I’m Invisible: Sexual Assaults and Social Barriers

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“What effect has this event had on you?”

The woman sits next to her attorney and stares back blankly at the prosecutor in front of her.  Her head swirls as hundreds of people stare down at her, waiting for her to answer. Millions more across the nation watch on their TVs at home as the prosecutor impatiently waits for a response.  The woman begins to open her mouth to speak—words that only her and the accused can confirm and words that began losing its meaning in the public eye: I’m invisible. (3)

This question is generally one of the first asked during the questioning of sexual assault victims.  A recent example of this interrogative style can be seen through the Senate hearing involving Christine Blasey Ford, the victim, and Brett Kavanaugh, the accused, who was then nominee of the Supreme Court and now a confirmed Supreme Court Justice.  Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who was hired by the committee to question the victim and the accused, asked this exact question at the beginning of the victim’s questioning. (3) To which, Dr. Blasey confidently answered:

I think the sequelae of sexual assault varies per person.

While many people who understand her response and some with expertise in psychology found her answers credible, Dr. Blasey’s testimony drew major attention to the social barriers women face when reporting sexual assault.  (3)  Research shows that every survivor copes differently, but there is a societal image of how they need to act, if they want to be believed.  These studies indicate that people are less likely to believe a victim and the severity of the assault if the victim’s words don’t follow a certain pattern.  (3)

Though Dr. Blasey answered confidently, asserting that yes, Kavanaugh’s sexual misbehavior affected her negatively, many victims have a more difficult time responding to such questions.  The reinforcement of clearly and concretely laying out the detrimental effects of the lasting wound through genuine tears, academic failure, and/or potential harm to oneself, can cause more negative effects than positive ones.  Several psychologists ascertain that these are some of the many reasons survivors end up not reporting their assaults to the police immediately following the incidence.

A societal expectation for victims to act in a certain way may also cause women to underestimate the effects that sexual assaults have on them, leading them to feel as though their experiences are not what they seem to be.  These feelings gradually deplete a woman’s perceptual reality and cause her to believe that she is unworthy of reporting the incident due to not feeling the same way as other sexual assault victims have felt or acted.  In the US alone, about 63% of sexual assaults go unreported, even though this costs the US more than any other crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in 2015. (4)

In general, the public’s view of the crime is shaped more by the response of the victim than by the actions of the perpetrator.  Social scientist Neil Malamuth compares the example of a gun that was forced into one’s mouth or directed to the head—everyone would intuitively agree that one would be traumatized from such an experience.  (3)  In cases of sexual assault, the words that come out of the victim’s mouth becomes a double-edged sword, and everyone is searching for the common script of what a victim of sexual assault should be like or act like.

If you are too upset, you are crazy.  If you are not upset enough, people don’t believe you were raped, so you have to be just the right degree of upset, whatever that is,” University of Arizona professor Mary Koss explains.  (3)

With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, women are now, more than ever, facing societal hardships and social barriers regarding their sexual assaults.  After the confirmation hearing, women all around the US cried tears of sadness and disbelief. However, they refused to accept the status quo and channeled their sadness into burning passion for their cause.

While nationally, sexual assault victims have caught the world’s eye, on a more local scale, Washington University in St. Louis students have fueled their rage into the creation of a new movement: Title Mine.  On April 26th, 2018, about 500 WashU students gathered on campus to voice their frustration with the administration’s lack of response and protection of sexual assault victims. (2)

This movement was fueled by an op-ed article that was anonymously sent to Editor-in-Chief of StudLife Sam Seeking on April 10th.  The article was published, and more than 8000 students were outraged by the content. (2)  The victim claimed that her assailant remained on campus even though this individual was reported to the Office of Residential Life, the TItle IX Office and Washington University Police Department.  The victim explained that he had physically attacked her, yet the administration had failed to find an immediate solution to the issue. After learning about another reported case of rape from the same assailant, the victim knew she had to bring the truth into light.  (1, 2) Senior Rachel Braly, who developed the WashU Panhellenic Association (WPA) survey on greek life and sexual assaults, explains the barriers students face.

“If someone is incapacitated, that is rape.  We need people to know consent and how to ask for it. The most significant thing is that, even on this campus, there is still a great stigma attached to labeling their experiences as sexual assaults and labeling themselves as survivors,” Braly said.  When I was a freshman, I heard people say, ‘it’s not sexual assault, it’s something that just happens to us.’”

Series of articles pertaining to sexual assault were published on StudLife’s website, catching fire in the community.  WashU’s recent reports indicate that there have been 62 cases of rape reported to campus police from 2014 to 2016, according to Washington University’s released records.  (2)  Most of the reported cases occurred in on-campus residential facilities.  Without the proper protection and concern for sexual assaults, students have been losing trust in the administration’s abilities to reconcile these serious issues.  Braly, voiced her concerns with the administration’s progress.

“I think that there are a lot of things that they could be doing.  I also think that what’s kind of sad to me is that Campus Life, Title IX, and RSVP have lost control of their own narratives—how they’re talking about the resources and how they’re talking about what they do,” Braly said.

The WashU administration quickly attempted to reconsider their sexual assault reporting policy and voiced their concerns to students, reassuring the students that WashU was there for them.  The administration promised students that they were going to improve sexual assault reporting policies, placing more emphasis on a speedier and more reliable Title IX process. Director of Student Affairs Lori White emphasized the work WashU has been doing to develop a safer environment for students.

“I believe we have set up mechanisms that we are trying to convey the messages to students that we want to work on preventative education,” White said. “I would hope in the future that our campus is free from sexual assault.  We are a long way from getting there, [but] we want to make sure students feel supported coming forward.”

While barriers to sexual assault reporting have become increasingly prevalent over the years, there must be more action and more conversations about these sensitive topics.  There is still a long way to go in improving these processes; however, with every push we take to fight against the system, we reach a point where sexual assaults don’t have to be as common and hidden anymore.  We must reach a point in society where victims don’t have to say, ‘I’m invisible’ any longer. White passionately advocates what we as a society can do to keep moving forward.

“Destigmatize it.  Stop re-victimizing those that are brave enough to come forward,” White said. “As a society, we have to believe them.”

Edited by: Arko Dhar




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