An opinion piece on perceptions of sexual assault and policies on the issue at Northwestern University, published on North by Northwestern in April 2009.
Some time in early April, I saw that one of my Facebook friends had posted a status about Sexual Assault Awareness Month. “One in four women is a survivor, like me — how many women do you know?” she wrote.
I had no idea until that point that she was a sexual assault survivor, and I admired her courage to be so open about her past. But for the small handful of people I know who are open about their experience, many more are unfortunately keeping the silence.
Thursday evening, more than 100 people attended the “Take Back the Night” rally hosted by College Feminists. The night began with a barbecue at 6:30 p.m., followed by a rally and march at the Rock. Attendees discussed ways to say “no” and listened to music from jazz artists and a capella group Extreme Measures. The event lasted five and a half hours.
“Take Back The Night” has given survivors here at Northwestern a platform to break the silence since the event first started in 1986. In the event’s 23 years, one would think that the taboo surrounding sexual assault has broken. This isn’t the only time we talk about sexual assault; we all attended a sex-themed presentation early freshman year that subsequently caused a spike in sex-related paranoia for the next two weeks.
But while Take Back The Night and those New Student Week presentations are a great start, we need to be able to discuss sexual violence all year long — and do more than just talk. While I think it is important to give survivors a platform, there needs to be more done to incite them to talk not only to their fellow students, but to authorities that can affect change.
According to statistics supplied by Director of Judicial Affairs Jim Neumeister, there were only 10 formal student complaints to the Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System in the past six academics years, excluding the current year. The Northwestern University Police Department online blotter listed only two reported cases of sexual assault this academic year.
That is without the shadow of a doubt only a minute fraction of the assaults that have taken place in the past years. A 2008 Center for Disease Control fact sheet stated that between 20 and 25 percent of college women reported having experienced an attempted or complete rape in college — and that is only the tip of the iceberg. If this statistic carries over to Northwestern, then the number reported to SAHAS should be exponentially higher.
After talking to friends and listening to stories, I am hard-pressed to find a college-aged girl who has never been subjected to some form or other of sexual violence or harassment. This is nothing new, and Northwestern is not immune because of its higher admission standards. We tend to think that this could never happen to us. To make matters worse, I have found that men often don’t realize the extent of the phenomenon. But silence and submission does not make sexual assault disappear — it only makes it disappear from our collective consciousness.
The problem is that despite all we’ve been told about rape, some stereotypes persist: Rape can only happen in poorly lit alleys, not possibly in a dorm. If a girl dresses somewhat provocatively, then surely she must be up for sex. If she’s drunk, it doesn’t count. Society has resigned women to being treated like sexual objects — whether it be offensive catcalling or a guy touching you inappropriately while dancing in a bar. These are seen as inevitable facts of life for young women — ask any girl after a night at the Keg. This blurry definition of appropriate behavior makes it so much harder for them to know when the line has been crossed, which leads some women to rationalize when they shouldn’t: “I don’t feel like having sex with him, but we’ve been seeing each other for a while, so I guess I should.”
Disregarding aggressive sexual behavior towards women as what “just happens” is an attitude that we all need to address—not just those affected, but the Northwestern community as a whole. Women might know privately that something isn’t right, but are reluctant to report it for fear of humiliation or of being incorrect in labeling something as harassment. If women never speak up, though, then the men who act like this won’t change.
The fact that one of the TBTN co-chairs, Weinberg senior Matthew Nusko, is a man is a great step towards expanding the gender discrepancy, but awareness needs to be spread across campus — and survivors shouldn’t ashamed to take action.
It’s a difficult subject — defining sexual assault is tricky, filing a report is scary and many survivors feel guilty. Although I’ve been lucky enough to never have been in a truly dramatic situation, it’s painful and frustrating to have seen a friend be afraid to submit a complaint. By alerting the authorities, survivors get a chance to show that they are not victims; that they have the upper hand over their aggressors and they are in charge of what happens to them.
There are many outlets for sexual assault survivors on campus, including the previously mentioned SAHAS and NUPD. However, SAHAS is not well-known by most students and is often seen as intimidating. Until this is solved, filing a complaint persists as a complicated process, but nonetheless shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle, rather a way to ensure the fairest hearing possible. Advertising these opportunities on campus would bring forth change. When these organizations will have report numbers in the hundreds, this will by no means be a failure. Instead, it will mean that survivors are no longer afraid to speak up, and we will have taken a big step on the way to changing things for good.