In college, there are experiences that you will want to savor and there are experiences that you want to forget.
I was at a party and having a great time. Slowly, my friends began to leave. One by one they slipped out of the room promising that at some point they would return. I thought they were coming back at least; the alcohol made the details a little hazy. It was only them and I left in the room. I went across the room to talk to them from afar to keep myself from doing something I thought I’d regret. They eventually came over and started to kiss me. Then started touching me and asked me if I wanted to … And I said I don’t know. And they kept asking, and as they kept asking my mind kept swirling: I knew they wanted to, I kind of wanted to, but I was so drunk, and I didn’t want to in that state. Over and over these thoughts swirled as they kept asking me “Do you want to…” and I just wanted the swirling to stop so I said “yes”. I woke up feeling shaken and unbalanced – unsure what to call the evening before and unable to articulate how I felt about it.
I want to be clear: I know what I did, I know what they did, and I know what my friends did. Afterwards, I did not seek help because I was afraid people would tell me I was not a victim. I was afraid they would tell me that it was my own fault that I said yes and it was my own fault for being too drunk and left alone. I was afraid they would tell me I deserved my trauma. I was afraid they would not believe my pain or that worse, if they did, the police would come and someone would be castigated that I did not want or need to see punished. I needed help though. I needed to learn how to remember what happened without reliving it and how to forgive myself for what happened. I needed non-judgmental, non-judicious help that victims rarely receive in this country.
These fears were institutionalized by how Michigan State University, other institutions of higher education and our society respond to sexual assault. If I had come forward, I knew that I would most likely have to talk to police and that whatever happened after that depended on whether they believed I had been assaulted or not. I knew that the focus would be on determining the legal definition of my experience rather than help me overcome the emotional turmoil I was feeling. I knew what resources the university had to offer me but I knew that they came at the price of more humiliation and trauma – a price too high for many – so I suffered in silence instead.
Today, following the Larry Nassar scandal and the #metoo movement, I think it is high time we talk about how we approach survivors, how we help them, and how we can support them without continuing their victimization and trauma. The current focus is on debating legality and fault rather than helping them heal. We, as a society, spend so much time investigating who is in the wrong so that we can feel as though we have given a victim justice, that we forget to ask the victim what justice would even look like for them. What this essentially does is continue the cycle of victimization by promoting a catch all justice that ignores mental health and emotional needs.
1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime; on college campuses the statistics are even higher at 1 in 4 women and 1 in 8 men. People of color and members of the LGBTQ community are even more likely to be assaulted (RAINN). To put this in perspective, there are 50,344 students at Michigan State University evenly split between men and women. This would mean that approximately 6,293 women and 3,775 men will be sexually assaulted on Michigan State’s campus in the next year. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, more than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses don’t report their abuse.
One of the barriers to reporting a sexual assault may be the fears I experienced myself which can be augmented by mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting is a policy in which designated people employed by the university who learn of sexual assault must report the incident to the university and, under Title IX requirements, the university must open an investigation. The limitations of mandatory reporting is that it deters victims who do not want to pursue an investigation, do not want to deal with the police, and/or do not want to draw attention to their trauma from coming forward and seeking help. This can lead to a disconnect between a universities sexual assault services and the students who need them most. At Michigan State University the people who are students closest ties to University resources are mandatory reporters; residential assistants (RAs), intercultural aides (ICAs), and professors who share day to day interactions and foster close relationships with students are all mandatory reporters. According to a University of Michigan Campus Climate survey from February 2015, people are most likely to share their experiences of assault with people they had close, trusting relationships with. Essentially, mandatory reporting makes it harder for RAs and ICAs to maintain a safe campus culture by deterring their residents from seeking their help and gaining access to university facilities. According to the same survey, sexual assault victims were least likely to report to university representatives (3.1%) and to residential assistants (0.5%).
Mandatory reporting is only one example of the nations focus on prosecution as the “solution” to overcoming the aftermath of assault. The Michigan State University Sexual Assault Program resource page lists the “US Department of Justice” before trauma care. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s (RAINN) policy page overwhelming talks about prosecution and legal advice while fleetingly mentioning trauma services. Campus Safety Magazine’s article on how colleges should improve sexual assault policy focuses solely on Title IX investigation and only uses terms like “accuser” and “accused”. While not all resources are created equal, it is clear that the emphasis of sexual assault is on legality rather than helping victims when it should be the other way around.
Universities should modify their sexual assault response policies to “victim first” instead of “legal first”. This would entail opening the channels of access to trauma informed care and improving mental health facilities to adequately support students and their varying needs. Residential Assistants and Intercultural Aides should not be mandatory reporters; rather, they should be unimpeded liaisons between students and university resources. Police should only be called and investigations opened at the request of the victim, not the University.
Universities should also have comprehensive trainings for students on what to do if you or someone you know is assaulted. Presently, this part of sexual assault training is a short section left to the end. Rather, the training should stand on its own and be as comprehensive as the statistics and facts on sexual assault itself. The training should include how to not be a bystander, how to talk to victims, how to listen to victims, coping mechanisms, and a comprehensive understanding of resources. By making community, support, and resources of equal importance to sexual assault more victims will feel safe to come forward and seek resources.
Justice does not only take one form and it does not live in a court of law. It can mean different things to a variety of people and this should be taken into account when responding to sexual assault. Our society and our universities have been undergoing changes in addressing sexual assault and it is important that we now talk about how to best serve victims after experiencing trauma.
MSU Safe Place Relationship Violence and Stalking Program