Problem of Sexual Assaults on College Campuses Drawing More Attention Nationwide
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on March 11, 2016 at 9:02 am
For Mary Smith, her rape happened when she was 16. Gustavo Roversi was even younger than that when he endured abuse for four painful years. While both incidents didn’t happen on a college campus, it has shaped the way they both behave and interact with other students as they earn their college degrees.
“[This experience] has made me really hesitant to go to parties, to basically go anywhere alone,” says Smith. “My friends ask me to go out drinking but I tell them no every time. I don’t want to drink with strangers and risk being put in a dangerous situation again.”
Smith’s fears aren’t unfounded. Sexual assaults on college campuses are far too common with the White House estimating that one in five women and one in twenty men will be sexually assaulted during their college years. Even more alarming, the ACLU says 95 percent of college rapes go unreported. Shame prevents some victims from going to the police while others are scared that they’ll get in trouble because of underage drinking.
“First, it’s important to know the person assaulted in the majority of incidents knows the perpetrator. It’s someone in a class, someone at a party, someone on campus,” says Cindi Love, executive director of ACPA-College Student Educators International, the student affairs association. “The second factor is alcohol is frequently involved either by the perpetrator or by the victim or by both.”
Alcohol plays a large role in many of the college campus sexual assaults but is not the only factor. Rightly or wrongly, a lack of knowledge leaves many incoming college students without an understanding of what informed consent is, says Love. There’s also peer pressure from other students to show off their sexual prowess, particularly in fraternities where hazing is common.
“Here’s a young person arriving from home that doesn’t have this basic information. Add alcohol, add in peer pressure and you get tragedy,” says Love. She says a general lack of respect and a lack of knowledge about what a healthy relationship looks like also contributes to the problem.
Who are the perpetrators of sexual assaults on campus?
The typical perpetrator on a college campus is a male student, with athletes responsible for 16% of the assaults, says Love. Alexander Leslie, director of campus services at Cleveland Rape Crisis Center points to research dating back fourteen years by David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Paul Miller of Brown University School of Medicine who attempted to profile perpetrators for further insight.
In their research, the professors found a perpetrator is typically a single male who will commit the act multiple times throughout his college career once he realizes he can get away with it. The perpetrators play off the fact that alcohol is involved, guessing the victim is less likely to report it because of the underage drinking. “When someone is assaulted under the influence or not, the brain experiences trauma and one of the first things it does to help us survive is pushes the experience out of the brain as quickly as possible,” says Leslie. Underage victims are less likely to report the attack as a result.
The experience and process of recovery from sexual assault
In Smith’s case, she was dating and trusted her assailant when her assault happened. At first, she didn’t want to believe it was rape and once she came to that realization, she shutdown, shoving the thoughts from her mind. Reporting her rape wasn’t an option to Smith and even today only select people know about it.
“I was terrified by the thought of going through the court process or being stared at in the high school hallways,” says Smith. “I still feel that way sometimes. I’m not only one thing. I want people to know about me. I am defined by so much more.”
For Roversi, who was assaulted on a weekly basis from the ages of 8 to 12, he still feels the impact of that torture as a college student. “I’ve always been very self-conscious of my body and my actions because of it and I definitely still have trouble trusting people,” he says. “I’m not necessarily weary of going places except that I’m weary of going places where there are a lot of people and I’m feeling judged or objectified. I feel sometimes that after that’s happened I have some type of blemish on my person.”
Roversi took his experiences and turned them into action and is active on his college campus spreading the word about the horrors and aftermath of sexual assault and rape. As an activist, he spends time both sharing his story and teaching students what consent and sexual assault is and how people can get involved to prevent it from happening. “Society likes to blame victims but they are far from being at fault,” says Roversi.
Bystander intervention can help reduce the rate of rapes
Preventing assaults from happening is a still work in progress. For years, the answer was teaching people what consent was as a way of prevention but Leslie says even if people understand when someone does and doesn’t give their consent, the evidence suggests they still do it anyway. While education is necessary both for potential victims and perpetrators, it has to become the problem of everyone on campus.
“What’s happening nationally is a lot of resources are being dedicated to figuring out what is the best way to prevent this,” says Leslie. “One of our approaches is the bystander approach to prevention.” That means educating students to the signs that something bad is about to happen and intervening to prevent it from occurring. “We’re helping people think about how to interrupt those behaviors and build a safer community,” he says.
The sheer size of the problem is waking America up, with pop star Lady Gaga recently coming out as a victim of sexual assault and attending the Oscars accompanied by other survivors and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressing campus sexual assault as part of her policy proposals, which if elected, would seek to improve campus safety and increase support for survivors of sexual violence on campuses across the country.