see-through top, hanging out in a dorm room or walking down the street, rape is NEVER their fault and they were NEVER asking for it. Anytime you suggest otherwise, you’re rationalizing the actions of a rapist and perpetuating sexual violence. Don’t do it.

Don’t joke about rape. There’s nothing funny about rape. Don’t joke about it, and if you hear a rape joke, speak up. A “joke” about rape isn’t “just a joke.” The problem is, according to the statistics above, any time you tell a joke involving rape, you’re very likely telling it within earshot of a rape survivor. Your joke tells that person that what happened to them wasn’t a big deal, that it’s laughable, and that’s it’s not something other people will take seriously. You’re also contributing to a culture that allows rapists to justify their actions. But I would never rape someone, you might think. That’s great, but laughing about rape sends the message to rapists that what they did isn’t very serious.

Be an ally. If a friend confides in you about a sexual assault, be a source of support.

Hold administrators accountable. Do sexual assault victims at your school face a nightmare situation when they report their attacks? Find out what you can do to advocate for change policies and procedures.

Get involved. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has more information about how you can advocate for change in the sexual violence policies of your school.

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE(4673)

Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.

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