Amid allegations, speculations, and opinions whirling around regarding both the journalistic reporting of the alleged University of Virginia rape and the accuracy of the alleged rape itself, it’s important to note how this national news story can shape our knowledge about sexual violence.
As we begin 2015, there are five important truths we can consider to help reduce sexual assaults on college campuses in the future.
1. Alcohol plays a major role in sexual assault on college campuses. Above everything else, excessive consumption of alcohol contributes to sexual assault, although we know it is not the cause. The U.S. Department of Justice rang the alarm bells in 2007 when it released data stating the more frequently a college girl gets drunk, the greater her odds of becoming an incapacitated sexual assault victim. Alcohol affects judgment and increases risk-taking and often leads to the likelihood of miscommunication. When communication channels lack clarity between women and men, boundaries become blurred. When you mix all this together, it is a cocktail for “consent confusion” among the parties. Just recently, a school panel at Florida State University found there wasn’t enough evidence to hold quarterback Jameis Winston responsible for the alleged sexual assault of another student.
Takeaway: Girls, stay in control of your minds.
2. College students must become active bystanders. Generation Z, those born in the mid 90s and after, have grown up with their faces glued to their smartphones, often unaware of their surroundings. Add to that a hearty campus social life with frat parties, bar hopping and a menagerie of students whose background you know nothing about, and the results can be disastrous.
We can combat these horrific assaults by educating college students to be active bystanders, recognizing the signs when someone is in danger and stepping in to prevent it. Just like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) touched a nerve in our nation’s consciousness in the 1980s and sparked long-lasting social change, we, as sexual assault survivors, must become leaders in this revolution. Most collegiates today plan ahead and have designated drivers. We’ve got to teach them to have “designated mothers” as well — that mother hen who’s going to watch out for the flock. Being an active bystander doesn’t have to be dramatic or in any way put you in danger. There are six steps to being an active bystander, but it can be as simple as saying something like, “Are you OK?” or “Can I talk to you for a sec?” For guys, it’s intervening and saying, “That’s not cool, man. That could be your sister.”
Takeaway: College women must ultimately look out for one another.
3. Discrepancies in a rape victim’s account do not mean she is fabricating the story.
When a woman is raped or sexually assaulted, her brain’s hippocampus is the first region affected by the trauma. From the moment the attack starts, cortisol (the stress hormone) floods the woman’s system and immediately creates dysregulation in the brain chemistry and is the beginning of the long journey of post-traumatic stress disorder. My long battle with PTSD went on for 20 years. Besides the hippocampus, abnormalities in other brain areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex, are also associated with PTSD.
The result is a terrified woman presenting an often fragmented, jumbled account of the assault that just occurred. The woman tries desperately to piece the whole rape together in a believable, intelligent way, but just like war veterans and police officers with PTSD, rape survivors’ memories and stories tend to be nonlinear.
Takeaway: Trauma changes your brain chemistry and impacts memory.
4. Women must be encouraged and convinced to report rape to law enforcement. Shame, self-blame, embarrassment and fear the police won’t believe them are common reasons college girls don’t report, but the fact is that most guys who assault will do it again. Despite this reality, survivors fear retribution. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report recently that indicates the following: rape and sexual assault victimizations were more likely to go unreported to police among victims who were college students (80 percent) than nonstudents (67 percent). About a quarter of student and nonstudent victims who did not report to police believed the incident was a personal matter, and 1 in 5 stated a fear of reprisal. Student victims were more likely than nonstudent victims to state that the incident was not important enough to report.
Takeaway: If you don’t report, it is likely you could become the intermediary to another young woman being assaulted by the same guy.
5. College males who assault will face greater consequences in the future. In the past, men in college who engaged in or attempted forced sex did not consider it to be a terrible offense. The victim has taken the brunt of the responsibility and has been held accountable for “wearing the wrong thing,” “drinking too much,” or “being a little too flirtatious.” It’s a different world today as a result of the avalanche of news on this topic from Bill Cosby allegedly drugging and assaulting women, the Boston Uber taxi driver accused of raping a customer, the sexual assault culture in our US military and the rape of a girl by two Steubenville, Ohio football players. Take a look around. There is a paradigm shift occurring before our very eyes, and young men are going to be held responsible for their actions in the future. The world is finally waking up to the fact that nonconsensual sex on college campuses is actually sexual assault. More importantly, it is also a crime.
Takeaway: Blaming and shaming victims will decrease; and we will finally hold perpetrators accountable.
Jenny Lynn Anderson is a sexual assault survivor, national speaker and author of “Room 939: 15 Minutes of Horror, 20 Years of Healing.”