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When My Students Get Raped

We should be careful about appropriating survivors’ stories.

Photo by gbarkz on Unsplash

It happens every semester. A student tells me someone harassed them. Someone groped them. Or someone raped them. Sometimes, more than one come to me. They ask for advice, or just an ear.

Many of my students want action and justice. But not everyone wants to report what happened to a Title IX office.

Even the most seemingly banal forms of misconduct aren’t easy to report. That applies to women and men, regardless of age or position or status. My first year of grad school, I got groped at a party. The person sitting next to me wouldn’t stop touching my crotch.

Everyone thought it was funny.

That night, I accepted a ride home from the same person. Why? He offered in front of the entire room, and I didn’t want to look rude. It was my first year, and I wanted to make friends.

That’s also why I’d kept returning to the same spot on the couch all night. Nobody seemed to acknowledge my reluctance.

The drive home wasn’t terrible. We made light conversation. Some people just get touchy when they’re drunk, I thought. Outside my apartment, he stopped the car and started pressuring me for a kiss.

“I’m so lonely,” he said. “Just one kiss. It would mean so much.”

Me: “Uhhhh…”

Him: “Please? You’re so pretty. You can get kissed whenever you want. I’m cursed. I haven’t had a girlfriend in years.”

Luckily, I never felt physically threatened.

The next day, I didn’t tell anyone. First, I was embarrassed at how I’d acted. Even ashamed. I felt like I’d led this person on, and given tacit consent by not resisting. Second, I didn’t want to make waves.

I’d never said no, so the whole thing was my fault. I’d sacrificed my own autonomy for the sake of social acceptance. Plus, all he’d done was touch me and then use guilt to try and pressure me into a kiss.

Sound familiar?

A few years later, a male student in my program was assaulted. Exhausted from his dissertation, he fell asleep in a chair after two beers. A girl we all knew had been coming on to him, but he was engaged.

When he passed out, the girl climbed on top of him and started taking off his clothes. We removed her from the situation.

A major debate ensued about what to tell the guy — who didn’t remember any of it the next day. Eventually, he found out. He was so embarrassed that he never talked about it again.

Sometimes, it takes a while to feel okay. Now consider more severe cases, and think about the emotional pain that lingers. You begin to understand why people don’t report right away, or ever. We should be working to lift the stigma from survival. But that’s a problem in our end. We can’t do it by placing more pressure and responsibility on them. Sometimes, I think mandated reporter policies do exactly that — place more pressure on the survivors and the people they confide in.

Students process trauma differently

Some students don’t want to make an official report right away. They just need to tell someone. That initial decision can start the process of coming forward, and you can’t rush it.

Unfortunately, what students want doesn’t matter to many universities. If a student mentions sexual assault now, I’m required to report it.

I’m not okay with this. Most professors want our students to feel safe when reporting rape and harassment. We want to connect them with counseling and law enforcement. But we also want students to retain the shreds of dignity left to them. As Jennifer Freyd writes,

Taking away autonomy from a survivor of sexual violence is a further betrayal of that survivor. Rather than help a survivor heal, institutional rules for required reporting can actually further victimize survivors of sexual violence.
— Jennifer Freyd, The Huffington Post

That means letting them decide when and how to report their assault. They might choose tomorrow in a Title IX office. Or they might start working on an essay, or a painting, that helps them process their trauma.

Imagine a professor who offers support for a student to explore their trauma through art, and encourages them to come forward when they’re ready. Now imagine a professor who listens to a student and then says, “I’m required to report this to the university Title IX Office.”

Despite research, we still don’t know the best way to address sexual assault in every scenario. Every situation presents its own challenge. Every survivor has their own history, and they make their own decisions.

Honoring survivors’ wishes

Rape rips away a person’s consent. It’s a traumatizing experience that leaves them vulnerable for years. Imagine wanting to confide that in someone, then being told that your story isn’t yours anymore.

College students can make decisions for themselves, even in the wake of traumatic experiences. Sometimes, professors and advisers make things worse when they try to fix everything.

When students confide in me, they’re choosing to trust. The best thing I can do as a professor is honor their choices.

Universities mainly care about avoiding liability. For them, passing Title IX laws makes the deans and chancellors sleep better at night. Because they’re less likely to be sued for mishandling student conduct.

These policies move the burden of sexual assault from the university to the faculty, like they do so often with everything else.

They also shift the responsibility to the survivors and pressure them to come forward before they’re ready.

Creative acts help survivors

Students might want to write about their traumatic experience before they go public. Or they might want to make an essay or other work of art part of their coming forward. An art history student might want to explore representations of rape in paintings. Everyone processes trauma in different ways. Some write and do research as part of their recovery.

And they’ve done it well.

A few years ago, one of my students wrote a powerful essay detailing her sexual assault. She didn’t want me to tell anyone else.

It put me in an awkward position, but I didn’t. Instead, I became an empathetic listener. I’m no counselor, but I know how to be a good editor. So that’s what I did.

We developed her essay, and she started submitting it to journals. She also wrote a number of other great pieces.

That was early on in my career, before universities started passing mandatory reporter policies. Now, I can’t exactly do that kind of mentorship without making myself liable.

You might laugh at my sentiment, or accuse me of shirking my responsibility as an educator. I’m sure to some people the idea of art therapy for assault victims sounds ludicrously insufficient.

But studies have found that emotional support comes in different forms, and it’s often the most important thing for survivors. Many victims of sexual assault and other forms of abuse don’t want to talk about it — not directly. For them, research and creative projects help far more.

Read the 2016 essay by a Stanford assault victim, if you want proof of how writing can help someone regain their agency.

What we should do

Mandated reporter laws mean well, but they can make things worse when they’re more focused on liability than support. In fact, many of my students don’t know what Title IX even means. A teacher is usually the first one to actually explain their rights.

Teachers play an important role, and we can’t screw it up. We need more room for nuance.

So let’s adjust the Title IX policies. We should require faculty to ask students what they want us to do, and then we should respect that. The last thing either of us needs is another policy limiting our options.

Maybe we should still pass on every single piece of information we get about sexual misconduct. If we do, then reporter forms should allow us to indicate what the student wanted us to do. We should be able to convey not only their information, but their wishes. When the university follows up, they should also ask the students want they want.

After all, I’m not a counselor. I’m not an expert in Title IX or sexual misconduct. But I do know that students don’t always want us to involve the university, or law enforcement.

A professor makes an ideal confidant. We know our students well enough to listen, but we’re not their family or friends. Students don’t have to worry about judgement, or rejection. We don’t wear uniforms. Unless you count turtleneck sweaters and tweed jackets. Our role in addressing sexual assault should reflect our relationships and students’ best interests. Not what serves the board of trustees.