About 200 community members and students attended the Let’s End Sexual Assault Summit on Tuesday at Eastern Michigan University which featured a keynote speech by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In its second year, the event included a full day of discussions, panels and break-out sessions on how to address sexual assault.
During her speech, Whitmer reflected on her dedication to moving sexual assault prevention legislation onto the state Senate floor, as well as sharing her personal connection with the movement. Whitmer shared she was sexually assaulted as a college freshman and now, as a survivor, she plans to make sure the same doesn’t happen to any other young people on college campuses.
She noted how one in five women, one in 16 men and one in four transgender or non-binary students will be sexually assaulted while in college. Whitmer added the statistic does not communicate the pain felt by survivors, and it can often take years to share one’s story of sexual assault.
“I’ve been outspoken about my sexual assault for years now, but it took me a long time to get there: over two decades to find the courage to tell my story,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer described her first public address of her sexual assault on the Senate floor in 2013 during the discussion of a proposed rape insurance bill which would discontinue the eligibility of coverage for any rape-related health concerns, no matter the circumstance. Whitmer hoped that by telling her narrative, senators would be able to see just how many people this proposed bill would affect.
“(The bill) even applied to rape survivors who’d been impregnated by their attacker. It told women in Michigan, you have to plan ahead for the unplannable,” Whitmer said. “And they wouldn’t even let women or doctors testify during the debate of the bill.”
After sharing her story, Whitmer received countless emails, calls and written letters from Michigan residents thanking her for voicing a story so many of them shared but hadn’t told anyone about. She acknowledged that at the time when her assault occurred, she was completely unaware of any resources that were available to her in college, so she hopes to create pathways of conversation and change in society and college campuses.
Following the keynote speech, the summit featured a four-person panel on sexual assault’s representation in the media and on college campuses, and how that affects survivors. One of the panelists, ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne, said although schools are taking action on sexual assault cases, measuring change made in each institution should be based on its effect on other survivors.
“The better way to measure that is to measure it based on the effect it has on other survivors,” Lavigne said. “Did writing about this, did sharing this woman’s story, did exposing this institution’s failures, did that encourage at least one other survivor to come forward? And I think if you look at that as a measure — did it have an effect? Did it affect change? I think in that sense you can say, ‘absolutely yes.’”
Lavigne then explained how the popularity of the story affects the probability of survivors coming forward and also provides more sexual assault awareness.
“Obviously, there is more pressure, there is more awareness when it is a big story,” she said. “… But it’s hard, because it’s very case by case. It depends on who the audience is, what kind of support you’re getting from people hearing your message, and in the willingness of the institution or the company or whatever it is to take that next step and to make that change.”
Venkayla Haynes, a panelist and survivor of sexual assault, said she believes when the media covers sexual assault, it tends to lack in its representation of minority groups.
“I can’t actually say that the media is doing everything really well,” Haynes said. “I need to remember that this movement is for me and that the media is not the movement. The grassroot organizing the missions that develop on the ground is the real movement. And I think when we talk about the media, and we talk about sexual violence, we don’t see the voices of Black women. We don’t see the voices of non-binary folks, trans folks, queer folks.”
Another panelist, Brenda Tracy, also a survivor of sexual assault, went on to say the media representation of her sexual assault case only had a negative effect on her situation and her mental health.
“The media coverage of my story at that time didn’t do anything to counteract the victim blaming and the backlash against me,” Tracy said. “There was a lot of ‘what was she doing there? What was she wearing?’ That kind of thing … I just remember my community really turning against me viciously.”
Tracy said the media not only hurt her relationships with people close to her but also ruined her mental health.
“The media was part of a machine that pushed me into a place of darkness,” Tracy said. “Depression. PTSD. I really think that if I did not have children, I would not be here today. I would have killed myself, absolutely.”
Tracy ended her discussion on the media by discussing its importance and how it must be used properly to spread the most awareness possible for survivors and their stories.
“The media matters. I’ve seen how much of a difference it’s made in my life,” Tracy said. “And my heart aches for survivors who are not treated well by the media, and when we don’t do well coverage of this issue because it really changes the conversation, and it can push it into a really good place or it can push it into a really bad place.”
Tracy said she believes there is not much change happening within college campus culture, even with all the recent coverage of survivors and increased sexual assault awareness in the community.
“We haven’t really made that much progress on our campuses,” Tracy said. “So, until we start hearing from survivors that ‘my school treated me well,’ I just am not willing to pat everybody on the back … there’s a lot of work to do.”
Haynes agreed with Tracy that college institutions are not doing their best to help their students who have been sexually assaulted and instead become defensive when charged with such allegations.
“We’re not at a point where anyone wants to be held accountable for their actions,” she said. “. … It’s very, very hard to eradicate sexual violence when you don’t even acknowledge that it even happens. So, I think we’re still at this point where we’re trying to protect this institutional image before protecting our students.”