Op-ed: From silence to action

Monday, April 4, 2016 - 11:04am

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I stand with survivors who are too often silenced by a culture that refuses to believe them.

I advocate for survivors who never told anyone, not even their best friend, their mom, their partner.

I believe survivors who stay silent because they feel what happened to them “doesn’t count.”

I support survivors who experienced coercion or manipulation and don’t think what happened to them “counts” as sexual assault.

I am here for the survivors who don’t tell anyone because they don’t want to hurt the perpetrator of their sexual assault, who may be a friend.

I fight for every single survivor because I refuse to accept that sexual assault impacts thousands of students on this campus — many of whom face the effects of their experience alone — yet only a handful ever see justice.

Silence is a tool of oppression. Our call to action is not to blame those who are silent; it is to identify and to change the culture and the systems that silence people. Survivors stay silent for many reasons, and these reasons often relate to their identities. Lesbian, gay, transgender, queer or gender non-conforming folks may stay silent for fear of being outed. Men may fear being asked, “Why didn’t you fight back?” Many people believe that sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted because their services are being paid for. Trans women of color face overwhelming violence and the confluence of risk factors that make it incredibly difficult to speak up and find help. Religiously conservative groups may feel silenced due to the stigmatization of sexuality. Women are treated as if they are responsible — questioned about what they were wearing, what they were drinking or what they’ve done in the past. Undocumented immigrants may experience human trafficking or fear sharing their story due to fear of deportation.

When the odds are stacked against anyone so unfairly, it is no wonder they stay silent.

According to the 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct, 11.4 percent of all students, undergraduate and graduate, experienced sexual assault in the year preceding the survey. More than 22 percent of undergraduate females were assaulted in a year. 

Shockingly, more than half of those survivors reported telling no one about what happened to them. That means in the year preceding the survey, about 2,600 survivors never talked to anyone at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, at the University of Michigan or in law enforcement. They never even told their story to their best friend.

While I recognize that these numbers are not necessarily accurate due to survey limitations, and raw numbers are always inadequate to measure the full costs of sexual assault, that number is simply too high to accept. Any number of students who are violated so deeply is completely unacceptable. Further, those rates only measure sexual assault and not the other forms of sexualized violence that impact college students like intimate partner violence and stalking.

On campus, there are many places for survivors to go — SAPAC is an excellent confidential resource for all survivors. The primary place to seek non-confidential help from the administration is the Office for Institutional Equity, which is meant to address Title IX violations. Title IX prevents sex-based discrimination in education, and since sexual harassment and sexual assault inhibit a student’s ability to learn in an equitable environment, it is the University’s legal responsibility to address sexual violence on campus.

In January, the University released its Fiscal Year 2015 report on Office for Institutional Equity investigations under the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy. Despite the fact that nearly 5,000 students experience sexual assault in a year alone, just 97 incidents were reported to the University.

The subsequent 25 investigations found seven perpetrators “responsible.” You read that right — last year, the University only found seven perpetrators responsible for sexual assault. With the preponderance of sexual assault on campus, it is unbelievable to me that only seven perpetrators will see some form of academic discipline for creating an intolerable campus environment. It speaks to both a campus culture that discourages survivors from coming forward and to the failure of the sexual misconduct policy to adequately address the incidents that are reported. Our University’s system fails survivors, and our culture fails survivors when it silences them.

Action is whatever you want it to be — there is no right way to feel, no right way to act, no right way to share. But in the spirit of transforming silence to action, here are a few ideas. Request an educational workshop from our Peer Educators or Bystander Intervention and Community Engagement programs. Engage with survivors in your community by hosting a confidential survivor speakout. Attend a SAPAC event or collaborate to host one in your community. Contact your elected representatives in the Michigan legislature and in Congress to ask about what they are doing to end sexual assault on campuses. Contact the University’s Board of Regents to tell them that you demand action from our campus administration on sexual assault in our community. Read the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy and educate yourself on the changes that will go into effect on July 1. Go through ally training or volunteer training with SAPAC. Most important of all, start conversations in your community. Bring up the subject with your friends. Support survivors by saying, “I believe you,” “It’s not your fault” and “There’s no right way to heal.” Be kind and empathetic. Take care of yourself while talking about these important but heavy issues.

The campus climate survey found that 37 percent of survivors who did not report did not do so because they didn’t think anything would be done about it. Let’s prove to them that we will believe them and that something will be done. #WeBelieveYou.