Sexual Assault Happens... Then What?

I started this post over a year ago after I watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on campuses and the way universities handle sexual assault on campus. I've come back to it multiple times but have hesitated to publish it yet I couldn't bring myself to delete it. So... With today's announcement regarding the plan to eliminate Title IX protection for survivors, I must speak up. I can no longer be silent.

The Hunting Ground affected me deeply. I stopped it several times when I needed to think and feel and cry and rewind to listen again. (Currently available on Netflix and streaming or DVD purchase on Amazon.)

As I watched, many thoughts went through my mind. I am still dumbfounded by the way universities dismiss and/or minimize sexual assault complaints. I suppose admitting the number of campus sexual assaults on their individual campuses might deter some potential students, but...

Sexual assault happens. It happens in every community. It happens in small villages and big cities and farming communities. It happens in homes and apartments and condos. It happens in streets and alleys and fields. It happens in places of worship and dance clubs and business offices. This is reality. So, of course, it happens on college campuses. After all college campuses are communities filled with a wide variety of people.

There's never been a time in history when sexual assault didn't happen. Let that sink in. There's never been a time when sexual assault didn't occur.

So, what matters more than whether or not sexual assault happens on a college campus is how the university deals with it. I would much rather see a university be honest about its numbers and then show real action taken to investigate and deal with sexual assault than to discourage reporting and try to manipulate statistics. Fine, tell me ten rapes took place on your campus. Then tell me what you did about them. Did you have the rapists arrested? Did you participate in the investigation? Did you provide counseling services to the survivors? Did you expel the rapists? Or did you take the route that seems to be so common and make the survivors lives on campus miserable? Answer these questions with answers that demonstrate you are serious about dealing with campus sexual assault rather than trying to pretend like your campus is somehow immune to sexual assault. It isn't.

I repeat because it's important. Sexual assault happens. It happens in all communities. There has never been a time in history where sexual assault didn't happen.

If universities say no sexual assaults happen on campus, I am positive they're covering them up. I will never trust those universities. I would advise others not to trust those universities. What they prove is that they're willing to dismiss survivors in order to protect the reputation of the individual universities. I long for the day when we can have campuses where no sexual assaults take place just like I long for the day when sexual assault in all communities is a thing of the past. But, then reality sets in.

I reiterate, sexual assault happens. I'm not excusing it. There's no excuse for it. However, there's a saying that to address a problem you first have to admit it exists. Therein lies the problem, far too many people in this world want to pretend the world is something it isn't, that people are something they aren't, and that certain institutions should be immune from real world realities.

I remember when I was in college and we were given the list of things to avoid being sexually assaulted. The emphasis was on how girls could stop guys' behavior and often referred to it as behavior "getting out of hand" instead of as assault. Sadly, I visited the website of the campus police department of my beloved alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, to find a very familiar list of ways to avoid being sexually assaulted or drugged as appears to be typical of most universities. Nowhere on that list was there a single admonition to boys to take no for an answer or to get an affirmative yes. Nowhere on that list was there a single warning to boys to not drug girls or to not get them drunk in order to "take advantage of them" to use another common phrase designed to mask assault. Nowhere on the list were punishments listed for those who perpetrate rape. Nowhere on that list was there a single thing directed at would-be rapists because once again, it's up to girls to take responsibility for the actions of others.

We can teach girls how not to get raped until the end of time, but until we teach boys to not  rape, rape will happen. Even when we teach not to rape, we only lessen the possibility of it happening. Sadly, these admonishments to girls on how to behave in order to not get raped also tend to increase feelings of guilt for survivors and decrease reporting. We have to start teaching boys that girls have the right to be respected as human beings and are not conquests to be made. And we also have to teach girls they aren't conquests to be made but fully realized individuals with needs and desires that deserve respect. We have to teach the concept that no is a complete sentence and that taking no for an answer is imperative even admirable. I addressed this before in my posts If Girls Must... What Must Boys? and Respect for Boundaries.

 (Note: I've used boys and girls here because that's the language used on the university website and because statistically the numbers of boy on girl assaults are higher than other types of assaults yet it is important to remember that same sex assaults and girl on boy assaults also occur.These same ideas apply in all these situations.)

It happened here....
The blurriness of this photo depicts
how I felt returning to this spot
years later.
When I was raped by two completely different guys in completely different places (both on campus and off campus) under completely different circumstances in less than a nine month time period, I reported nothing because I kept wondering which of the rules to keep me safe I broke. If I'd done all those things they taught me, I wouldn't have been raped, right? WRONG!! I was raped because two different guys each thought they had the right to invade my body without my permission. Period end of sentence. The reality is these two guys didn't think my "no" mattered.

Universities need to take a leadership position in the efforts to combat sexual assault. They need to step up and investigate and prosecute and do right by survivors.

Several months after I watched The Hunting Ground and while still trying to decide what to do with this post, I watched It Happened Here (available streaming on Netflix and streaming and DVD on Amazon), another documentary about how universities handle sexual assault on their campuses. I was dumbfounded by the seeming lack of awareness of the administrations of universities. Sexual assault on campus has been happening for as long as there have been campuses, and it has, as a general rule, been downplayed leaving victims to flounder as perpetrators walk free.

The girls who have taken it upon themselves to document and publicize the way universities handle sexual assault cases are much braver than I was at their age. I applaud the work they're doing. I wanted to get through it and pretend like it never happened. When  Kylie Angell said "I felt like the 21 years years before were completely separated by that day and then the future. It was like A.D. and B.C. I could no longer just enjoy college and I no longer felt safe in my own body." my breath stopped for a moment. Even after all these years, I still feel as if my life is segmented into before I was raped and after I was raped with time between the first time I was raped and the last time I was raped feeling somewhat unreal to me. I remember very little of it, what I do remember is fuzzy, and I often don't even recognize pictures from that time.

Movies like The Hunting Ground and It Happened Here push us toward a more honest conversation about sexual assault on college campuses as well as the larger community as a whole. Organizations like It's On Us push us to all pay attention to sexual assault on campus and to hold universities accountable for not treating sexual assault survivors with the respect and compassion they deserve. Title IX protections are imperative and must be protected including those that address sexual assault on campus. Please visit End Rape on Campus and join the Dear Betsy campaign to urge the Department of Education to protect Title IX.

If you have survived rape, on campus or off, reach out for help. There are therapists who can help you deal with the aftermath. There are organizations, such as RAINN, that will give you the support you need. If friends and family members struggle (many of mine did) to be there for you, find a support group. There are other people who have survived. You are not alone. I promise you are not alone.

Every time I hear Lady Gaga sing Til It Happens to You, I tear up. I can't help it. It's so easy for people who haven't experienced sexual assault to pontificate with what they think sounds like wise words when all they're really doing is inflicting more pain.


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