There's no getting around it: campus rape is a national epidemic. We can no longer bury our collective heads in the sand and pretend that the sexual assault of college students isn't a major crisis. A recent Brown University study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health featuring interviews with 483 first-year female college students reports that "19% of women, nearly one in five, said they had been a victim of attempted or completed rape, either by force or while they were incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs, during their freshman year."
But popular essayist Meghan Daum appears to have grown weary of the topic. In her column for the Los Angeles Times, Daum claims that a "new generation of feminists only look inward instead of out at the big world... I hope the wounded women at our colleges and universities find a way to heal themselves and then get to work in the places they're needed most. I hope they take all the passion, anger and energy they've applied to making college administrators figure out when yes means yes and no means no, and harness it to address problems far beyond their own."
To that, I say: this so-called "new generation of feminists" deserves better. Those who are collectively organizing and engaging in activism to bring greater awareness regarding the epidemic of campus rape deserve so much more than a high-profile lecture on why their struggles don't really matter. Here are some concrete ways we can better support campus rape survivors:
1. Listen To Their Stories
Listening to survivors of rape and sexual assault is vital to the recovery process. Too often, their stories are told for them (typically by media personalities with agendas of their own) rather than by them. What if instead, we listened to the actual people who experienced sexual trauma? What if we decided that their words have value? In the words of Muriel Rukeyser, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."
2. Believe Their Experiences
Survivors of sexual assault deserve to hear, "I believe you." On the FAQ for Tumblr page I Believe You It's Not Your Fault, the editors state: "If you’re reading this, and things are tough, we want you to know some facts right off the bat: that your body is YOURS, that consent is not a gray area, that it doesn’t matter what you were wearing, that fitting in isn’t as important as it seems (though caving to peer pressure isn’t the end of the world either), that you have the right to set and defend your own boundaries..."
3. Stop Playing Pseudo-Intellectual Games Of Devil's Advocate With A Survivor's Testimony
Playing devil's advocate and questioning the details of a survivor's story — looking for loopholes and inconsistencies, hoping to prove them a liar — is a tactic rooted in misogyny and rape culture. On Feministing, writer Juliana Britto Schwartz argues that "These discussions may feel like 'playing' to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are 'playing' with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you."
4. Talk About Campus Rape With Your Friends, Family And Community
When you hear other people question the reality of campus rape, you have a chance to speak up. When you hear rape jokes, you have a chance to speak up. When you hear people discussing the validity of expressing consent or whether survivors are merely "regretting" their sexual encounters after the fact by calling it rape, you have a chance to speak up.
5. Show Up When You're Needed
If a survivor asks you to accompany them when they talk to the police or a counselor or as they seek out social services or when they need to escape from reality by going out for a movie and ice cream? Maybe the best thing you can do is be there with them.
6. Center The Survivor's Priorities
Not all survivors have the same agenda. Not all survivors of rape and sexual assault want to share their stories publicly. Not all survivors want to attend rallies or go to support groups. Whatever form their path to recovery takes, we should support them by centering their priorities.
7. Let Survivors Come To Their Own Decisions When It Comes To Pursuing Legal Action
The decision to move forward (or not) with pressing charges against a perpetrator is an intensely personal choice for survivors. In an article for xoJane, editor Marianne Kirby notes that "People who report rape — especially women who belong to vulnerable populations (women of color, poor women, disabled women, trans women, very young women — not to mention people who live at the intersections of these identities)—are scrutinized in our courts and in our popular media. To report a rape can mean being further victimized by not just the victim-blaming system but also by the support structures we thought we had in place, like friends and family and school social circles," says Kirby. "It can mean losing a job along with a reputation. It can mean being called a liar and it can mean being accused of ruining young men's lives." Instead of passing judgment, let's enable survivors to make their own choices about engaging with the legal system.
Let's give the best support we can.
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