Why Survivors of Sexual Assault Need Stories and Support, Not Statistics

After the events that unfolded this past weekend, I finally decided to look into the Higher Educations Sharing (HEDS) Consortium’s Sexual Assault Campus Climate Survey from 2015. I was shocked by some of the statistics I encountered. I myself am a survivor of sexual assault, and I immediately recognized how much of the story gets erased when assaults are dwindled down to mere numbers on a page. While I commend Colgate for doing this survey, I found some very shocking outcomes from the responses.

For example, about 715 students’ responses were recorded within the survey. On pages two and three under Q4, the survey states, “Below are statements about your views on what might happen if someone were to report a sexual assault to an official at [Colgate University]. Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each.” When asked whether they thought campus officials would take the report seriously, 72.5 percent of the 715 student answered either “agree” or “strongly agree.” In another section of Q4, the participants were asked whether they thought campus officials would take action against the offenders, to which 47.8 percent of the 714 students who answered said “agree” or “strongly agree.”

However, I think it is important to consider how the responses of the general survey population compared to those who had been sexually assaulted. Of the 715 people who took the survey, 85 of them said they had been sexually assaulted. Seventy-seven of those 85 people said that they had told someone else about their assault. Of those 77 people, only eight people (or about 10.4 percent of survey-takers who had been assaulted) used Colgate’s procedures for making a formal report about the sexual assault. As a result, it is important to consider that the next two questions have a much smaller pool of responders, but the results are still important. When asked how satisfied they were with Colgate’s process for making a formal report about the sexual assault, four people (or 50 percent of responses) said either “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” However, when asked how satisfied they were with Colgate’s response to their reports, only two people (or 25 percent) said “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”

So, why does this matter? I think it is important to consider that there may be some disconnect between how students think their cases would be handled, and how people who have experienced sexual assault feel their cases were handled by campus officials. I know in my own personal experience I was very upset by the way with which my process was managed. I would venture to say assault survivors might be far more comfortable telling someone they know very well about their assault, rather than someone from the school. For example, when asked whom did they tell about the assault, 90.5 percent of people said they told a close friend, 34.5 percent told a roommate and 26.2 percent told a romantic partner. On the other hand, only 17.9 percent told a campus counselor, 3.6 percent told campus police and 4.8 percent told campus health services.

Even though I am taking all of these survey results with a grain of salt (it also claims that only 11.9 percent of students surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted, which seems extremely low if we were to extrapolate that as a campus-wide statistic), I think it is important to consider that students, not the administration, are the first people that survivors turn to for comfort. Every single student on this campus should know what to do and say if a friend, teammate or roommate tells them about a sexual assault. In my opinion, I think that the best thing you can do is just listen. Do not question the person, do not pass judgment, do not give advice. Just listen.

While I think it is important to teach students prevention, as much as I hate to admit it, no amount of prevention education will eradicate sexual assault all together. If we only focus on talking about prevention, we never get to really examine what resources are available to survivors. We need to know how to talk to survivors, without jumping to conclusions, or worse yet, placing the blame on them. If we as a community want to cut down on the rate of sexual assault, we need to talk about what systems we have in place that allow these acts to continue. I hope to see in the near future not just discussion on how to prevent rape, but also on how we as a campus got to this point and what can be done about it. Just as we need to be ready to listen to and believe survivors of sexual assault, we also must be ready and willing to hold one another accountable for our actions.

This brings me to my last point. Last week was the first time, almost two years since my assault, that I was finally able to read a piece addressing the incident in public. It was extremely difficult to talk about my experience with rape even though I am (most likely) what you would consider to be a stereotypical “survivor”: white, heterosexual, female. I cannot even begin to fathom how much more difficult the experience must be for survivors who don’t fit this description, such as men, members of the LGBTQ community and people of non-white backgrounds. It is crucial to understand that, unlike many other facets of life, rape and sexual assault does not discriminate against its victims. I was very troubled to see that, while the HEDS survey asked for the demographics of all of the participants (asking questions pertaining to race, sexual orientation and citizenship status) these demographics were not broken out separately for the group that answered “yes” to having been sexual assaulted. In failing to do this, we further perpetuate the stereotype that rape and sexual assault only happen to white females, which is simply not true.

All survivors must follow their own healing process, and as I said, I have only been able to address my assault publically almost two years after it occurred. However, I think it is important for survivors, when they are ready, to speak out about their experiences. While I think that the HEDS survey is a step in the right direction, I think that data and numbers can only do so much. They can never convey the same emotions that talking about these experiences can. It really does pain me that I am writing this article this month, since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. However, I hope this irony also draws attention to the fact, that while some positive improvements have been made, we as a community still have a long way to go.