Trigger Warning/Content Note: As the title suggests, this essay and the associated videos and links discuss sexual violence on U.S. college/university campuses. Please exercise self-care when choosing to read this essay. The word “rape” is used in many places in the essay rather than “sexual violence” to denote that the laws as they currently exist often only address actual penetrative rape, rather than the full spectrum of sexual violence and assaults that can, and do, occur on campuses.
Campus sexual violence has been in the news for the last few years, thanks in part to efforts like Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014/2015 mattress-carrying project. Sulkowicz designed her senior thesis around the project in which she literally carried a mattress on her back for the entire academic year. She said she had been raped on campus in her sophomore year and Columbia University cleared him of any responsibility. Turning it into a performance and thesis project is unique, but the failure of the school to protect a student or hold the rapist accountable is, unfortunately, not.
The controversy around how universities handle sexual assault cases became hyper-local to me in October 2016 when two particular stories became public. The first was a local news story about Grand Valley State University’s campus police and difficulties in their relationship with local law enforcement. The story brought up a lot of questions and mixed feelings for me.
The way the story is written privileges the idea that all rape should be reported to law enforcement, when in reality many people who have been raped do not want to deal with law enforcement (campus police or otherwise) and/or may not report in a timely fashion for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons people who have experienced sexual violence are reluctant to report include:
- Fear of repercussions, privacy invasions, having their past sexual activity critiqued publicly, and worries about retaliation
- Fear of dealing with police in general (especially if they are from a marginalized community the police are particularly threatening to, including Black/people of color, disabled, or queer)
- Self-blaming for the incident
- Being unsure if it is “fair” to call what happened rape and/or being told by friends or others that it wasn’t rape or otherwise discouraged from acknowledging what happened was not their own fault and was wrong
- Being unsure what exactly happened or if they are remembering correctly or having gaps in memory, which are extremely common trauma responses
- Lack of insurance or access to care, concerns about costs and other impacts, including, particularly for college students, concerns about their parents finding out
Reporting rape is a personal and individual decision, and the news story above in no way touches on that side of things. This, too, is typical when reporting on the subject.
That said, it is clear that GVSU is withholding information and not addressing rapes sufficiently. It is reasonable to ask how many of the numbers they don’t report timely have anything to do with the victim/survivor’s reluctance to see it go further. However, the way the law works, once that information is in GVSU’s hands they are required to fully investigate and it sounds like they are failing to do that either.
I was confused about why there is a separation between GVSU police and local county police at all – it seemed to me they should be working in tandem and investigating together. As a survivor of sexual violence (who has most often not reported), I would not want to deal with campus police, and then suddenly have to deal with a whole new set of investigators later. With some quick research I discovered there are some valid reasons schools are expected to handle the reports first and treat it as a disciplinary issue. If handled properly, it can be in the best interests of both parties to have it quietly managed on campus. The problem is, we have ample evidence that reports are not being handled properly and that survivors are not feeling they are being supported at all.
Schools have a huge financial incentive to downplay how much sexual violence their students face – you cannot convince parents to pay to send their kids if they realize there’s a high risk of rape and other sexual assaults. As a larger culture we don’t believe survivors, look for excuses, and fail to prosecute rapists anyway, but when you consider the added reasons for colleges and universities to sweep things under the rug, a disturbing trend emerges.
At the end of the day, what I care about, and what all of us should care about, is those victims/survivors. What, if any, services are they really getting? Are they getting the support they want and the empowerment to make their own choices about how their case is managed? According to the story, GVSU is failing from a legal perspective, so is it reasonable to ask if they are also failing those students in much more important ways? As someone who personally knows the names, faces, and stories of some of those students, past and present, I am well aware that the school has failed them.
One local friend who currently attends GVSU shared that in one of his classes on campus three people came forward and said when they attempted to report their assaults to campus police “they were super aggressive and asking them why they were out so late and why they didn’t have anyone with them.” I personally know people who have had their cases mishandled at GVSU, one of whom found herself unable to find work in our city because everyone thinks of her as “that girl that caused all those problems” after she was really open about the mismanagement of her case, and after she organized education events around the issue of campus safety.
The second situation that came to light in October is at my own school. A student alleges a classmate raped her during a study-away trip outside of the country and that the university has declined to address the issue to her satisfaction and ignored her repeated attempts to ask for further support. Because my school is very small, we do not have campus police and students are encouraged to report assaults directly to the local police. The school only manages their side from the disciplinary role, and the expectation is that the victim/survivor will seek outside legal help to prosecute. In this particular situation, that is obviously not a reasonable solution, as the student is dealing with international police (she did report it to the police in the country it occurred.)
I’m not here to parse out if the student is telling the truth (I believe survivors) nor do I have all the details of how the school did or did not handle the case. What I do believe is that she is not happy, that she felt she was ignored, that she feels unheard, and that she is deeply concerned about what it means for the student body when the young man who raped her returns to campus after a short hiatus. I believe her that she did not have her needs met and was not offered sufficient support.
I believe her because I believe survivors, full stop. But I also believe her because as a fellow student, I received a long email from our college president a full week after the student publicly released the above video. The email was clearly a response to the video release, rather than an accurate representation of ongoing work. It mentioned things like soon-to-be-implemented mandatory staff trainings, access to the counseling department, importance of reporting to the police, and a newly begun initiative (as of autumn 2016) that involved students sitting through numerous videos at home on understanding consent. All the actions they are taking began in 2015 or later. It is as if the possibility of sexual violence wasn’t even on their radar before that, even though they have a Title IX officer and legal requirements. Additionally, several things are “things we are doing right this minute/getting ready to do,” one of the reasons it seems clear the current situation is what spurred them rather than the awareness and education being embedded into their way of doing things.
Having resources and clear directives about expectations of campus safety, consent, and appropriate behavior is a great start, and if that email had arrived in August I would have welcomed it. The fact that it was sent out on October 31 and included language that explicitly disavowed responsibility for the named incident is disappointing. As far as I know, the email didn’t result in any significant in-person discussions or workshops for students who might want to talk about its contents or what we, as a community, could do to prevent sexual violence and support survivors. While we could argue “better late than never,” if it doesn’t have clear results that support real live students, what is the point, other than legally saving face? The email was just an awful lot of words, with intent of the length implying the great amount of work they are doing, saying a lot of nothing. It did little to actually support survivors, and did not even purport to have any interest in doing so.
Fortunately, there are artists like Sulkowicz, whose story opened this essay, and Hana Shafi, a Toronto-based illustrator who recently taught workshops at Ryerson University to promote sexual assault survivors using art to talk about sexual violence. The issue is not one we can continue to ignore or give simplistic answers to. The more we talk about it, the more we create space for rich and complex conversations where survivors can name the support they need and want, and potential perpetrators can learn how to make better choices. Ultimately, not only does this prevent assault and support survivors better, but it will also force universities to shape better investigation/discipline policies to hold perpetrators accountable and build safer campuses. Even our current (we’re so sad to see you go, Joe!) Vice President of the United States is onboard with this discussion!
Aaminah Shakur is a queer, crip, multi-racial/multi-cultural artist, poet, and culture critic, as well as a survivor of sexual abuse and assault. They are a contributing writer to the Dear Sister Anthology, a book of letters from sexual assault survivors to support others. They have conducted workshops on using memoirs in art and writing to recover from trauma, and written about how sexual violence impacts childbirth and parenting. Their website is aaminahshakur.com.