A common question asked in many sexual assault awareness/advocacy circles is how can we support survivors while working with college administrators?
News headlines of campus sexual assaults have put college campuses across the country on the defensive, which leads to the popular view that these administrations value institutional prestige (and money) over their students’ concerns for on-campus safety.
But the idea that it is too difficult or too confusing to balance supporting survivors and working with colleges to improve policies on campus safety and the handling of sexual assaults focuses on the root of the problem. Working with colleges to provide safe and welcoming institutions cannot happen while the greater cultural mindset on sexual assault and survivors of it remain the same.
Of course the ideal is to come together with campus officials to provide survivors with the resources they need. This would allow survivors to report their assaults to the proper authorities of their choosing in a way that ensures safety and freedom from harassment. Survivors also deserve the tools and opportunities to begin healing, mentally and physically, without jeopardizing their academic careers. That would include access to any medical care and counseling, as needed, as well as the ability to seek out these resources without penalty from professors or pressure to abandon their studies. To truly support survivors and give them the resources to process their experiences and heal, there needs to be a better understanding that they are blameless, that their experiences are valid, and that they do not have to face this alone.
The notion of providing those resources to survivors now remains difficult because of cultural views (often teeming with misinformation) about assault and rape. When campus officials end up putting the survivor on trial instead of their attackers, it reinforces the notion that sexual assaults are to be expected and that failing to prevent them is in itself an act of consent. This attitude is then combined with the three popular beliefs about sexual assault claims – (1) that it “doesn’t happen here“, (2) that the accusations are the ravings of a regretful “slut”, or (3) that any post-traumatic feelings are an overreaction (often implying that it wasn’t “that bad” or “it’s not like you died“) – and thus is borne the culture where survivors are ostracized for their experiences. It is a sign that society at large holds no compassion for these people having survived the traumas they experienced and that is what needs to be the first thing to change.
By changing the way sexual assault is seen and understood in the mainstream, it rewrites all societal rules surrounding how it is discussed and what the reactions to it are. Once this change happens, campuses across the nation will rise up to the occasion and support survivors in the ways they have always deserved.
This is not a glamorous or particularly quick resolution to the issue of sexual assaults on campus. But it is one that would hold up best over time and, by transforming society, we can ensure that the policies stand strong into the future.