[deck]Student survivors of sexual assault struggle to be taken seriously by their peers and educators.[/deck]
TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with accounts of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
*Sarah can’t sleep on a raised bed—there’s enough space for a person to hide underneath. The moment she enters a room she’s already begun scoping out all possible exits, just in case. Her fear of darkness and crowds continue to place limitations on where she can do, what she can do, and with whom. And of course, there’s her daily dilemma: whether or not to lock the door when she showers.
“If I lock the door and someone were to come in through the window, then I’d be trapped,” Sarah says. “But if I don’t lock the door, then someone could come through there. So it’s like, where do I want to be attacked from?”
She knows this thinking is irrational, but after being sexually assaulted multiple times throughout her childhood, paranoia has become harder to shake when she steps into the privacy of her shower every morning.
For the first several years of her life, Sarah lived with her mother and five other women who ran a brothel out of their apartment. She is thankful that being so young at the time has kept her from remembering the graphic details, but fleeting memories of that environment still haunt her.
Though she wishes those memories vanish completely, Sarah is still finding ways to cope with the traumatic after effects of shame, guilt, fear, and anxiety on her own.
These are emotions that victims of sexual assault know all too well. The lasting effects of sexual assault can be devastating; 80 percent of victims suffer from some form of physical or psychological problem after the attack and upwards of 50 percent undergo therapy or counseling.
Statistics completed by the U.S. Department of Justice state that one in four female students will become a victim of sexual assault during their time in college, but some, like Sarah, a junior at the University of Oregon, enter higher education institutions already as victims.
In the seventh grade, Sarah and three other girls were harassed by a group of boys and girls, who Sarah believes felt a sense of entitlement for attending the school longer than the other students. To assert their dominance, the students would follow Sarah to the bathroom, where the culprits would reach their hands under her clothes or twist her arms behind her back and kiss her neck. Sarah and the other victims were physically unable to push the students away. Occasionally these same bullies would hold Sarah onto a desk and simulate sexual acts while the other students cheered them on.
Their teacher, a 22-year-old fresh out of college, did not report any of these incidents despite being aware of his students’ behavior.
The problem continued for months. Sarah took the brunt of the harassment for the sake of her best friend, another bullying target. But the situation escalated. Sarah’s friend was biracial; her mother was white and her father was black. The bullies began singling the friend out for sexual and race-based harassment.
Sarah could no longer be a barrier between her friend and the attackers, so she turned to the administration and other students for help. No one stepped forward.
“I thought we were going to rally up, but it just sounded like I was angry and accusing people falsely,” says Sarah.
The administration switched Sarah out of the class where the majority of bullying was happening, but her friend, who remained in the same class, was forced to endure the harassment until the end of the school year.
Later on in high school, Sarah was raped twice; first by her long-distance boyfriend, who used manipulation, aggression, and shaming to control Sarah’s sexual behavior, and then later by a friend who violently cornered and raped her in private. She continued to see this friend at school for the next three years. Fear and shame kept her silent. Each assault continues to exact its effects on Sarah’s mental health.
In the feminist movement, the administration’s failure to acknowledge that sexual bullying was taking place and Sarah’s hesitation to report her assaults would be seen as symptoms of rape culture. Rape culture describes a culture in which rape, assault, and sexual harassment and aggression are normalized, defended, and even condoned. Rape survivors like Sarah are encouraged to stay quiet about their assaults, and if they do report or confront their attackers, they often face societal punishment or are shamed back into silence.
Abigail Leeder, director of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Education program at the University of Oregon, says the school is trying to change views about rape and assault on campus through the use of an advocacy team, poster campaigns, and awareness-raising events. She hopes to create a campus culture where victims feel safe coming forward to report their assaults and talking about their experiences. A culture like this should also work in tandem with efforts to inspire communication in relationships, Leeder says.
In Leeder’s view, both male and female students should be actively discouraging threatening behaviors and supporting victims rather than blaming them for their own assaults. Victims often internalize negative messages about reporting their rapes, and this can cause them to turn away from getting help or seeking justice.
“It’s just scary to tell your story, especially if it’s someone you know,” Leeder says. “If you’re part of the same friend group or a club, then people are going to take sides and may or may not be super supportive. Survivors intuitively know that and make the choice not to [tell others].”
Just last year, Sarah’s former friend who assaulted her in high school lashed out at her through Facebook, telling her to move on from the “bullshit of high school” like he had. Ironically, this was on the same day of Take Back the Night, an internationally-held rally and speak-out session for survivors of sexual violence and their allies.
Sexual assaults are a gruesome reality that many do not believe is a serious problem, and even victims themselves don’t always consider their rapes to be rape. The American Association of University Women states that 95 percent of attacks are never reported, and only 5 percent are shared with police authorities. Ten times that number are phoned in to crisis lines. Sexual assault is a silent epidemic.
One University of Oregon campus group specifically focused on preventing assault and intimate partner violence is SWAT, or the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team. Sarah has been a member of SWAT since her first year of college. She and other peer educators teach students about sexual assault and dating violence through interactive workshops. Instead of reading from pamphlets and lecturing, the educators create role-playing and theater-based activities that demonstrate and encourage healthy communication between sexual partners, as well as how to intervene as a bystander. Vassar College’s Sexual Assault Violence Prevention website fleshes out a Bystander Intervention Model, which guides visitors in confronting abusive behaviors. Vassar’s goal is to “create an empowering climate free of interpersonal violence.”
On a national spectrum, 3 percent of college women have experienced rape or attempted rape during their school years, according to the American Association of University Women. This may seem like a small percentage, but on a campus with a population of 6,000 students—roughly the size of Winthrop University, Villanova, and Duke—this would be equivalent to an average of one rape occurring every day.
According to the 2012 Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report put out by the University of Oregon, there were a total of forty-five forcible sexual offenses in Eugene, Oregon between the years of 2009 and 2011. The report defines these as any sexual act directed at someone against that person’s will—including rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling. These were recorded for the on-campus, residential, non-campus, and public property zones of Eugene.
Sarah knows what it’s like to become one of those “cold” numbers, which is why she works with campus groups to make sure other students are aware of the assault epidemic.
“People say things like, ‘Well, you’re a survivor so maybe you’re just a little emotional about it,’” says Sarah. “They think anything I have to teach them is invalid. But I’m open because I want people to know it’s okay [to talk about it], and [the victim blaming attitude] needs to change.”
Sarah says education is the best way to prevent sexual assault. In her experience, most students are unaware or misinformed about the rates and occurrences of sexual assault on their own campuses. As a result, many students are shocked to hear about a rape or assault within the student community because they assume it only happens to people they don’t know or those enrolled at other schools.
“We live in a society where people don’t think we can talk about it,” Sarah says. “People aren’t ignorant, they’re just not given an opportunity to learn.”