Because of my job, I’m generally approached by one student a month who wants to talk with me with the door shut. These people, regardless of gender, often want to talk about being sexually assaulted, and they want to know what their options are.
For instance, a woman might tell me she’s not doing well in her classes, and she wants to talk with me about my expectations. Her story of being assaulted can emerge from there, not because I’ve asked about this in any way, but because she has identified me as someone who might be safe to talk to.
In a different conversation, a male student might tell me about his weekend: “Oh, she just got me really, really drunk. And she was drunk, too. I kept trying to get away, but it didn’t work.” He might laugh, but through the laughter he’s looking at me, attentive. Make no mistake, what he experienced was rape.
I’ve had multiple students talk about saying no to a guy’s sexual efforts but having him move forward. Some of the students have fought back. Others have sobbed throughout the assault. Afterward, many of the men spend the night in the bed with the woman; sometimes they even tell her she was “a great time.” Of course, the women are devastated, furious, confused.
Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken with students who have been assaulted on the street, raped by friends, drugged so that they wake with no memories although their bodies affirm that they have been penetrated.
Not surprisingly, one out of five female college students and 6 percent of college men experience rape during their time at college. And as is often the case at college campuses nationwide, when a student reports an assault to campus police or to officials on campus, the victim is asked questions like: “How much were you drinking?” “Why did you go home with that guy?” “Don’t you protect yourself?” This is victim blaming. As many, many students have told me, the actions of campus officials have only caused them further pain.
Federal law now says that every sexual assault on campus must be reported to school officials, and I guess this was some sort of effort of the government to address this problem. At a press conference about this on Jan. 22, President Barack Obama said, “We need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable.” He added, “And they’re going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense.”
Obama was trying, but this idea is bullshit. It describes exactly the problem we currently have: it puts the onus on rape victims themselves. They have to recognize that sexual assault isn’t good (really?), then they have to be brave, so that the legal system will kick their asses. As recent articles about a controversial University of Virginia case demonstrates, our culture seems eager to see rape victims as liars. We are only too happy to see Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and the football players at Steubenville, Ohio, perceived as innocent sweeties. Sometimes we dismiss it with the pat phrase, “Boys will be boys.”
This is troubling to me. I will soon be legally required to share these conversations — and the students’ names — with officials at the College of Charleston. And I’ve already very openly said that I won’t do this.
I’m not the only one who finds on-campus efforts troubling, even offensive. Take a CofC student volunteer at People Against Rape I know. She told me about several women who had found campus resources to be devastating. “I would never tell anybody to contact people on campus. I tell them that if they want support, they should call People Against Rape,” the student told me.
People Against Rape offers to accompany sexual assault victims to the hospital where they can get a medical exam. If the victims decide to go to the hospital, they’re not required to do anything more. People Against Rape will support them whether or not they decide to press charges. And although the organization doesn’t necessarily announce it publicly, People Against Rape is aware of how ineffective and painful the legal system is.
One former employee of People Against Rape said that in one week she had a series of infuriating responses from a local police department. She told me these events weren’t unusual. “It’s not the countless stories, it’s not the late nights at the hospital, it’s not even the incredibly low pay. It’s the realization that the system really isn’t going to change from within, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said, “There are so many things wrong with the justice system that I am often tempted to tell my clients, ‘Don’t even bother. It’s not worth your time and energy.'”
Nationally, only 40 percent of victims actually report their experiences. Ten percent lead to an arrest, 8 percent have their experience addressed in the legal system, and 4 percent lead to a felony conviction. In court, those who’ve experienced rape are often attacked by the defending attorney in every way possible. In the end, the victims often feel that their experience in court is far worse than the actual rape.
As it stands now, campuses are allowed to respond to sexual assaults in various ways. Sometimes they have on-campus hearings that might force the criminal to move to a different dorm, for instance, or they might force the suspect to drop out of school until the victim graduates. But these experiences are in many ways just the same as the dehumanizing effects of the legal system. And there are plenty of examples of victims being made fun of, harassed on campus, and then leaving school.
The problem here centers around our culture’s shitty, sexist beliefs about what sex means and what consent means. I would love to see colleges and universities nationwide take on sexual assault in meaningful ways. But at this point, though, the only place to send students is People Against Rape.