Of all the disheartening statistics surrounding sexual violence, none is more poignant to me than data on reporting. Sexual violence is far and away the most unreported crime, especially when occurring on college campuses. The most cited statistic on reporting campus sexual assault comes from Bonnie Fisher's 2000 study, The Sexual Victimization of College Women, which puts the rate of reporting for attempted or completed rapes at 5%. Let that sink in for a moment...95% of victims will say nothing to an authority about their assault. What is even more startling is that for other "less severe" forms of sexual violation, the reporting statistics completely disappear (see pg. 24 of the study).
Where exactly does this silence stem from? Having experienced first-hand the struggle of deciding whether to report a rape, I know that one of the influencing factors is the fear of being blamed (more commonly called 'victim blaming' in the advocacy community). This blaming can stem, oddly enough, from prevention efforts.
Traditional prevention efforts focus largely on women minimizing their risk for stranger sexual assault by modifying when and where they go out. The recent stranger sexual assaults in Ann Arbor, Michigan almost all point out that the women attacked were walking alone at or after 10pm. Such behavior is a big no-no for preventing rape. While there is most certainly wisdom behind minimizing one's risk of assault, the realities of a college community is that young men and women will be walking around at all times of the day and night, sometimes alone. To merely focus on women reducing their risk can often create a backlash of silence. Self-blame or the fear of others blaming you for one of the worst experiences in your life is becomes a strong silencer.
There is a cost to this silence that we unintentionally create when we focus solely on risk reduction. The epidemic of campus sexual assault goes largely unreported, and therefore unchecked. Rapists often have multiple victims before being detected (see Dr. Lisak's fact sheet). Additionally responses that should be in place continue to remain inadequate and may lead to many personal tragedies, such as the suicide of Lizzy Seeberg. Victims often feel revictimized when they do the rare thing and actually report their crime. Under continual scrutiny that reinforces both self blame and perception of victim blaming victims, many recoil into silence. Lizzy reported being raped by a Notre Dame football player and a week later killed herself. I admire the parents of Lizzy who have spoken out demanding more from universities to support victims that do shatter the silence and report their rape.
How can we end this silence? I encourage everyone to reconsider how they discuss prevention. Prevention is not a burden that demands women be accompanied at all times or never venture out late in the day. Rather, prevention is a community obligation with many agencies and individuals doing their part to create a safe environment for all. College institutions can provide safe rides or walks that allow students needing to go home some means of transportation or individuals to walk with. Other individuals in the community can report suspicious activity or even unsafe areas. Cities can allocate more police to be a presence in areas where victimization is likely and individuals can definitely keep alert to their surroundings and make every efforts to get home in a safe and conscientious manner. Irregardless of all theses possible steps, we must not associate sexual assaults with a failure to be perfect in preventing crime, but rather as a condemnation of those who do harm and a call to the community to increase safety. When we share the burden of prevention, we start to lessen a force creating the silence that costs us safety and potential our own life.
Laura L. Dunn, Esq.
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