How Colleges Silence Sexual Assault Survivors

As if finding yourself a survivor of sexual misconduct during your college years isn't traumatizing enough, some universities are preying on that fear, trauma, and victimization by leading students to believe they can actually be punished for speaking out about their assault.

In a report by Huffington Post, students at five universities were lead to believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that if they disclosed the details of their sexual misconduct case to anyone during investigations, then they suffered potential disciplinary action as severe as suspension. And again — these stipulations were given to the survivors as well as the perpetrators.

Here are some of the more horrifying conclusions drawn from the report:

1. No-Contact Orders Prevent Survivors From Coming Forward On Their Terms

One case centered around a Columbia University student's abusive relationship with her boyfriend, which was reported by a neighbor before the female student — pseudonymously named Vanessa — was ready to admit to or report being in an abusive relationship. Without taking Vanessa's wishes into account, the university issued a no-contact order between her and her still-boyfriend because they had an outside report of abuse in their hands. The couple continued to see each other in violation of the order, which meant that when Vanessa finally did realize she was in trouble — and was ready to speak out about it — she was afraid to, because she was left at risk for disciplinary action for breaking the rules of the investigation.

"I essentially wasted months of my life worrying I'd be suspended," she says.

2. Gag Orders Further Alienate Survivors From Seeking Support

In a case at Pomona University in California, a female assault survivor's boyfriend received notice that — while it was acceptable for her to discuss the details of her case with him, because he was in her "close support group" — if he were to discuss the case with anyone else while the investigation was ongoing, then he would also be in danger of disciplinary action.

Silencing students in this way — and the stipulations are strict, covering everything from verbal disclosure to electronic disclosure — prevents them from finding support, seeking community, and realizing they're not alone, as survivors or as loved ones of survivors.

3. Colleges Don't Understand Title IX Law.

The reason colleges place gag orders on the survivors of sexual assault during adjudication is because it's necessary (for obvious reasons) to put a gag order on the perpetrator.

"They think if we don't do this to both people, then we are in violation of [our obligations under] Title IX to be equitable," said a senior member of legal counsel at Victim Rights Law Center. "That's not the case."

While it's important to prevent a survivor from being further victimized by a parade of slut-shaming/pubic embarrassment at the hands of her assailant, that right to privacy does not extend both ways. It infringes upon the survivor's ability to seek care and support if they can't discuss their case. Furthermore, it's illegal to ban students from talking about their assault.

4. Colleges Deny Making Disciplinary Threats to Survivors

The schools investigated by Huffington Post repeatedly denied that they would ever punish a sexual assault survivor for speaking out. Rather, their official policies are that students can't speak about pending investigations and/or in-progress adjudications. Once the cases are closed, however, students are welcome to say whatever they like. But the point is that students feel threatened by the policy, which is vaguely explained, at best, or delivered with threatening implications, at worst. And it's not surprising for a survivor of trauma to feel extra fearful or cautious of repercussions. It's the responsibility of universities to foster safe spaces for survivors to speak.

Images: Getty (3)