By: Contributing Intern Hanna Love
May 26, 2012
At a glance, it seems like college campuses across the country have plenty of programs to to support survivors and prevent sexual assault within their grounds. It’s true that some prevention programs do exist and make their presence known on college campuses across the country. The problem with these programs, however, is that their primary motives are not always to address the needs of survivors. The majority of them focus on warning incoming freshmen of the dangers of sexual assault, without providing them with any real understanding of consent or the actual number of assaults that occur on their campus. The truth to these programs is that they are designed to provide students with a warning, rather than actual support.
There is no problem with colleges warning incoming students about the possibility of rape on their campus. The problem that arises from this, however is when these warnings are used to blame students who come forward with sexual assault. Because many assaults begin with behaviors that the college may deem dangerous or improper—such as consuming alcohol or engaging in consensual sexual activity— colleges often point out how students could have altered their actions to prevent their assault. Although the college may have the best intentions in warning their students, there is little that these warnings can do once a student has already experienced assault. It is at this point that “prevention” tactics start to become victim-blaming techniques.
The fact of the matter is that sexual assault is such a complex and emotionally charged issue that many colleges simply do not want to deal with it. This can be seen in college campuses across the country, as they increasingly design their handbooks and policies to simplify assault and sexual misconduct. Pomona College’s Annual Campus Safety Report—a detailed PDF designed to inform students of safety issues on their campus—is one such example of this simplification.
Although Pomona College is a liberal institution with a progressive stance on issues of sexual assault, the college’s Annual Safety Report reflects an attitude that is largely unsympathetic towards students who have experienced sexual assault. Following the policies of many other universities across the country, the college mentions acquaintance rape in its Safety Report only once. Under the tips for “General Safety,” acquaintance rape is briefly acknowledged in one short and insensitive statement—“Acquaintance Rape happens here. Learn the danger signs. Victims suffer significant life disruption.”
In this statement, the college acknowledges that rape occurs. But within this acknowledgement, there is an implication that it is student’s responsibility to “learn the danger signs” of acquaintance rape. It implies that if the student does not learn these signs, they could easily be assaulted. This statement (and the mindset that accompanies it) is problematic for several reasons.
First, this mindset implies that there are specific warning signs that can predict rape. It may be true that there are circumstances in which acquaintance rape is more likely to occur, however it is highly incorrect to assume that there are telltale signs of an impending assault. Especially with acquaintance rape, many people are assaulted in situations in which they feel secure and confident in the company of someone they know. There are no specific “danger signs” to warn someone that a person that they are friends with might possibly want to assault them. In addition to this oversimplification of “warning signs,” this mindset further implies that students who have failed to recognize these “danger signs” are partially at fault for their assault.
This is the attitude that college students across the country are forced to encounter as they come to terms with sexual assault. The colleges they attend have few policies devoted to addressing assault, and the policies that do exist are often framed in such a manner that implies the guilt or responsibility of the victim.
This lack of understanding on the part of colleges is further amplified by the insistence of the “stranger in the bushes” portrayal of rape. The mention of acquaintance rape in Pomona College’s Safety Report is actually somewhat progressive for modern college standards, as most universities choose to legitimize only assaults that fit the dominant stereotype of sexual misconduct. The majority of college campuses draft their sexual-assault prevention programs from guidelines that correspond with the “stranger in the bushes” portrayal of sexual assault. This manifests itself into using resources to teaching self-defense techniques. Women are told to dress conservatively, adhere to the “buddy system,” carry a rape whistle, and learn self-defense techniques such as “grab, twist, pull.” This half-hearted training embodies the majority of sexual assault prevention and support programs on college campuses across the country. It also reinforces the belief that it is up to students to stop their own assault, and that somehow those who are unable to prevent their assault are partially at fault for what happened to them.
Therefore, individuals who experience sexual assault on college campuses are often forced to deal with their trauma in silence, without the support of programs to aid them through the process of recovery. These survivors are caught in a bind, as the resources devoted to sexual assault on their campuses cause them to feel worse about their experience. Simply because their assault may have occurred while they were walking alone at night or while they were too paralyzed with fear to carry out their “grab, twist, pull” techniques, students are being silenced and made to feel as though they were at fault for their assault. So, as the majority of resources on college campuses are devoted to prevention techniques, those who were not able to prevent their assault are left feeling isolated and guilty within their college community.
This being said, the most important factor that should be taken into consideration when dealing with sexual assault on college campuses should be an analysis of where to allocate resources to maximize support for survivors. In this analysis, it should be noted that although prevention is important, self-defense techniques do little to prevent date or acquaintance rape—the most prevalent forms of sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to this, without a clear definition of consent provided for students, prevention is often boiled down to techniques that make survivors feel as if they are to blame for their attack.
A college’s allocation of resources for sexual assault—if not put forth to educate students on the definition of consent—should be devoted to support the individuals themselves who experience sexual assault on campus. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, almost one third of all rape survivors develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime. One in ten rape victims still have PTSD today. This could include a large portion of students on college campuses that may be living with a disorder they know little about, and have little options in which to treat it with.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in survivors of sexual assault, sometimes referred to as Rape Trauma Syndrome, is accompanied by flashbacks of the survivor’s experience, in addition to symptoms like “triggers” that cause physical and emotional reactions in the survivor, and a sense of prolonged hyper-alertness. In addition to these symptoms, Rape Trauma Syndrome may also bring about social withdrawal in the survivor, numbness, mood swings, dissociation, dramatic changes in sleep and eating patterns, as well as other life altering consequences. The prevalence of PTSD in survivors is striking—and is something that needs to be treated and given
serious attention to in order to enable survivors to carry on with their day-to-day responsibilities. With a focus on prevention techniques, there are few resources devoted to treating PTSD on college campuses.
In addition to PTSD, there are other serious consequences of rape that need to be treated to ensure the safety of survivors. According to the studies mentioned above, 30 percent of rape survivors experience at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime. This being said, rape survivors are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to attempt suicide in their lifetime. In addition to this, rape victims are 13.4 times more likely to have major alcohol problems and 26 times more likely to have serious drug abuse problems. Furthermore, the most damaging statistic of all may be that 69 percent of these rape victims are too afraid to seek support for these issues because they believe that they will be blamed for their abuse.
So, as colleges devote their funding to preventing assault and teaching self-defense techniques, existing survivors are largely left alone to cope with the daunting after-effects of rape. In the college climate, especially— in which sexual assault is so increasingly prevalent— a fundamental shift in policy and attention is needed to direct funds away from self-defense and victim blaming techniques to include actual support systems for survivors. With rape so inherently intertwined with feelings of isolation and depression, it is vital that survivors are provided with access to counseling and support groups on campus to allow them to readjust to day-to-day life and to continue to excel in their educational pursuits.
In the fight against sexual assault, is vital to note that prevention is only one portion of the support needed. While some individuals may rely on self-defense to avoid rape, there is an entire host of survivors who were unable to prevent their attack and are now forced to deal with their trauma and depression alone. So although prevention is key, it is vital to recognize that it is not the only solution. Prevention techniques do not always work, and survivors cannot simply be ignored or blamed for being unable to stop their assault. When attempting to prevent assault, it is important not to leave those who have experienced it behind. Looking to the future is always beneficial, but it should not be done at the expense of those who experienced trauma in the past. It is time for the climate of abuse to change—a transition must occur from simplified prevention techniques to an inclusion of systems of support for survivors of sexual assault. Otherwise, it may be too late for the women who are forced to deal with depression and PTSD without any means to seek support and recovery.
Written By: Hanna Love, Contributor/Intern
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