Guest Post by Alan Parker
On Thursday, October 19, 2017, the National Vigil to Support Campus Sexual Assault Survivors brought well over a hundred participants to the plaza in front of the Department of Education headquarters just off the Mall in Washington, D.C. The vigil featured a succession of speakers sharing their experiences as survivors and parents of survivors.
Put on by a consortium of advocacy organizations, including SurvJustice, Women's March, It's On Us, EROC, SAVA, Feminist Majority, and PAVE, the vigil protested recent actions taken by Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education which changes the guidelines around campus sexual assault cases. These changes fundamentally weaken survivors’ access to justice, which already was a daunting reality. The vigil emphasized the critical need for the federal government, through the mechanism of Title IX, to protect those who need protection the most: victims of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence.
One after another, students and millennial advocates took the microphone and told of their assaults, candidly and honestly. Some had reported, some had not. In story after story, the oral parade created a gripping explanation of what is as stake, both in the immediate and far-ranging sense. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a five minute story might well be worth five thousand pictures. The national statistics are available to all, and yet, to hear survivor after survivor tell their story gives a meaning to the statistics no one who attended or might watch the video could never forget.
My name is…..and I was raped at……...University
My name is…..and I was assaulted at…….University
Most sexual assaults on campus are perpetrated by another student, not a stranger. Most of the speakers were attacked by someone they knew, and often trusted. In one case recounted by a student at George Washington University, the assailant was a campus employee known to have multiple victims yet was left in a position of power. Many survivors told of seeing their assailants in class, at work, and walking the graduation stage. They told of the decisions they had to wrestle with - whether or not to press charges, either through the criminal justice system or through the campus system and the fear of whether they would even be believed. They told of their emotional states in the varying stages of their ordeals. They told of the questions they asked of their Universities, and the various, often disappointing, answers they received.
Despite a 2010 meta-analysis finding that between 2% and 10% of sexual assaults are falsely reported, the Trump administration is throwing its weight behind a narrative that emphasizes the rights of those allegedly falsely accused assailants (Lisak et. al, 2010). In an era of #MeToo, it seems the Department is ignoring the repeat perpetrators and abusers to favor the few fearing false reports at the expense of countless victims.
For a host of reasons great and small - running through the stories has a clear theme - from high-powered defense attorneys attacking the reputation of the victims, the lack of sophistication and training for first responders, mishandling of evidence, incomplete or incompetent investigations, a lack of enthusiasm to prosecute these cases, and all the other societal mores that lead to situations where a noted athlete at Stanford can reduce his sentence for raping an unconscious woman in an alley, have added to the pain and disruption and suffering of survivors.
As noted by RAINN, in 2012 the odds of obtaining a conviction for a rape or sexual assault are overwhelmingly against the victim (6% success rate). What this means, in real life terms, is that for the vast majority of our nation's students who are sexually assaulted, justice will not be done. This results in underreporting. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice found 32% of victims report sexual offenses in the general population, whereas only 20% of victims on campus report.. Even more unlikely to obtain justice are the most vulnerable and marginalized: LGBTQ community members, people of color, individuals with various immigration statutes, and those with disabilities.
One of the first speakers was a brave young man who had been assaulted by his boyfriend. He made the point clear that Secretary DeVos, in rescinding the 2014 Title IX guidance, had specifically removed all mention of protection for the LGBTQ community. Another speaker told a story of a star athlete who admitted his guilt to a reporter, but was allowed to play the entire season anyway. Another speaker referred to a delayed expulsion - the assailant was kicked out of the school- only after his graduation. Finally, a young woman told of her experience fighting for justice at a local university. After a negotiation, the University President agreed to meet with representatives of her student group, only to have three unannounced women at the meeting, one of whom proved to be general counsel for the University. The other turned out to be a Title IX Coordinator whose information had never been provided to the students. During this meeting, the University disputed the legitimacy of the student's statistics they had gathered from classmates and the resulting policy conclusions. The point of her story was clear - to admit to a problem would hurt the University's reputation, so it would not.
In story after story, a number of key themes were raised. First, even in cases where a conviction is possible the survivor may not want press charges. While the psychological reasons for this may not fully be researched, conceptually, many of the speakers spoke to the importance of deciding what happened in their lives- to make the decision to empower themselves. Second, without Title IX protections on campus, the victim has only the criminal system to seek justice, which is daunting and unlikely to be effective. Finally, the problems of sexual harassment, violence, and abuse are everywhere. Universities are large corporations and instinctively move to conceal the scope of the problem to protect their reputation rather than serve the best interest of student safety.
Without being said directly, or in so many words, experiencing sexual violence is traumatic. How often do survivors have to wait months at times for their case to even be heard - if they get that far - while their assailant walks free on their campus? It is hard to match the power of their narratives. To look the issue of sexual violence in the face is to understand how many it affects, how deeply, how long-lasting the scars, and how amazing it is that such a galvanizing issue has received so much backlash under the Trump administration.
In addition to individual speakers, there were families and a father-daughter combination all together in front of the assembly. The full family present were the Prouts, who spoke out publicly in the national media after the St. Paul’s prep school criminal rape case. Their brave daughter, Chessy Prout, could not have been more than eighteen years old standing in front of this seat of power that is the Department of Education revealing how campus sexual assault begins before college. Her prep school moved in ways to protect its reputation and her assailant, a popular student, above admitting the scope of a problem that was not limited to her case and embodied decades of sexual abuse within its walls. They were so spurred to action that the Prout family moved to D.C. to continue to advocating for their daughter and other survivors.
The National Vigil concluded with a memorial in remembrance of victims who had not survived sexual violence: those killed by their assailants, their partners, strangers, or by their own hand in the aftermath. Against the dark blue night backdrop - just blocks from a lit U.S. Capitol building - Annie Clark of End Rape on Campus read the names of victims of sexual violence and related hate crimes, several of whom were familiar names to those who follow this issue and its news coverage. A minute of candlelit silence capped off this portion of the rally.
This moving event occurred less than one week after the #MeToo movement on social media, a phenomenon in which 12 million survivors came forward to say they had been subjected to sexual harassment and violence, which did not include the countless others that were not comfortable making a public statement. While this movement is viewed positively, it was not lost on the vigil attendees that the problem constantly required survivors to speak out, give up their privacy, and expose the issues to result in relentless activism and advocacy at a cost to those who already suffered the most. True change must come through ownership from our communities to do more and remove this burden on survivors.
The concluding speaker led the crowd in a moving affirmation: “I believe you, you are not alone” to punctuate this important moment.
For myself, attending the Vigil was a transformative experience. I left feeling optimistic, seeing the dedication and organization of those who came to the plaza. I watched many of the participants meeting new people, and continuing to expand their networks after I left. I remain extremely upset and dismayed on hearing so many stories, and trying to understand how such crimes could ever be swept under a rug. Yet, I left with renewed spirit to support the survivors, and a strong feeling that a tide has turned. I can tell there there will be no going back.
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