Lauren. Her eyes gleamed as she talked about her passions and dreams. Her smile was contagious. She spoke with a soft voice that was too delicate to interrupt. I could tell her heart was pure. In college, innocence is a rare trait, but I saw it in Lauren. We quickly became friends, and I was eager to know more about her. I asked about her parents, where she was raised, and how she was doing in her first year at college. Her eyebrows formed into an expression of doubt while her eyes quickly shifted. “It’s okay … Well, I really love my theater major and how much support I receive!” At that moment, I knew that something had happened to Lauren. Eventually, she began to confide in me.
Lauren began by telling me how her friends had convinced her to download Tinder, a well-known app that allows users to message other users in the vicinity. That first day, she received a direct message from a boy. She was flattered, but unsure how to converse since she had never flirted with boys. He told her he also attended her college and lived on campus. It was nearing 9 p.m., and he asked her to meet up so they could study together. By Lauren’s standards it was late, but her friends assured her that it was perfectly normal to meet up with another student at night alone.
She found herself in an unfamiliar dorm outside his room. Only a few words were exchanged before the boy leaned in for a kiss. She froze, filled with anxiety. Lauren attempted to engage in conversation, but he ignored her and again pressed his lips to hers. Feeling uncomfortable, she asked him to stop. Infuriated, he said, “This is what college students do.”
Before she could respond, his crawling hands groped her body. Countless times she told him, “No, stop,” “Get off me,” and “I don’t want to,” but he didn’t stop. Clearly, she did not give consent.
Even though this male student gave up before forced intercourse, his actions constitute sexual assault. Many of Lauren’s friends tried to convince her otherwise, since she initially allowed him to kiss her. Martha Burt, a well-known psychologist from the Urban Institute, defines this type of mindset as “rape myth acceptance.” This is a “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false belief about rape, rape victims, and rapists.” Kimberly Breitenbecher, a psychology professor at Northern Kentucky University, says examples of rape myths include “that girls ask for it” and “that victims could resist the assailant if they really wanted to.” These false beliefs often prevent victims of sexual assault from filing a report.
This traumatic event consumed Lauren’s mental health. Afterwards she felt depressed, anxious, paranoid, and detached. She finally convinced herself to seek help from the university’s counseling services. The counselor helped Lauren understand it was not her fault and that sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” When people are afraid to seek help and assume the university cannot help, the perpetrator can repeat the same behavior. Therefore, Lauren’s counselor recommended that she report and open a case about the sexual assault.
Lauren was one of the 22 percent of students that sought help from an on-campus resource. Sadly, 80 percent of assaults go unreported. In 89 percent of the cases that are reported, assailants are not held responsible. Universities around the nation need to educate staff and students on what behavior constitutes sexual assault. Knowing that the university will hold the assailants responsible, victims will feel more comfortable reporting the incidents.
However, holding assailants responsible is easier said than done. Health psychology professor Laura Buchholz argues that if we choose to ignore incidents of sexual assault and pretend they don’t occur, then they won’t go away. Universities have sexual assault
prevention programs, but how effective are they? Breitenbecher concludes the changes in students’ attitudes and behavioral intentions are minimal, which makes the current prevention attempts insufficient.
According to Buchholz, one of the reasons that sexual assault is underreported is that “colleges have an interest in maintaining their reputations and avoiding fines and potential loss of student aid that can come from running afoul of Title IX regulations.” These situations are tragic, but people need to know that it happens and that victims are being heard, not shushed. Universities can start by accepting that sexual assault occurs on every college campus, instead of covering up incidents.
Sexual assault education and programs are becoming more accessible on college campuses. For these programs to succeed, people need to know that sexual assault victims are taken seriously. Education will equip students with the do’s, don’ts, and how’s in regards to dealing with sexual assault situations.
I became more aware of what sexual assault is just by hearing Lauren’s story. If we – fellow students and college administrators alike – are willing to listen, this awareness will spread and can help decrease the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.