I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been rather silent on my blog lately. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may’ve noticed that I seem to be on a tangent lately as I’ve posted some rather vehement comments and links related to the topic of the sexual assault on college campuses, and other issues supporting survivors’ rights under this umbrella. I can assure you that I’ve not lost my mind. The truth is that recent news stories relating to the mishandling of rape reports on college campuses have motivated me to action on a subject that’s been mulling in the back of my brain for almost two years.
In September 2014, I began writing a manuscript about a college sexual assault. I wrote several chapters and then put it away for another day. Now, with everything in the news, I can’t seem to stop my brain from spinning with all I’m hearing; and it’s time for me to do something about it. So I’ve dusted off that 2014 beginning manuscript, perused the pages, and have picked it up again. My current work in progress is related to sexual assault on college campuses.
All of this writing and research leaves me with both a heavy heart, and a burning need to do something — to make a difference.
Did you know that most rapes go unreported, and only about 20 percent of all reported rapes are actually prosecuted? Why do you think that is? If someone breaks into your car, keys your vehicle, or maybe burglarizes your home, the first thing you do is call the cops, right? And what happens when you report that crime? The cops come, they write up a report, and your friends circle around you in righteous indignation that someone would violate your property and/or personal space like that. Right? Of course. Because we can all relate to the feeling of anger and loss that comes when some faceless, nameless cretin violates our personal property.
Now let’s look at the crime of sexual assault, especially as it relates to college campuses. Believe it or not, an estimated one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point during her four years of college. With that, it’s important to note that most victims — especially those on college campus — know their assaulter. In fact, the National Institute of Justices states, “About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.” Wow! 85 to 90 percent of victims know their rapists, and at least half of them know them well enough to get in a vehicle and drive away with them! There goes the idea that monsters hide in closets and rapists prey on their victims in dark alleys!
Why did I give you those statistics, and how does that play into my original statement regarding the low rate of reporting? Because sexual assault, unlike most other crimes, is not only intensely personal (for the victim), but often leaves the victim traumatized a second time when she’s not believed. Consider this: if the victim knows the perpetrator, then it’s likely that they run in the same social circles, meaning that the victim and the perpetrator often share friends. The idea of rape is heinous enough, but to actually know someone accused of such a crime — and to have counted that person as a friend — is almost beyond the imagination, especially for college students whose world view is still somewhat limited by lack of experience. You see, we all have in our heads an idea of how a victim should respond — how they should behave — after an assault. But the truth is that there is no cookie-cutter response for a victim; and, in fact, many of their behavior patterns run counter-intuitive. This leaves many to wonder if there’s “more to the story” or that there’s a “misunderstanding.” Or even worse, “she must be lying because I know John/Tom/George, and he just couldn’t do something like that.” The truth is that the psychological effects of rape trauma affect every interaction and behavior pattern of the victim for many years, and it’s often simply impossible for non-victims to wrap their brains around why the victim’s behavior seemingly doesn’t match what we expect.
I remember vividly the first time I ever knew a campus rape survivor. She was my roommate in the early part of my sophomore year. “Taylor” told me her story as we were driving back to school one night after a party in nearby Oklahoma City. As a 19 year old college sophomore, I was dumfounded. I didn’t know how to respond. And, in my lack of world experience and knowledge, Taylor didn’t exactly fit my image of how a rape survivor would behave. So let me tell you about Taylor.
As an adult who has begun studying the psychological effects of sexual trauma, I now understand that Taylor had many of the textbook signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Not too unlike most college students, Taylor liked to party and she loved her alcohol. But in an era when most of us were finding it in the form of cheap beer, she was looking to the hard stuff and she was getting black-out drunk on a regular basis. Quite frankly, Taylor exhibited dangerous behavior that could very well have set her up to be victimized a second time. It was like she had no concept for the dangers that lurked around her when, in fact, it was probably her way of coping with her assault.
Taylor had violent mood swings, and it was difficult to understand where you stood with her. One moment we’d be laughing together, and the next moment she was raging at me with tears streaking down her face. She went on buying sprees and I sometimes wondered whether some of the items she “bought” came with a five-finger discount. Her grades were dropping, her mother was (in my 19 year old brain) an overbearing lunatic who called our apartment frequently to check in, and Taylor had taken to self-harm/cutting. In the late 1980s, cutting was a fairly new (at least to me) phenomenon, and I was shocked because my lack of understanding led me to believe she was psychotic and that my own safety around her was in question. Then add into the mix that Taylor’s way of finding control in her life was to take random sexual partners. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but I believe it was her way of being in control. Her ability to say yes or no was taken away from her by her rapist, but she was able to be in the driver’s seat every time she took a new partner and sent him on his way.
Needless to say, as a naive 19 year old, Taylor’s behavior caused me to question her story. I never told her I didn’t believe her, thank God! But the truth is that I doubted her. Today, as an adult with more life experiences and a better understanding of the world around me, I regret every minute of my interactions with Taylor. In the end, I found her behavior so erratic and inexplicably bizarre that I packed up my belongings one weekend when she was out of town and moved to a new apartment. We’ve never spoken since.
So why do I tell you this story? For two reasons: because the reactions of rape survivors are sometimes counter-intuitive to what we expect; and second, because when we know the assaulter, it is often beyond our ability to understand at all. How could my friend do something like that? And what does that say about me that I don’t have better judgement? And, as a man, will I be accused next? To this next question, I would answer unequivocally: No, absolutely not!
The truth is that it’s estimated that all campus rapes are perpetrated by approximately three percentage of the male population. That means that 97 percent of college men would likely never consider sexually assaulting a woman; yet seemingly half of them come to the defense of the rapist. Why? My guess is that it’s out of fear and the inability to wrap their brains around the idea that someone they’ve known and trusted could be among the three percent of monsters out there. And before you say, “But Sean couldn’t have done it,” or “Jack’s so smart, and nice, and clean cut,” or “But Peter’s the president of the Boy Next Door Club and volunteers at the local homeless shelter,” understand this: predators are good at hiding their evil, and that’s how they’re able to blend seamlessly in society and perpetrate their crimes.
So what can you do if you know a sexual assault victim, and especially if you’re a friend of the defendant? It’s okay to believe in your friend, because it’s a very difficult thing to understand how someone you know could perpetrate such a heinous crime. What it’s NOT okay to do is actively take sides AGAINST the victim. If you’re unable to tell a victim, “I believe you,” then say nothing at all. Because there is nothing more damaging to a sexual assault victim than to be victimized a second time by ignorant statements or questions implying doubt. Keep in mind this truth: statistics show that false reports of sexual assault are roughly equal to the number of false reports of any other felonious crime — which is to say that it is very rare. Furthermore, an “unfounded” case does not imply a false report by the victim. Instead, it implies only that there wasn’t enough evidence for a district attorney to pursue because, without strong evidence, a conviction is unlikely.
A key thing to remember is that district attorneys only take the cases they believe can be proved in a courtroom, which is why (in my county alone) the conviction rate for felony offenses is 80 percent. With that in mind, consider this: only 20 percent of those reported rapes are actually prosecuted (Source: The Wichita Eagle). So, just because a victim reports a rape does not mean that a district attorney will choose to prosecute. This should not be interpreted to mean that the victim is lying. You see, with the burden of evidence requiring “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the DA has to determine whether enough evidence exists to gain a conviction. If the victim has no witness and has waited too long to report (i.e. no rape kit was performed), then proving the crime beyond a reasonable doubt is difficult. When a rape is prosecuted, then, it’s a huge victory for the victim because the district attorney not only believes the victim, but also that the crime can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
So when you meet a victim, how should you respond? The most important words a victim can hear is “I Believe You.” If you can’t bring yourself to utter those words, then the most important thing you can do is say nothing at all — not to the victim, and definitely not in support of her rapist.
I’m sure I’ll continue this line of thinking in the coming weeks as I continue writing and researching on my current work in progress. In the meantime, if you’re a victim of sexual assault, know this: I BELIEVE YOU.
For more information on the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, visit the End Rape on Campus website. And one last side note: For ease of writing, I prolifically referred to the victim with feminine pronouns. It should be noted that men are frequently victims of sexual assault as well, and that those cases often unreported at a much higher rate than those of their female counterparts.
Recommended Viewing: THE HUNTING GROUND is now available on Netflix and I would recommend it to every family with high school and college bound students.