On-Campus Sexual Violence Rises to Pre-COVID Levels
While the rate of sexual assault, stalking, and intimate partner violence on Connecticut’s college campuses dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to pre-COVID levels didn’t take long at all. Sadly, reports of sexual violence rose by a whopping 40% in the past year alone, begging the question: What can we do to protect our students and combat this national crisis?
Sexual assault and dating violence affect college students each and every day. The scariest part of all is that so many acts of sexual violence go unreported as survivors hesitate to come forward. This is a serious issue that must be addressed, especially in the face of these alarming statistics:
- Over 26% of female undergraduates will experience rape or assault.
- Approximately 7% of male students will experience rape or assault.
- Almost 6% of college students will experience stalking in college.
Unreported & Underreported: Why Survivors Don’t Speak Up
To have the slightest chance of reducing sexual violence among Connecticut’s college-aged population, it’s important for us to first acknowledge why so many incidents of sexual assault go unreported.
1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college. A shocking 90% of these cases will go unreported. This is an extremely upsetting statistic that demands immediate national attention if we wish to protect our family, friends, and loved ones who attend a university or college.
Even after recent empowering movements such as #MeToo, survivors and witnesses alike are hesitating to speak up about acts of sexual violence. Here are some common reasons why students aren’t comfortable coming forward:
Universities make an effort to cover up reports of sexual violence.
For decades, sexual assault reports have been treated as a “hush-hush” situation. Many survivors feel pressured to keep quiet, which can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and regret. In these instances, what was already an isolating experience can lead to intensified feelings of loneliness and powerlessness.
Don’t be fooled by the universities’ seemingly upheld policies, regulations, and preventative measures regarding sexual assault. While every college that receives federal funding is required to uphold the statutes listed under Title IX—a federal mandate that explicitly prohibits sexual assault—many universities fail to adhere to its policies, which in turn harms the students that Title IX is intended to protect.
A university will often favor its reputation, big donors, and preservation of assets over the wellbeing of its students. In 2015, a young man accused of sexual assault transferred between 3 subsequent colleges in Louisiana. All 3 universities failed to notify the other about the accusations against this student, thus putting other students on campus at risk.
Students fear retaliation from their abuser and social circles.
It isn’t uncommon for college students to be shunned or shamed if they choose to speak out about sexual assault.
More often than not, survivors are assaulted by someone they know. If an abuser happens to be a popular person on campus, of prominent social status, or simply retains mass support from the student body, a survivor can face ridicule, social isolation, and even accusations of lying or making it up for attention.
For many students, their entire college experience—not to mention their future career—can hang in the balance when they choose whether or not to report. Choosing to stay quiet rather than speak up about sexual assault can mean the difference between having a friend group and being bullied, shunned, and isolated by their peers. For some, reporting can even mean risking another sexual assault or attack.
The prevalence of victim blaming.
The term “rape culture” refers to an environment in which sexual violence is acceptable and excused. In many cases, it even serves to glamorize acts of sexual assault and dating violence, which in turn jeopardizes the health and safety of students on campus.
Victim blaming is one of the major components of rape culture. This can be used as a means to trivialize and justify acts of sexual violence and shines a light on the victim rather than the perpetrator. For decades, our nation has mistakenly placed a focus on victims over offenders. For example, headlines read, “Person A was sexually assaulted on campus” instead of “Person B sexually assaulted Person A on campus.”
Such occurrences automatically dismiss the offender—not to mention their sense of responsibility—from the narrative altogether. However slight the difference may seem, it places an unjust emphasis on the victim rather than the attacker.
Furthermore, the questions that survivors face following a sexual attack often focus on their involvement rather than acknowledging the offender’s guilt and accountability. You’ve likely heard the following phrases before:
- “He was asking for it.”
- “She chose to dress slutty.”
- “He chose to get wasted.”
- “Boys will be boys.”
Such phrases trivialize and dismiss acts of sexual violence. Universities have a responsibility to care for survivors of sexual assault by respecting their experience and focusing on the offender’s actions, not the actions of the survivor.
When it comes to sexual assault, we must remember that it is never the survivor’s fault, but only occurred due to an abuser’s poor and unlawful decisions. This needs to be reflected as we address and navigate sexual assault reports and cases on college campuses.
Survivors sense a losing battle ahead of them.
The majority of sexual assault offenders won’t face repercussions for their actions. In fact, only 2.5% of perpetrators will end up going to prison.
Sadly, our legal system plays a key role in failing survivors, causing many to avoid pressing charges or pursuing justice for their suffering. The devastating consequences aren’t limited to the survivor, either: it also opens up the door for abusers to sexually assault others.
Unfortunately, the American justice system is designed to deter survivors from pursuing, let alone winning, a sexual assault case. Consider the following examples:
- Survivors are often told by law enforcement and other authoritative figures that “there isn’t enough evidence” to pursue a case.
- The perpetrator rarely faces fair consequences for the crime in question and often gets off with a “slap on the wrist.”
- Survivors face an onslaught of unfair and difficult questions (“Why didn’t you fight back?” or “Why didn’t you report it sooner?”) which often forces them to relive the trauma in court.
Moreover, survivors must accept grueling mental and emotional preparation if they wish to achieve justice, as court cases for sexual assault can stretch into several months or years. As you can imagine, this inhibits a survivor’s wellbeing and personal journey to healing, and can jeopardize or delay the remainder of their academic career.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As we continue to work towards safer campuses and universities, we have a responsibility to hold our courts accountable and work to create a legal system that believes survivors and encourages them to speak up against their attacker.
Sexual Assault: How to Stay Safe on College Campuses
As the COVID lockdowns and social distancing continue to become a remnant of the past, it’s crucial for college students to be aware of potential threats and protect themselves on campus.
It’s equally important for adults on campus to educate themselves and do everything in their power to protect our college-aged population from sexual assault and sexual violence. Consider the following tips to stay safe on campus and combat the sexual assault crisis in American universities:
- Know your resources ahead of time. It’s important for students to know where to go if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. Keep an eye on emergency phone stations as you pass through campus or parking garages. Have a friend in mind you can call if you suspect you’re being followed. Save the phone number for campus security in your contacts. Be prepared to dial 911 if needed.
- Stay alert and stick to well-lit areas. When on campus, especially when it’s late or dark, resist the urge to be on your phone. Avoid listening to loud music that may inhibit your awareness of your surroundings. Be on the lookout for suspicious activity around you.
- Carry an accessible self-defense weapon. There are various self-defense options for college students these days. While a sharp key can certainly do the trick, consider carrying pepper spray or an alarm. Studies show that people who fought back against attackers were able to stop the assault in half of the cases. There are many reputable companies committed to preventing acts of assault and violence, such as She's Birdie (a personal alarm that will “chirp” at a volume of 130 dB while emitting a flashing strobe light to deter an attacker).
- When possible, commute with a buddy—or five. There is strength in numbers. Lurking attackers are less likely to attack a large group than someone walking alone.
- Be cautious with location-sharing apps. It may be best to avoid revealing your location when posting about that fun Halloween party. The last thing you want to do is make it easier for an attacker to follow you home or know your exact whereabouts.
- Lock it up. Lock your car as soon as you’re inside it. Do a quick scan in the backseat and through windows. Once you arrive home at your apartment or dorm, lock the door immediately. (If all your roommates are home, by all means—turn that deadbolt, too!)
- Always have a plan. Only attend parties and gatherings with people you trust. Know your limits when it comes to drinking alcohol. If you decide to hang out with a date or person you don’t know as well, make sure you tell a close friend where you are and when you expect to be home.
How to Report Sexual Assault
Whether you are directly involved in an act of sexual assault or a witness of sexual violence, it’s crucial to take swift action to protect yourself and others.
If you’re in danger, it’s imperative to call 911 immediately. Otherwise, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). A trained staff member can connect you with medical assistance and direct your next steps.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) also offers a wide wealth of excellent resources for sexual assault survivors and witnesses alike. Consult their website to learn about things such as consent, staying safe, recovering from trauma, and steps you can take to report and prevent sexual violence.
It’s also essential to report all acts of sexual violence to your campus health center. If you don’t feel safe or heard when attempting to make an on-campus report, consider seeking off-campus assistance from a sexual assault shelter or call the police to make your report.
As overwhelming and frightening as it can feel to report an act of sexual assault, remember that you’re not alone. Even if your university makes you feel ill-equipped or unbelieved, there are many caring and compassionate professionals available to help you through every step of the process.
Speak up, speak out, and refuse to let your story be buried under the 90% of unreported sexual violence cases. You deserve justice. You deserve to be heard. Make the courageous decision to protect yourself and your fellow students today by standing up against sexual assault on campus.
If you or someone you know experienced sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or stalking, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online today.