While the data show an upward trend of reporting, victim advocates on campus say there is still a significant difference in the number of sexual assaults and those that are reported, a disparity fueled by social stigmas.
There were nine instances of sexual assault reported to the University Police Department in 2013, up from six reports in 2012 and three in 2011, according to a 2014 UPD annual report.
By Student Services’ February count, sexual assault, harassment, stalking and dating violence reports have increased from eight reports in Fall 2013 to 27 in Fall 2014. By mid February, the count for Spring 2015 was already 12.
Angela Winkler, assistant director of Student Assistance Services, said the increase in reports could be related to Student Assistance Services’ sticker campaign and the the national media’s attention to sexual assault on campus.
Risa Bierman, student development specialist at Student Assistance Services, said many of the reports she gets come in the form of calls from parents who are at a loss for how to help their son or daughter.
“Or we’ll get calls from academic advisors, too, because a lot of students will go into academic advisors or faculty and say, ‘I just can’t take this test, I had this incident that happened over the weekend,’ and the faculty member doesn’t know what to do, so they’ll call us,” Bierman said.
Stephanie McBride, program coordinator for Victim Services at UPD, said most people whospeak with her decide to report with UPD afterward, but the decision of whether to report can be a complicated issue because of the nature of the crime.
“By trying to force somebody to report, we are thinking, ‘Hey, we can get the rapist — make justice happen,’ but you can’t force anyone to report it because that would be taking that power away from them again,” McBride said. “We want to give survivors of sexual assault back that power.”
McBride said victims cope with sexual assault differently, but that reporting can empower some victims. In general, she said reporting can serve as a deterrent to attackers.
“A lot of times repeat offenders will feel like, ‘Well, I got away with it the first time, I can just keep doing this,’” McBride said.
Because sexual assault is debilitating, many people, including survivors, unintentionally look for faults in the behavior of victims as a way of establishing a sense of control, McBride said.
“Anybody can be a victim and it is a crime of power and control,” McBride said. “So we try to say, ‘Hey, no, I have control over this situation. If I don’t do this then I won’t get raped.’ It’s our way to try and control these scenarios.”
McBride said that this aspect of victim blaming is at times shared by other sexual assault victims.
“You’d think they’d be the most understanding, but at times it’s like, ‘Well, why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you fight back more, why didn’t you just leave?’” McBride said.
When a sexual assault occurs, the victim typically has one of three responses — fight, flight or freeze, McBride said. While the freeze response is very common, many victims who freeze come to blame themselves for the attack.
“You think, ‘I didn’t say no,’ ‘I didn’t fight back,’ or, ‘Why didn’t I do more?’ And you start to question if it was even rape at all,” McBride said. “And sometimes that takes a while to process and to define that to yourself as rape. Until you start coming to that conclusion, it makes it hard to report.”
McBride said these misconceptions about freeze response serve as barriers to reporting.
“People don’t really understand and blame themselves a lot of the time,” McBride said. “‘I should have done more’ is a big barrier to reporting because you have so much guilt and self-blame going on and that’s just reinforced by a society that blames victims.”
Masculinity on the line
This stigma associated with being a victim tends to be magnified for males, said McBride.
“I think men in general are a lot less likely to report it,” McBride said. “They have this whole other level of stigma. Because when a woman is sexually assaulted, it doesn’t call your femininity into question, but when a man is sexually assaulted it calls your masculinity into question.”
McBride said many males fear they will be called gay and do not realize that a physical stimulus, such as an erection, does not constitute consent.
“The biggest barrier is that they don’t report it, so that perpetuates the idea that it doesn’t happen,” McBride said.
The ambiguity around consent
In the time she’s worked with UPD, McBride said every victim with whom she has spoken has had some prior association with their attacker.
“Whether it’s somebody they thought about dating, or maybe had a previous relationship with, maybe they were flirting and ended up going home with somebody, but then things turned wrong — in all of those cases, they knew them to some degree and at some point they decided, ‘I don’t want to have sex with you,’” McBride said.
Sometimes this association leads to victims feeling guilty about the fact that they could possibly ruin another person’s life if they say anything, Winkler said.
“Some students can be concerned, ‘I don’t want to report, because I don’t want to ruin someone’s life,’ which kind of comes down to themselves maybe taking some blame,” Winkler said. “Part of our conversation is to explain that they didn’t do anything wrong, it’s not ruining someone’s life if they have taken an action that is a violation of student rules. They have taken that action and now its just about holding them accountable.”
Tied to these feelings of guilt is a general ambiguity around consent. McBride said clear and affirmative consent can be given and taken away at any time. As such, McBride said entering a relationship is not the same as long-standing consent.
“So either somebody doesn’t have the capacity to consent, either they are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs or they are not old enough to consent, they don’t have the mental capacity to consent, there are a lot of different scenarios that could happen,” McBride said. “‘Okay, maybe I gave consent for kissing, but I didn’t give consent for this.’ ‘I gave consent to this touching, but not this.’”
Bierman said establishing consent can be fundamental to healthy relationships.
“Students need to be thinking of consent, and they don’t,” Bierman said. “It’s a good relationship builder, it strengthens a relationship, but it also puts control back on people and it protects.”
The reporting process
McBride said many students are not aware of how much power they have in reporting.
In balancing the responsibility of the safety of the community with empowering the victim as much as possible, McBride said UPD tries to give victims options.
McBride said there is always the option to remain anonymous or to submit an official record in case the victim decides at some point to pursue legal action.
“[There is] that idea of, ‘This is what happened, I was raped,’ and by the time you come to that conclusion you feel like, ‘Well, that was too long ago, now I can’t do anything about it,’ or, ‘I’ve moved on past it, now I’m not going to do anything about it,’” McBride said.
In the Department of Student Services, victim advocates like Bierman and Winkler work internally in the university to help with immediate needs, such as moving the victim to a different residence hall or out of the same class as the attacker, if possible.
Bierman said she always tells students who come in to see her about a sexual assault that they should consider counseling, even if they just go in for one or two visits.
“It has to be when they are ready,” Bierman said. “And I’m honest, you may think you don’t need it now and then two weeks later something is going to happen and it’s going to trigger something and you’re going to be in a panic and they don’t believe me until that happens.”
No matter what office a victim goes to, advocates approach each situation by believing the victim.
“False reports are extremely low, but there tends to be this kind of gut feeling where trauma is involved and people recognize that and kind of confuse it with lying or, ‘Well, what do you mean you don’t know exactly what happened?’ So coming at it from a place of believing eliminates a lot of that victim blaming that can go on during a reporting,” McBride said.
Bierman said the services available to students in these situations are a phone call away.
“We’re kind of the people [that] people don’t want to know until they need us, and that’s okay,” Bierman said. “We’re here.”