In October 2013, I had the opportunity to attend the Al Jazeera’s America Tonight program entitled, Sex Crimes on Campus. I was excited to come across the email in my inbox, inviting me to the event, as I highly admire the program content on America Tonight; it’s diverse, current, and engaging. I entered the studio, anticipating challenging intellectual conversation but left feeling more than a little disappointed by the overall coverage.
This special was part of a series on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, and the effort to curb it. Hosted by Joie Chen and Antonio Mora, the studio was full of students, professors, experts, parents and survivors of rape and sexual assault who took a hard look at the campus culture that fueled sexual assaults, the role of alcohol, and how universities handle reports and complaints of sexual abuse.
While the conversation seemed to be fluid, to me, it largely focused on the presence of alcohol in a hypothetical or real situation. Most of the stories, whether hypothetical or real involved some form of inebriation. I was largely disappointed because this appeared to be a loophole of to blame the victim and their substance abuse. Basically it translated as, “Hey you drunk girls and guys, don’t get raped.” Instead of “Hey you sexual assailant, don’t rape!” What about those situations where the presence of alcohol is absent and a sexual assault still occurs? There should be an inclusive conversation on safety as well as the prevention of rape (i.e., “Hey, men and women, don’t put your sexual organs where they are not wanted.”). After the taping, I briefly talked to the producer about my concerns and she replied that they had intentions of taking the discussion further with other programs. I have not heard any updates since.
I, unfortunately, had the reality hit relatively close to home recently on my university campus. In January, as I was lazily scrolling down my Twitter, I saw an anonymous ghost account of a student who was retweeted into my timeline. What caught my eye, was what this student was tweeting. Overnight, this student created an account telling the public of her experience of being raped twice in her dorm room by her friend who came over to study. She alleged that she reported her incident to the university, only for her case to be settled out of court with no protection from her attacker. Every day when she crosses the university quad, she sees him and cannot do a thing about it.
Of course, a revelation like this shocked the student body. There were those who immediately supported this student with retweets and kind words, while there were others who were suspicious of this account. As a Communications major and an anti-sexual assault advocate, I was conflicted. Innately I felt hurt and empathized with this young lady and wanted to help get immediate justice for her any way possible. However, as a budding journalist, there wasn’t enough information for me to blindly trust what she was saying. Given the facts, this was a ghost account that popped up overnight, and since her original postings that day, there hasn’t been a tweet since. I also did not want to completely dismiss her because there are far too many survivors who are doubted and aren’t given a fair chance to voice their experience without little support and plenty of ridicule.
This recent story enraged me more because with it came dozens of other students who tweeted that they knew someone who had been raped on campus and the university was mum in regards to any responses. One of the other incidents happened two years ago when a freshman girl was attacked in her own dorm room by a stranger off the street. He was able to sneak past security in the middle of the day and follow her up to her room. She was stabbed and raped repeatedly until someone heard her screams. The student survivor left the university and her attacker was eventually arrested months later. Just this summer, there was another student who was on campus for a summer program and was followed and raped in one of the college buildings.
After both of these incidents occurred, my university said nothing. There was no formal letter from the administration or crime alert emails to the community, no rally from the students, no stories from the survivors - nothing. It was literally as if these incidents never occurred and these women and men were never hurt.
I am highly ashamed and disappointed in how colleges and universities handle sexual assaults, accusations and rapes. From an administration standpoint, the security offers safety in the form of street Blue Light Telephones. These are supposed to be emergency phones strategically placed throughout campus to alert campus or metro police. However, from a student perspective, most of these emergency devices never work. There have been dozens of accounts of trying to use the Blue Light Telephones to no avail when there is no dial tone or the machine is simply dysfunctional. Dorm Assistants, although I’m sure are initially helpful, are told not to make a bring attention to the situation after talking to the administration. I understand that it is a part of “keeping family business, family business,” but this mentality is more hurtful than helpful when a member of the family has been violated and made to feel like the attack was his or her fault, or that they were so insignificant that it didn’t happen at all.
When high school students and parents make the decision to become a part of a college’s legacy, they are doing so with the reasonable expectation that their school would be able to protect them in the case of an emergency. I can only hope that further awareness and honest, frank dialogue will continue conversation of the safety of college students and prevention of sex crimes on their own campuses.