March 29, 2006

Rape Victims Speak Out Against Stigma

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“It’s a violation of state law to have sexual contact without consent,” said Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson at a public meeting addressing issues of rape and sexual violence on campus. “The Undercurrents of Gender-Based Violence on Campus” included short speeches by Wilkinson, victim advocates and several survivors.

“Sexual assault is so prevalent on college campuses, but it’s not really talked about at all. It’s kept very hush-hush,” said Adriane Bracciale ’07, president of Students Acting for Gender Equality and the organizer of the event. “It happens, and it’s real, and it happens to people [Cornell students] know, and there’s no shame in being a victim of sexual assault.”

“A lot of women who have been raped don’t realize it for six months, or a year, or five years or ten years,” said one of the survivors, who wished to remain anonymous.

She said that women are seen as objects in today’s society, and by society’s standards rape is often considered okay.

Wilkinson spoke several issues involved in recognizing sexual assault.

She pointed out that lack of consent can be as obvious as a “no” and forceful resistance or could be more subtle, as in cases involving drugs and alcohol.

“It could happen on a date, it could happen in a family, or it could happen with strangers,” Wilkinson said.

She also pointed out that very few sexual assaults are actually reported.

“We still do inhabit a society where people are quick to think the victim is asking for it,” Wilkinson said. “We have this concept that men are subject to these urges … and women have the burden of managing them. … [It is important to understand that] these acts of violence are a reflection of the perpetrator, not the victim.”

The fact that sexual crimes are not the fault of the victims was emphasized throughout the program.

“I think it was really touching that [survivors] came forward because it removes some of the stigma of being a victim,” said Iris Packman ’06. “[I expected this] to bring to light the issues of sexual assault on campus. People aren’t aware that it’s a real issue. They often say, ‘Maybe at other schools, but not at Cornell.'”

Most of the survivors who shared their stories had been raped on the Cornell campus.

“One out of four college women will experience rape or attempted rape before they graduate,” Bracciale said.

“I’m concerned that so many women on campus are being victimized, and so few people on campus are paying attention to the issue,” said Glynis Ritchie ’06. “I think it’s essential that Cornell assume the responsibility of educating the students that are going to live in this community. The levels of rape and sexual abuse are so high, it’s outrageous.”

Ritchie suggested that a mandatory orientation program should be instated to deal with these issues. Nina Cummings, a victim advocate at Gannett, admitted that there is no mandatory program which draws attention to sexual abuse on campus. She did mention that the orientation program Sex Signals has been popular for the past two years.

Bracciale pointed out that the performers at Sex Signals described issues of sexual abuse and rape and then asked the audience “What could the woman have done [to avoid this]?” She also mentioned that the performers evoked audience sympathy for a hypothetical rapist who claimed that he did not know he was committing rape.

So Cornell is paying for these people to come and tell freshman boys that that’s okay,” Bracciale said.

“I think a lot of issues like rape are considered only a women’s issue and that’s one of the reasons it remains a problem,” said Michael Pearlstein-Gluck ’08. “Men think it’s not a danger to them. They think it’s not something they should be concerned with. Getting men to come to these events and think about how they’re affected is important.”

Counselors from the Advocacy Center spoke about some of the issues survivors must deal with and ways in which the center offers support and guidance, including a 24-hour hotline.

“We try to walk with the survivor no matter where she wants to go,” said Toni Sunderland, one of the counselors. This includes deciding if a survivor should prosecute.

According to Wilkinson, victims’ decision of whether or not to prosecute is always very difficult, mainly because “prosecution of sex crimes is not friendly to the victim.” The victim must retell what happened to her many times in graphic detail. During the trial, the victim must be in the same room as the defendant, and the public is allowed to attend. The victim is then expected to “relate in graphic detail the step-by-step details of her attack.” During the cross-questioning, attempts are made to damage her credibility and “make her out to be a slut or a whore.”

“How does anybody have the courage to come in and prosecute?” Wilkinson asked.

Because the process of prosecution is so stressful, survivors need a lot of support.

“[Tompkins County has] an excellent, better than average conviction rate, because we keep an eye on giving the survivor as much support as possible,” Wilkinson said. “We will do what we can with every single case we’re given.”

“I wish more people could hear this because it is so important; although, this was a great turnout for an event of this nature,” Bracciale said. “What I really want the audience to take away is that rape does not happen because of sexual attraction or passion. It is a violent crime like mugging or armed robbery or murder, and it should be treated as such.”

Archived article by Sara Gorecki
Sun Staff Writer