What We Still Get Wrong About College Sexual Assault: "We Don't Believe That It Could Happen to Someone We Know"
Two of the women who turned the problem of sexual assault on college campuses into a national issue are taking their message nationwide with a new book. Its title may seem provocative to anyone who hasn't been paying attention to what young activists have been doing to change how we deal with violence, harassment, and assault, but it's a mantra for survivors: "We Believe You."
In 2013, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino filed a federal Title IX complaint — which asked the government to investigate their school — against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for mishandling sexual assault reports. Since then, the two have founded the activist organization End Rape on Campus and were featured in the documentary film "The Hunting Ground" about the ways colleges and universities fail survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
Title IX and the question of how to treat survivors of campus sexual assault is back in headlines — again — with news this week that a judge has ruled that the young woman at the center of the now-infamous Rolling Stone story on campus assault at the University of Virginia must appear in court to testify in the defamation suit being brought against the magazine and the story's writer by one of the school's deans. Jackie's lawyers had tried to spare her, arguing that it would traumatize her further.
Just because Jackie's story of a gang rape — and the university's failure to respond to it in a meaningful way — as told to Rolling Stone has been proved to not have happened as reported, it doesn't mean that Jackie never suffered from any kind of sexual assault, and that's where it can be helpful to hear from other survivors. There is no one way for people to respond to sexual assault, and the myth that there is a "right" way to act that will automatically bring justice only makes it harder to come forward — one wrong move and suddenly slut-shaming and doubt kicks in.
Which goes back to the question of believing survivors — and the dozens of investigations now being evaluated by the Department of Education.
Title IX is the law that prohibits sex discrimination in higher education — and sexual violence and harassment are considered a form of this kind of discrimination. That means schools have to do work to prevent assaults from happening, and to respond quickly and fairly when someone reports one. And while all schools must have a designated Title IX coordinator on-campus to talk to students with complaints, reports aren't always handled well because of the way that survivors are so often not believed.
"The title of our book is absolutely radical," Clark, who is now 26, tells Glamour. "We live in a culture that suggests people do the opposite. Sexual assault is the only crime where the victim is questioned—and repeatedly. To offer the notion of belief is an example of everyday activism."
"It's unconscionable to think about sexual assault like this at this time, this inclination to assume, Oh this couldn't have happened' or She must have done something wrong' or She must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.' There's the rush to believe that something didn't happen because we don't believe that [sexual assault] could happen to someone we know," says the 24-year old Pino.
This feeling extends to how we think about our alma maters, too. "We don't want to believe our universities could be covering up sexual assault," Pino adds. "These are institutions we love and the fact that they are a part of our identities is a part of the problem. Schools are a big part of our lives. Wearing those colors, having that degree."
Clark mentions how over 90 percent of students surveyed will say that sexual assault is not a problem on their campus.
"No one wants to be labeled in headline as "the rape school," Clark says. "There is great work being done by administrators and faculty across the country and I don't want to discount that, but on the whole, we're seeing a lack of leadership. We hear a lot of, It happens, but not here.' What we want to see is, It does happen here and we are working with students to make our campus safer.'"
The two also note that it shouldn't only be on the shoulders of a survivor to hold their school accountable, that without the buy-in of allies and alums and donors to pressure schools to ask why more students aren't coming forward to report assaults, why students feel like they can't trust the system.
The student and survivor activist group Know Your IX has gone so far as to assemble an alumni toolkit to help alums do just that. The organization also suggests that alums call their alma maters and ask for answers as to what the school is doing to prevent sexual violence on campus, what services and accommodations are available to student survivors of violence, and how the school hold perpetrators accountable and prevents them from re-victimizing classmates.
Know Your IX points out that many schools, other intentionally or unintentionally underreport their data of number of sexual assault per year. What's a red flag? While a low rate might make someone think that that's a safer school, a zero report rate should raise eyebrows. If students aren't reporting, that means they don't feel safe reporting. A school may have a higher number of reported assaults, but that could also mean that a more invested administration has created a climate where students feel they can safely report, or that community resources offer a strong safety net for survivors.
Clark adds that examining school's sexual assault reporting data isn't the only question that needs to be asked.
"We need to not just ask, What are the numbers?' but ask, What are the policies you have in place and how are the policies communicated to students?' A school might have a really great policy on the books but not be communicating that to the students," she says.
The pair also point out that faculty can play a key role in communicating these policies, too. Students shouldn't have to learn their meaning on their own. But administrators can be doing even more to help empower faculty to play a critical role in helping communicate their reporting processes and policies.
"Tenured, adjuncts, and associates — they are all on the front lines," says Clark. "They might have a student disclose an assault in a paper, in a class discussion. They need to know how to respond to that."
It's important to remember that colleges aren't the only place where gender-based violence occurs — and certainly not the only places where survivors of this kind of violence are protected by Title IX. High schools, middle schools, and elementary schools all also must comply with the law and provide accommodations to students as needed, from changing class schedules to providing counseling services.
In high school, gender-based violence might appear in everything from hallway name-calling to intimate partner violence occurring between a couple. And yes — all of these forms of harassment are covered by Title IX.
For survivors to get the help — and trust — they deserve, it's also important for all of those with authority to remember that there is no one stereotypical kind of survivor.
"One of the more striking things to me is how diverse this collection is," says Pino of the stories featured in their book. "When you encounter a diverse group of survivors, you are much more likely to see yourself or someone you know in the narrative. There's a much higher likelihood of a story matching stories you've experienced or heard."
"For us being in the activist space and hearing a lot of survivor stories and seeing what happens in media — the stories we are hearing in the media are not reflective of what we are hearing about from survivors on the ground. The survivors covered in the media are often white women. And this collective of stories is reflective of what's actually happening," Clark explains.
"We Believe You" goes on sale nationwide on April 12.
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