October 23, 2012

The Exception Is Not the Rule

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Sexual assault at Cornell did not often cross my mind before O-Week, when my close friend turned to me in the car and said, almost under her breath, that she had been assaulted this past spring. My reaction was shock that turned to anger as she told me her story, which she recounted again for me this week.

“I went to my brother’s fraternity. I blacked out. The next thing I remember is being led out the emergency exit without a coat, a cellphone, an ID or shoes into a March night with below freezing temperatures. The next thing I remember is stumbling through campus.

“And then we were having sex.

“It was my first time, and it was obviously very traumatic. I was aware of what was happening but was too drunk to process what was going on or to physically stop it from happening. While it was happening, all I knew was that this was not something I wanted to do.

“My roommate called in to ask if I was OK. I screamed that I was not. She stormed in and kicked him out. The next thing I remember is lying on the floor of my dorm bathroom, bruised, bleeding and crying.

“And then I woke up in the hospital. My BAC was .22 at 5:30 a.m. I was raped at 2 a.m. Who knows how drunk I was at the time?”

Her story has continued and so has her attacker’s, two lives full of details and events that could fill biographies that I’m not here to write. She has worked with the J.A. and University administration, describing them as “incredibly supportive and resourceful.” Despite their support, she has continued to see him on campus as she recovers emotionally and works with the University to decide what to do next. She sees her attacker at bars, in class, walking down Ho Plaza, living with her brother and in the library. He has had a successful career at Cornell; he gets decent grades and was admitted to his fraternity, a community that stayed silent despite knowing what had taken place this spring.

If I wanted to bash a single fraternity or a single guy, this would be a very different column. I don’t want to do that. But this story, however specific to my friend’s personal life, is not generally exceptional, unusual or atypical. While researching this piece, I spoke to five young women who have had experiences with sexual violence and assault during their time as Cornellians, all scarring and painful. My friend’s story speaks loudly to themes that pervade all of their stories.

Consistent with my friend’s experience, the University administration has extensive, impressive and sensitive resources readily available to victims of sexual assault and harassment. But to receive those services, victims have to reach out. According to Clery Act crime statistics published by the Cornell Police, there were only two reported sex offenses on campus in 2011. As a percentage of Cornell’s female population, this is a far cry from the National Institute of Justice’s research: “13.7 percent of undergraduate women had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college: 4.7 percent were victims of physically forced sexual assault; 7.8 percent of women were sexually assaulted when they were incapacitated after voluntarily consuming drugs, alcohol or both.” Fewer than 5 percent of such assaults are reported to the authorities. If Cornell is anything like that national average, my friend’s story speaks for even more people than I could recount here, many of whom cope with their experiences with less support than my friend.

Accepting help from the University meant confronting her experience head on: “The hardest thing was to admit that something happened to me. That it wasn’t my fault. That I wasn’t imagining it.” Addressing and talking about her experience took courage and strength, qualities that must be burdensome to draw on when you have been physically and emotionally assaulted. In addition to internal struggles with herself, there was the added stress of knowing her attacker and seeing him frequently following that spring night. My friend was not alone in knowing her attacker well. Eighty-five to ninety percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are committed by someone the victim knows.

As a community, we rely on exceptionalism to rationalize the existence of sexual assault at Cornell. Highly publicized instances like the ones that took place last month shock and appall us, as they should, and make us rally in solidarity of the victims. But the fact that we know about those instances and not others allows us to push away the idea that this happens pervasively and silently.

Cornell does not take complete control of the process as soon as allegations are made, which is good. We cannot take the choice of how to handle sexual assault away from the victim. The self-choice and agency that victims have in participating in the fate of their attacker is essential to helping them come forward. My friend, if not aware that she would hold the reins in how far the situation would go, would likely never have come forward to the JA or the Cornell Police. It is her agency in the outcome of her terrible experience that heals her — she is not pressured or ignored as the University seeks to wipe the attacker away and his crime with him. The administration should be commended on the resources and processes that it offers.

Some challenges, however, cannot be alleviated by the administration’s assistance or institutional means. My friend experienced a lot of doubts — many acquaintances, friends and even her brother felt and voiced that she, in her words, “wanted it” because she had, on other occasions, expressed romantic interest in her attacker. It took a while for her to accept that what happened to her was not OK, consensual or acceptable — that she had been raped.  Unlike my friend, half of all college women who are sexually assaulted do not identify as having been “raped.” I have spoken to a lot of friends who say that they didn’t want to have sex, or that sexual encounters were “weird” or “bad,” but who stop short of admitting that they just didn’t want it to happen. As I wrote above, the burden of declaring that you have been wronged is a heavy one, and people cannot be blamed for taking time to get to this conclusion. Instead of forcing a choice or an outcome, what can we as Cornellians do to support victims in arriving at a better place?

Clearing up a major misconception would be a good start. While I’m sure that many Cornellians are intellectually aware of the definition of sexual assault, it is harder to emotionally accept and absorb that women are often assaulted in cases that are less clear-cut than we imagine. No matter if you have hooked up with someone before or are friends with them, if on that instance you don’t consent, then it’s sexual assault. We need to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual assault and the wide scope of cases where consent is blurred or absent, regardless of any relationship between attacker and victim. We need to internalize it, not just “know.” It needs to be practice to consider and reflect on the nature of our sexual experiences so that considering the terrible — that someone had sex with you without consent — is within the realm of possibility for all on campus. While we as individuals do not lack sensitivity, we as a group need to create an environment where the burden upon the victim in coming forward is relieved to the greatest extent possible.

A good start would be to have a Sexual Assault Awareness Program for freshmen before they arrive here. We have Alcohol-Wise to educate and remind students of the importance of safe consumption — why not enforce the same kind of principles in regards to how we treat each other behind closed doors? Destigmatizing and deshaming the process of coming to the University would have helped my friend, who did not deserve to be told that she “asked for it.” We need to be reminded t

hat sexual assault is sexual assault, no matter who is wearing the attacker’s cap. We cannot rely on the many great student groups to create this environment. We cannot rely on resources to fix terrible things after they have already happened. We must employ widespread change — structural change that touches every student before they step through Balch Arch and march up to their first dorms. Then, after a few months or years, hopefully our culture will change too.

If we don’t take measures to try to create this type of community, I can only assume that we will continue to accept aggressive and unwanted sexual advances and assaults as normal — or indeed pretend that they don’t exist at all. We cannot control the exceptions that today dominate our awareness of sexual assaults on campus; there will always be criminals and terrible acts. But we can take steps to change the assaults that happen behind a veil of normalcy and stand up to sexual assault in general. Let the terrible events of last month be a catalyst, and let’s make change for my friend and for our community.

Maggie Henry is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry