International Women’s Day and Campus Sexual Assault
Let me preface this by saying that as a female in the United States of America, I know that I have a lot to be grateful for. I am grateful for the right to vote (which I intend to exercise next week in my state’s primary) fought for by the suffragettes of last century. I am grateful that I am allowed to drive, which allows me the freedom to go about my daily life, and explore this amazing world (something my Saudi sisters still can’t do on their own legally). I am grateful that I have a job supporting sexual assault survivors at an organization that receives federal grant funding (something that is absolutely not a given working for an organization that focuses on women’s issues…). I am grateful that I was able to attend university and pursue my passions through academia. On International Women’s Day (and everyday) I am very aware that I have many privileges that come from being a woman who was fortunate enough to be born in the United States. Around the world there are many women who do not have the same rights and privileges that I do. I believe that those women deserve to be empowered to dream big, and reach their greatest potential. Yet unfortunately there are many roadblocks for them that make doing so difficult.
In the United States we unfortunately still have many roadblocks that keep our women from reaching their greatest potential as well. I would argue that the largest obstacle facing many of our young women today is Campus Sexual Assault. College women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates. In fact, studies that have been repeated time and again that between 20–33% of women who attend a college or university in the United States will be sexually assaulted. College men are sexually assaulted as well, but at significantly lower rates (and they also report at significantly lower ((than women’s already low)) rates, which makes having reliable numbers on its incidence very challenging). The fact that up to one third of women who have chosen to pursue higher education can expect to experience sexual violence is not only alarming, but is utterly shameful. I can attest to the fact that while in college 15 of my close friends were raped, and that only accounts for the friends who felt comfortable to share their story with me. I currently work for a rape crisis program in Ohio where I have worked with many more college survivors as well.
Recently, we have begun to see an increase in attention being focused on college sexual assault, and this has inspired some college survivors to report their sexual assaults, yet the numbers are still drastically low. Most survivors within the general population never report their sexual assaults, and within the college population, the numbers are even lower, with some estimates stating that survivors are reporting their sexual assaults to an authority figures in the single digits. Many college survivors never report their sexual assault to an authority figure as they are afraid they will be blamed/shamed for their assault (or surrounding details), or that they simply will not be believed. Unfortunately, many survivors who do not report their sexual assaults will not become connected with resources that could be an paramount figure in their healing process.
For many women the pain of sexual assault begins, rather than ends, when they are raped. Rape is the leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for women. Many college survivors in the months and years following their assault struggle with PSTD, depression, anxiety, and rape trauma syndrome, all while trying to navigate already challenging school, work, and social schedules. These women are often at increased risk of abusing alcohol or drugs while trying to cope with life after sexual assault. Many college survivors’ grades drop significantly in the semesters following their assault, and some drop out of college. It is not uncommon for a college survivor to drop out of college rather than to face the process of a university adjudication, and risk facing their attacker. Many of the challenges from these struggles are compounded by the fact that reactions from friends and loved ones after an assault is often less than supportive which then causes many survivors to go their healing process alone.
College sexual assault is a scar on the face of our American educational system. We must do better for our women. Our women deserve better. Experiencing rape is a life-changing event. If survivors do not receive adequate support after being sexually assaulted their trauma can make managing day-to-day life seem like an insurmountable task.
So, with that being said, what can we do to end college sexual assault? In truth, our kids need to be receiving a whole lot more education surrounding both healthy sexual relationships and sexual violence. There are also pushes for comprehensive bystander intervention programs, and while these are an important tool in combatting sexual violence, preventative education holds the key to ending college sexual assault. This curriculum needs to be taught at a collegiate level, but many studies have shown that for such information to be effective in preventing violence it needs to be taught before college. I will save my thoughts for preventative education for a later post, but here is some advice for if you or a loved one has experienced college sexual assault.
If you have experienced sexual assault:
What happened to you is NOT your fault. No matter what the circumstances were in your assault, it was not your fault. You are not alone. Support is available.
Get in contact with an advocate. Speaking about what has happened to you can be the first step in healing. An advocate can also help you think through if you are wanting to go to the hospital, speak to the police, or your university. Advocates can also help you to develop a safety plan and ensure that you are safe both physically and mentally. Many rape crisis programs will be able to have an advocate accompany you during any step of those processes. An advocate can also help to connect you with counseling, support groups, or additional resources. Finally, save the number for a rape crisis hotline in your cell phone. These hotlines are staffed 24 hours a day, even on holidays, and there will always be an advocate who is there to support you and help you navigate what has happened to you.
If your friend has experienced sexual assault:
Your friend may never have heard that what happened to them was not their fault, that they are believed, or that support is available for them. Tell them. Tell them repeatedly. It is essential that they know they are believed and that there are people willing to help them. It’s okay if you don’t always know what to say, your friend might just want you to listen to them. Try and avoid giving your friend advice, or telling them what to do, unless they are explicitly asking you to do so. Be patient with your friend, they may be feeling a jumble of emotions, or may struggle with remembering aspects of their assault. Try not to ask your friend how much they had to drink that night, what they were wearing, and try and avoid telling your friend that you “can’t believe their perpetrator would do that”. You may have said any of those things with innocent curiosity or confusion, but they can make your friend feel as if you don’t believe them, and such can be isolating. Get in contact with an advocate, or speak to one through a rape crisis hotline. An advocate can help you in helping your friend, and can also help to ensure you are receiving the support you need.