Summer is approaching and, though many are anxious to embrace those warmer months, it’s possible college students are amongst those particularly excited for May’s arrival. For May means the cessation of finals, freedom to relax, explore, and partake in mental rehabilitation and “me time.” With the semester’s end and an inevitable upwelling of ‘end of year’ celebrations, so too arrives an aggrandized potential for campus sexual assault. Assault certainly occurs throughout the year and is indiscriminate in victim. However, that stretch of time following the course cessation, with its widened sense of liberty, is ripe for on campus sexual assault/abuse. It is, therefore, crucial to reacquaint ourselves with sexual assault’s true definition, its related mental health issues, ways in which universities are fighting back, and the ways in which you may personally protect yourself.
Statistics regarding campus sexual assault, though slightly variable depending on the study, are nevertheless chilling. According to the Office on Violence Against Women, an organization that has awarded universities more than $131 million to improve prevention and response, 1 in 4 undergraduates will be sexually assaulted before they leave college; amongst those, younger students and LGBT community members are most likely to be victimized (Hanson, 2016). What’s more, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that at least 95% of rapes are unreported, flying under the radar for reasons we will later explore.
So, given these grave statistics, how can we succinctly define sexual assault? It’s a frequently misinterpreted term and, given social stigmas regarding rape, becomes sticky to pin down precisely. The U.S. Department of Justice describes sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient” including activities such as “forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.” Assault might be accomplished forcefully (physically or emotionally) or via threats/intimidation. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) approximated that in the U.S. a sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds; it is understandably baffling that this crime is also so underreported.
What, then, are the reasons for such a low sexual assault report percentage? Justifications vary by gender, but, in the case of women, a few prominent underlying reasons exist. Women frequently cite distrust of authorities’ ability to redress incidents appropriately, fear of blame (also known as victim blaming: “What were you wearing?”, “How much did you have to drink?”, etc.), shame and a desire to keep secret the occurrence, fear of the perpetrator or other’s perceptions, and a suspicion they will face disbelief (National Institute of Justice, 2010). Men face even more difficulty. Given gendered cultural norms which dictate what it “means to be a man,” general machismo, and resultant expected sexual desire, males are even less likely to report than women. Many of us have already heard the male rape victim stigmas: ‘a man can’t be raped or, if he was, it was because he is weak or less than.’
However, despite fears harbored by survivors as it relates to incident reporting, assault can carry heavy psychological repercussions. It is so essential survivors seek help necessary to cope with an incident (and this, often, also requires them to report). Some mental health issues that may follow victimization are:
Clinical Depression (particularly a diminished sense of self-worth; might range from mild to incapacitating)
Anxiety (Including the fear that assault might recur, panic attacks, and distrust of men/individuals resembling the attacker)
Posttraumatic Stress (PTSD; combines anxiety, depression, and intense flash-backs)
Personality Disruptions (Changes in an individual’s disposition: a once agreeable person might become disruptive and belligerent)
Attachment Disruptions (Victim may have a hard time creating/maintaining social connections following assault)
Substance Abuse (research shows that sexual assault/abuse victims are 26 times more likely to abuse drugs/alcohol, typically as a coping mechanism)
Development of Triggers (stimuli that vividly and, often, painfully remind people of their assault (GoodTherapy.org, 2016)
Sexual assault, then, occurs frequently and is a serious issue and it is fair to ask: what are college campuses doing to combat it? Of late, there has been an increased demand for on campus security personnel as well as the initiation of bystander programs. These bystander initiatives seek to make intervention an unquestionable norm; outsiders who recognize escalating situations will step in without second thought. Innovative apps have also been created to help students who are out alone (walking home, going for a run, etc.) so that if they don’t reach their destination someone is contacted. Additionally, universities are recommitted to education on ‘consent.’ What was previously known as the ‘no means no’ tenet has transformed into ‘yes means yes’ (Howard, 2015). Furthermore, an unconscious, drunk, drugged, or otherwise inhibited/coerced/threatened individual cannot give a viable ‘yes.’
While universities work to make change and produce ‘zero tolerance’ environments, what personal protective measures can you take? As it relates to sexual assault cases, it is never the victim’s fault, but here are some suggestions you might take to minimize dangerous situations:
Watch Drinks: do not lose sight of your drink; drugs and other inhibitors can be slipped without you noticing
Trust Your Gut: first impressions and gut reactions are important! If you feel uneasy about a situation, get out of there! Your instinct is most likely right: trust your instinct
Stick with Friends: in the case of a party, make plans with friends: everyone must leave together. Create a code word; this word may be used/texted when someone feels threatened/uncomfortable and to elicit help
Download an App: many apps have been created to help prevent sexual assault, including bSafe, Circle of 6, Hollaback!, Guardly, OnWatchOnCampus, Lifeline Response, and more
We at TOPPS take sexual assault’s existence extremely seriously and encourage our readers to stay aware. As summer pulls into full swing, we ask you to keep an eye out for problematic situations, both for your own safety and that of others. If you notice something slightly awry, don’t be afraid to intervene. If you are or know a victim of sexual assault, please look at RAINN’s online resources. These resources range from hotlines to advocacy groups! Together, we must construct the community necessary to protect, aid, and rehabilitate survivors of sexual abuse.
GoodTherapy.Org. (8 March, 2016). Sexual Assault/Abuse. Retrieved on April 27, 2017, from http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/sexual-abuse.
Hanson, Bea. (22 September, 2016). National Campus Safety Awareness Month: Changing the Institutional Response to Change the Statistics. Department of Justice Archives. Retrieved on April 27, 2017, from https://www.justice.gov/archives/ovw/blog/national-campus-safety-awareness-month-changing-institutional-response-change-statistics.
Howard, Beth. (28 August, 2015). How Colleges Are Battling Sexual Violence. USnews. Retrieved on April 27, 2017, from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/08/28/how-colleges-are-battling-sexual-violence.
National Institute of Justice. (26 October, 2010). Reporting of Sexual Violence Incidents. Retrieved on April 27, 2017, from https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/rape-sexual-violence/Pages/rape-notification.aspx.
U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Violence Against Women. Retrieved on April 30, 2017, from https://www.justice.gov/ovw/sexual-assault.