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Sexual Assault: The Silent Epidemic On College Campuses (& How We’re Fighting Back)

I knew him. We had been seeing each other for about a month. This was not the first time we had sex, but I knew something was different. We were at a party. We were fighting about his ex-girlfriend. I told him I didn’t want to spend the night with him. I packed my things. He was screaming obscenities and cursing at me.  As my hand grasped the door handle, his mood suddenly changed. He was so sweet and sincere. He apologized. I realize now that he was not used to being told ‘no.’ I decided to stay because he told me it would be embarrassing for him if I left. I went straight to bed and told him I just wanted to sleep. A few moments later I felt him tearing at my clothes. I told him to stop, but he only responded by kissing me. I told him no, and his response was to press his hand over my mouth. I felt my shorts come off. I remember the pain. I was crying. He kept forcing himself and finally, his body tensed and relaxed. He rolled off me and threw my shorts back at me. Through my tears I remember him saying, ‘Good night.’ I knew him. –  Age 21, Philadelphia

 According to a 2008 study seeking to bring attention to the data collected on sexual assault, the overall rate of sexual assault for women in the United States is one-in-five. This means that 20 percent of women have been, or will be, sexually assaulted during their lifetime.
 
However, according to a recent sexual experiences survey given to about 400 women from a small liberal arts college, unpublished data indicated that more than 40 percent of the women had experienced rape, attempted rape, or unwanted sexual touching during their four years on campus, although only 20 percent actually reported being sexually assaulted.
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Surprised at this number gap? You should be, because that 40 percent isn’t unique, and the other statistics regarding sexual assault don’t get any better. In a report compiled by the New York State Coalition against Sexual Assault, 80 percent of rape victims were assaulted by an acquaintance, and almost 50 percent of those who experienced unwanted sexual activity did not consider the case to be assault.

50 percent of sexual assault cases also occurred when either the victims or the perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol, and almost 60 percent of cases occurred while individuals were on a date.

Whether we know it or not, collegiettes™, we have a big problem. No matter who you are and no matter what college you attend, YOU are at risk. YOU are in the group of individuals that is the most likely to be sexually assaulted. So YOU need to be informed.

Why the Problem Exists
In recent articles and journals, psychologists have begun to refer to sexual assault as “the silent epidemic” because many women (or men) who have been sexually assaulted don’t report the incident. Why?
 
Part of the reason behind this non-disclosure, or not telling anyone about assault, is tied to the definition of sexual assault. When someone mentions “sexual assault,” the images of a violent attacker, weapons and a dark alley come to mind. However, sexual assault is actually defined as “an assault of a sexual nature on another person, or any sexual act committed without consent” (even Wikipedia could tell you that much). Sexual assault is unreported because many collegiettes™don’t identify an unwanted sexual experience — ANY unwanted sexual experience — as sexual assault. 
 
Another other piece of this silent epidemic puzzle comes with the fact that sexual assault often occurs with someone you know. Whether it is a consistent hookup, like the first story in this article, or a previous boyfriend, like the second victim below, many cases of sexual assault (especially in college) are acquaintance rapes. Being in a “safe” situation with someone you know does not guarantee your safety at all. And although you might be “over” hooking up with a guy, he may not understand that you are no longer interested in the situation, and he may push for sex anyway.
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“I dated a guy who seemed really great and nice but when I left for college and he stayed home, we decided to break it off because long distance wasn’t worth it. A year later, he asked me to marry him and I said no. I didn’t love him and he thought that if we were engaged that we could have sex. But my standards were waiting until I was married. Two months later, I saw him again and this time he raped me. The night it happened he was nice, affectionate and caring. I thought I could trust him and he would listen to me when I said no. Because I knew him and because we had a past relationship, I felt like I was unable to claim it for what it was. I felt like the feelings of betrayal, brokenness, filth and devastation were feelings that I was not entitled to feel because it didn’t happen in a dark alley. It happened in the house of someone I trusted. It happened by a man who claimed he loved me. Not only did he take my virginity, but he took a part of my soul as well. My silence tore me apart for 3 months until I finally broke down and told someone. Healing is a long process, but it’s happening. I’m breaking the silence. What happened is not ok, but I’m a survivor and nobody, especially not my rapist, is going to keep me silent.
Age 20, California
 
Amanda Klein, a recent graduate of Emory University and the outgoing president of the Alliance of Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) on campus, agrees that there is an unnecessary secrecy that surrounds sexual assault. Sexual assault is such a problem on college campuses because many cases go unreported, as victims are often embarrassed of the incident, ashamed of the incident and unwilling and/or scared to even recount the incident to a counselor and/or police,” she explains. “Sexual assault does not have to be sexual intercourse; I think this fact is another that many students do not realize.”
 
Part of sexual assault’s “grey area” also seems to be due to alcohol’s role in assault. Alcohol is a significant risk factor in sexual assault, and more than 50% of individuals (both victims and perpetrators) report being under the influence at the time of assault. Because of this, the lines of consent can get blurry. How do you know if the person you’re sleeping with is consenting to sex when they can barely speak or stand up?

Kathleen Bogle, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at La Salle University in Philadelphia, a well-known speaker and the author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, has a lot of say about alcohol’s role in sexual assault and perceptions of consent. After extensive research, interviews and case studies at both a small university and a larger state school, she maintains that students often have faulty ideas regarding consensual sex after a night of drinking.
 
“In the alcohol-fueled hookup scene, the line for sexual consent becomes blurry for many students. Since generally both the guy and girl are drinking prior to the hookup encounter, the question is after how many drinks is a person no longer able to consent to sex. Unlike laws pertaining to drinking and driving, the law does not designate a certain blood alcohol level as too drunk to consent,” she says. “Instead, individuals are asked to exercise their judgment and determine when a potential sexual partner is too drunk. Individuals should look for signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech, difficulty walking, confusion, etc. If someone is acting this way, he or she is, by law, too drunk to consent to sex. Unfortunately, many people use bad judgment and, in some cases, purposely seek sexual partners who are extremely intoxicated.”
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Assault Awareness
Have you ever gone out with your girlfriends and returned home alone at the end of the night with the feeling that you’ve “failed” because you didn’t bring anyone home with you? This is something psychologists call female facilitation— a byproduct of peer pressure and female social groups which leads collegiettes™ to hook up with men more frequently. This phenomenon commonly occurs among college girls and has been determined to be a risk factor for sexual assault. Through college activities, girls often undergo hazing or other peer-pressured activities which lead them to be more involved in the hook-up culture than they otherwise would be.

Why is this important? Because although sexual assault is never your fault, taking precautions is always smart, and one of the best ways to stay safe is to watch out for your friends. Having a close group of girlfriends who know about your whereabouts and who know the guy that you’re hooking up with can help you to be conscious about your drunk (and sober) night time decisions.
 
And although you’ve heard it many times before, it’s always important to watch your drink while you’re out at a party or even drinking with friends. While getting roofied may seem like a far-off myth, the reality is that it does happen.
 
“I didn’t know him. It was my first time meeting him. I went to pick up a friend at a party and my friend wasn’t ready. I went to the bathroom and it was a small bathroom so I asked this girl outside of the bathroom to hold my drink. It was a quick trip to the bathroom, and when I came back the guy told me to come sit in the family room to watch people play Guitar Hero. I started to feel extremely tired and asked where my friend was and then I was being picked up. From there, I don’t know what happened. But when I woke up, I knew. I was sick, I hurt, and I felt so betrayed. How could someone do that to another person? Now stranger danger gives me a whole new meaning.”
Age 21, Illinois
 
Additionally, it is always important to make your feelings clear when hooking up. Although you may no longer be interested in a sexual relationship, your guy (or ex-guy) may be confused and assume that you’re just being coy. If you are no longer interested, prevent a potentially dangerous situation and make your intentions clear.
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What to Do About It
While the overall numbers of sexual assault are startlingly high, the real problem comes not in the form of the numbers but in the heart of the individual affected by the tragic event. Sexual assault is traumatic and humiliating, whether it is an assault by a stranger, a family member, a friend or an ex-boyfriend.
 
William Flack, a psychology professor, clinical psychologist and the head of Bucknell University’s sexual assault research team, spends time researching and helping students who have experienced sexual assault.
 
“Sexual assault is always traumatic by definition,” he says. The rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the general population is one-in-three, which means that among individuals who experience traumatic events, one third of them will be affected by PTSD symptoms. Unfortunately, the rate of PTSD found in individuals who experience sexual assault is even higher than the rate for any other traumatic event. I also looked at PTSD in relation to unwanted sexual contact (not rape or attempted rape, but merely unwanted touching) a couple of years ago, and we found that 10 percent of individuals indicated clinically significant PTSD symptoms. That means that 3 to 5 percent of college females have developed PTSD because they’ve been groped.

While we cannot go back in time, erase the past or eliminate the atrocities of sexual assault in a single blow, there is one thing we can do: step up and speak up. We can shatter the silence. Thankfully, due to gutsy girls, great professors and incredible programming, many colleges are featuring programs, classes and workshops that are doing just that.
 
“Take Back the Night,” a program that occurs in universities across the nation and all over the world, has had a powerful impact on many girls.

“I remember my first Take Back the Night experience- I was terrified that everyone would know- that it would be as easy to see on my forehead as if it were stamped there. People got up and told stories and shared memories… one in particular stood out.  A man got up and said he had come to be with his fiancé, a woman who was a sexual assault survivor. ‘She told me about all of the horrible things that had happened to her… and I do not love her despite what has happened to her. I love her because of who she is, and because those things that she thinks make her unlovable — the nightmares and crying and fear — those things are part of her and she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met. I love her because of whom and what she is.’ I’ll admit it — I cried. I cried long and hard because I felt empty and afraid and because I felt used, dirty and broken. I found strength in Take Back the Night — to hear stories that showed me how I truly was not alone, to see the people who came for me and other survivors. If there is anything I can say to those who feel abandoned and lost, it is this: It gets easier — every day that survivor in you gets a little stronger… first you stop hurting and then one day you smile and maybe even laugh… that’s when you know deep down in your soul that this horrible, disgusting thing that happened to you was not your fault and that it did not break you and you are not alone.
Age 21, New Orleans
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The Rape Aggression Defense System (RAD) is another popular class at universities across the country. Melissa Walter, a Simmons University student, has glowing praise for the RAD program on her campus. “RAD is a women’s self defense program that is nationally recognized,” she says. “We incorporate hands on self defense training with risk reduction tactics and at the end of the 12 hour course, students are suited up and put through a realistic simulation where they get to use all of the skills they have learned!”

The Alliance of Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) is a unique, student-run assault prevention program at Emory University. Amanda, the former president of the organization, dedicated time and effort to the alliance because she feels strongly that sexual assault needs to be talked about. “I think the main goal of campuses should be to get the word out that sexual assault happens and it can happen anywhere, even on a perfectly safe college campus,” she says. And through concerts, speakers and co-sponsored events, Amanda and the other members of ASAP have achieved just that, increasing attendance at their events ten-fold in just one year.

If your school is lacking in programming, RAD and “Take Back the Night” are nationwide organizations, meaning you can get involved with them online, at their headquarters or even bring the programming to your campus. If you have a story to tell, or if you are passionate about the issue of sexual assault, there is a place for you to share and a way for you to make a difference.

The Bottom Line
Sexual assault is a problem that will affect more than half of all collegiettes™ each year. If sexual assault happens to you or to a friend, reach out to the Women’s Resource Centers and Health Centers on your campus or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). It’s important to remember that sexual assault is never your fault, and it’s also important to get help as soon after the event as possible. Call a friend, call a family member, call a stranger — just don’t deal with it alone.

The numbers of reported assaults are high, but the numbers of unreported assaults are even higher. Sexual assault may be a silent epidemic at this point in time, but the only way to change that is to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more we can change it. And the more we change, the lower those stone-cold statistics will be.
 
Sources:
Amanda Klein, Emory University graduate
Melissa Walter, Simmons University
Anonymous college girls from across the country
Image: http://webb.nmu.edu/dso/SiteSections/OurServices/SexualAssultComplaints.shtml
Take Back the Night: http://www.takebackthenight.org/
“Shatter the Silence”: http://takebackthenight.org/shatter-the-silence/
RAD classes: http://www.rad-systems.com/
New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Statistics About Sexual Assault” <http://www.slc.edu/offices-services/security/assault/statistics.html”>
William Flack, Bucknell University Professor of Psychology
Bogle, Kathleen. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating & Relationships on Campus
Jody Raphael, Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center, DePaul College of Law: “The Use (and Misuse) of Data on Rape: Restoring Sexual Assault to the National Agenda”. (2008) <http://www.counterquo.org/assets/files/reference/The-Use-and-Misuse-of-D…

Jenni is a senior at Bucknell University where she will soon graduate with a degree in Psychology and minors in Creative Writing and Italian. Although Bucknell is in Lewisburg, PA (hello, corn fields!), her home is actually all the way in Seattle, WA. While at school, she enjoys hanging out with her sorority sisters, tutoring in the Writing Center, running and cooking/ eating delicious food. After spending a semester abroad in Florence, Italy during her junior year, she is itching to continue traveling and loves anything associated with food, cooking, health and writing. She is currently finishing up her time as an Editorial Intern for Her Campus and will be headed to Boston University in the fall to begin working on a Masters degree in Journalism.
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