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campus sexual violence

Why Do Victims Minimize Sexual Violence?
Posted by On Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When asked why they didn’t report an incident of sexual assault, a common reason given by survivors is that they didn’t believe it was serious enough to report, or that it wasn’t clear that the assailant meant harm or had committed a crime at all. This outlook contradicts the popular understanding of sexual assault as always being traumatic. Trauma is processed and manifested in complex interactions with the environment in which they occur. Unacknowledged rapes, or experiencing incidents that fit the legal definition of rape but not labeling it as such, are a surprisingly understudied phenomenon considering its prevalence: among a national sample of college women, 73 percent of rape victims did not acknowledge what happened to them as being sexual assault. 

 

We do know some things about the phenomenon. Sexual assaults are more likely to be unacknowledged if they were committed by a current romantic or sexual partner, used less physical force, and resulted in less physical injury to the victim. Additionally, victims who were inebriated during the attack and did not have a clear memory of the incident were less likely to acknowledge the incident as having been sexual assault. Interestingly, 84 percent of victims of unacknowledged rape engage in one or two forms of resistance, such as verbal reasoning, or physical struggling. However, the enactment and violation of the resistance are later re-conceptualized as “miscommunication”.


The data also contains clues about why victims may conceptualize the event as something other than a crime. Those who acknowledged their rapes were more likely to disclose the event to a higher number of people, but also reported receiving more negative feedback from those people compared to victims who did not acknowledge their rapes. Both types of victims experienced similar negative internal states following the attacks, with acknowledged victims experiencing slightly more intense symptoms of PTSD, possibly due to the fact that acknowledged rapes tend to be more violent.

 

Unacknowledged rapes do not remain constant over time—it is likely that low initial acknowledgement rates are related to victims needing time to process the event in order to understand what happened to them. While only 25% of victims who had been raped within a six-month time period acknowledged their rape, 70.5% of rape victims whose rape occurred over three years ago acknowledged what happened to them. Unfortunately, this timeline can make prosecution difficult, as much physical evidence must be collected immediately following the assault.

 

The reasons for unacknowledged rapes are complex. Some studies point to hetero-patriarchal sexual script-building and maintenance during adolescence as important factors. Young girls and women conceptualize male sexual aggression as being a normal part of everyday life and do not consider minor or even major acts of physical aggression as anything other than “just how boys are.” Additionally, girls and women are often taught to police each other’s sexuality as a way to maintain their own moral reputations. That is, they commonly learn that women are meant to be gatekeepers of sex, and that outside perceptions of how hard a woman has “fought off” unwanted sex is tied to her perceived complicity in sexual assault. Therefore, acknowledging a rape opens the victim up to a barrage of scrutiny.

 

Importantly, the study also discusses the low rate of reporting and the minimization of sexual violence as being related to the victim’s perception of the enforcing institution as an extension of the patriarchal apparatus. Enforcing institutions are part of the same culture that gives rise to sexual violence, and are additionally imbued with institutional or legal power. Girls and women may therefore be wary of the forensic interview setting as being hostile to their sexuality, sense of agency, or their decision to use alcohol or drugs. As a result, women may dismiss or play down instances of sexual violence as a way to build rapport and maintain their own credibility in the face of biased reception.

 

Unacknowledged rapes carry with them the threat of future victimization, and that can be costly to both the victim as well as the community. However, denial may also serve an environmentally protective role for the victim when their social context makes it costly to be a victim. It is therefore vitally important for educational institutions to not only ensure that students are aware of reporting policies and practices, but that the social context in which reporting is carried out is one in which victims will feel that they will be supported and believed.

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Critically Acclaimed & Critically Accused: How the response to The Hunting Ground perpetuates rape culture
Posted by On Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Hunting Ground is a documentary that shares the stories of sexual assault survivors from universities across the country. It not only focuses on the incidents themselves, but the aftermath of the assaults in which their institutions did little to nothing to remediate the situation, and oftentimes retraumatized the survivor by insinuating blame or not believing the survivor’s story.

The Hunting Ground connects the dots to show that campus rape is an epidemic, and that focusing on one individual story, or even one individual institution, isn’t doing justice to the issue. It also frankly discusses the corporatization of higher education and doesn’t shy away from the industrial components that interplay with campus sexual assault.

The film portrays much of what we know to be true about campus sexual assault. Many of the survivors who are featured discuss that the person who assaulted them was someone they knew. Many of the survivors also disclosed that they were hesitant to report through their campus and that they have yet to tell their families. Many survivors shared that the incident involved either members of athletics or Greek life. And sadly, nearly every survivor shared that their school’s response was lacking, harmful, and insufficient.

Unfortunately, the film also shows us something else that we know to be true: people are unwilling to believe survivors. Despite having a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92%, the media response to the film has been highly critical, with journals and newspapers staunchly attempting to disprove the stories of survivors, and by calling the film “inaccurate and incomplete,” “poorly substantiated,” and as “spreading myths.”

As found in the Association of American Universities climate survey results, less than a quarter of incidents are reported. The most common reason for not reporting sexual assault was that it was “not considered serious enough,” with high numbers also in feeling “embarrassed or ashamed” and “did not think anything would be done.”

When much of the public discourse around a film about campus sexual assault is disbelief and contention, what is to encourage survivors to report their assault? The Hunting Ground attempts – and succeeds – in showing the epidemic of campus rape, but ironically it is the response to it that succeeds in showing a broader rape culture that permeates beyond college campuses to our entire society.

Instead of discussing the broader implications of the vast amount of evidence and personal stories that The Hunting Ground presents, critics have narrowly focused on trying to disprove two of the most high-profile incidents presented. The acute simplification of focusing on these two cases, one involving a prominent college football quarterback and one involving an elite law school, does a few things. First, it misses the point of the film. By focusing on a couple cases, the representation of campus sexual assault as an epidemic is overlooked. By attempting to prove that the stories presented are inaccurate or incomplete, critics are perpetuating the societal problem of the overestimation of false rape reports. For those who are interested, the actual percentage of false reporting of rape tends to fall between 2 and 8%, which aligns with the rate of false accusations for other felonies.

Second, the narrow focus on challenging the two most high-profile cases replicates some of the main institutional problems that the film details. Even though there seems to be strong public support for the film itself – as displayed by the acclaim from Sundance, Entertainment Weekly, Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes – media and public discourse have tried to coopt the story by focusing on a sliver of what is truly an epidemic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the majority of attention has been focused on these two cases; the two where the American society has the most to lose. There seems to be a willful ignorance that is reinforcing the sense that when the accused institution or individual is high-profile, with high societal regard and yielding high profits, the public is predisposed to doubt the survivor. Not only is the survivor unlikely to be believed, but there is a heavy investment in advocating for the innocence of the accused, even going as far as to blaming and shaming the accuser. When the fault in a sexual assault case lands upon a person or institution that is highly funded, positively regarded, a national symbol of success, etc., there is little chance that the survivor will come out on top.

But maybe there is hope. Is any attention good attention when it comes to these issues? The survivors who present their stories in The Hunting Ground have decided to put the cause before themselves. They have become activists and have sacrificed their personal well-being to do so. The individuals seen in the film have received threats, are constantly being questioned and challenged, and in many cases are being portrayed in negative light. However, they have also forced the issue of campus rape into the national headlines. They have put the rape epidemic on the map and are forcing the media and public to take note. As campus administrators, invested community members, and social justice educators, we owe something to these, and all, survivors. An easy way to remember how to support survivors is through the acronym HEAL: Honor, Empower, Accept, and Listen. The following screen shots from Think About It are a good baseline for how to respond when someone discloses sexual assault. If you hear people challenging the stories of the survivors in The Hunting Ground, remind them of these suggestions.

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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, August 29, 2014

This week we have three stories covering the state, student, and corporate response to the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses.

State Legislatures Make Moves Against Sexual Assault

Yesterday we covered bills, laws, and developments at the federal level that you should be watching this Fall. However, proposed legislation at the federal level is only a piece of the full picture. Numerous state politicians are making moves to legislate how schools handle sexual violence on campus. This article provides an overview of some of those efforts, including a pair of New Jersey bills, one of which would allow the New Jersey Attorney General to fine schools up to $50,000 for failing to properly respond to sexual assault allegations, as well as California’s “Yes Means Yes” bill, which looks likely to be adopted in the near future. It also discusses a proposal to require campus climate surveys on sexual assault (much like those recommended by the White House Task Force) for all colleges and universities that failed in Maryland.

Student Activists (Continue) to Make Moves Against Sexual Assault

Even with high-powered corporations and powerful politicians rallying behind the cause of halting campus sexual assaults, much of the fight remains where it started, with student and alumni activists. This piece from NPR puts the spotlight on the continuing efforts of student activists, many of whom helped to kick start the national conversation on campus sexual assault still going on today. Activists like Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky (founders of Know Your IX) have remained active after graduation, continuing to put pressure on legislators and education officials to properly address campus sexual violence. Current students are also becoming involved, such as Dartmouth undergrad Guillermo Rojas, who created an interactive map of on-campus crime.

Companies Make Moves Against Sexual Assault

The mounting pressure on schools to effectively address sexual assault has led to the rise of a variety of companies looking to help students protect themselves and schools comply with the law. These range from law firms and consulting firms offering guidance for Title IX coordinators to smartphone apps that make it easier for students to keep themselves safe and report assaults. This piece from Inside HigherEd notes the important role such products and services play in keeping students safe and staying compliant but also the danger that these advisors and companies may be more concerned with the reputations of the institutions that hired them than the well-being of those institutions’ students.

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