October 11, 2023

GUEST ROOM | It’s On You: Create a Culture of Accountability Regarding Sexual Violence

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When it comes to sexual assault, plausible deniability is essential to keeping the peace at academic institutions. Inconvenient truths get shoved to the side in deference to maintaining academic achievement, social networks and professional reputation. Victims resort to silence in an unsupportive institutional framework. 

And this isn’t the fault of the University, per se. Administration does what they’ve been trained to do and what they’ve always done. They’ll release a statement, put resource-laden stickers on bathroom stall doors and do what they can to comply with Title IX and other state and federal laws. 

During my time at Cornell, I immersed myself in that same bureaucracy as a Residential Advisor, on the Academic Integrity Hearing Board, and through the Wilderness First Responder course and empathy training with EARS — all with the hope of mastering the protocols that address physical and emotional trauma through the lens (and occasional support) of the University. So, as someone who has actively spent the last four years interfacing with the way Cornell earnestly attempts to support students, I can tell you: We cannot and should not leave the onus of helping victims of sexual assault to the rusty gears of University administration.

The most critical points in victims’ pursuit of justice are actually the junctions amid these resources, the quiet moments that happen behind closed doors. Empowering a victim to go to that CAPS appointment, or delay that shower for just a few more minutes in deference to a rape kit, or file that incident report, or consult a Complainants’ Codes Counselor, or help compile that evidence packet. These defining moments make or break victims’ decisions to pursue justice — and the people present for those moments (usually) aren’t administrators or campus leaders. They’re your friends. 

Every Cornellian has the ability and duty to actively mitigate the trauma associated with sexual assault.  If a victim comes forward to you, understand that this disclosure is an act of trust. Further, it probably indicates that you are situationally or systemically empowered with respect to them. Should you decide to take on an active bystander role, it feels apt to apply the principles of triage in efforts to support victims.

First, size up the situation and delegate when possible. If applicable, address physical trauma first and emotional trauma second. Honor victims’ trust with active listening, open questions and the option to stop the conversation at any time. Don’t dismiss their experiences as “drama.” If you don’t have the bandwidth yourself, you could refer them to Cornell Health or CAPS. Second, don’t confound urgency with noise. Not all things that set off alarm bells in our heads constitute violations of Cornell University Policy 6.4, and vice versa. Familiarize yourself with Policy 6.4 so that you can recognize its violations, and reach out to the CCC for free procedural advice. Finally, remember that this is not about you: this is about the victim feeling safe and learning their options to find closure.

During my time at Cornell, I interfaced with many aspects of the harrowing and often retraumatizing Title IX process, and have been surprised to see responses in the student body ranging from passive to vehemently opposed. Hypocrisy ran high as student organizations and individuals that market themselves as socially progressive turned their backs on victims who broke their silence. And look: everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and the academic experience centers on straddling the dichotomy of competing truths. However, I’d like to make an audacious assertion: these reactions have little to do with the “awakening of a human being” that former Cornell President Hunter Rawlings, III envisioned as the result of “genuine education.” Instead, these reactions are acts of willful blindness. This inability to reconcile inconvenient truths on the Cornell community scale is simply a microcosm of the overarching climate regarding sexual assault. 

We seem to have not only moved past what It’s On Us, I Have the Right To and Me Too have accomplished, but have also deluded ourselves into the self-congratulatory belief that our enlightened academic communities support victims. My heart broke when I learned of the Crime Alert in which a young woman was raped in Cascadilla Hall on Sept. 14. No more than three days later, the New York Times reported on another victim of campus rape who was sued by her perpetrator for defamation of character following her Title IX hearing. All of this followed a contentious summer in which the Depp v. Heard trial fueled pent-up vitriol against the Me Too movement, exposing societal intolerance for victims’ pain.

The debasement of victims extends beyond our political and social media environments: our justice system does not account for the physiological realities of their trauma. The brain protects itself from retraumatization through involuntary forgetfulness, just as the sympathetic nervous system addresses threats through an elevated heart rate and spiked stress hormone. This strips victims of a coherent, detailed narrative that would serve as crucial testimonial evidence. When one’s own autonomic response is not conducive to an investigative process, it makes sense that victims of sexual assault are generally not a litigious group, and most assaults go unreported

In a world where complicity and injustice is the status quo, no one is immune to causing or perpetuating harm. No identity as a woman, an “ally” or a “non-frat frat boy” resolves someone of their responsibility to empower victims of sexual assault. Don’t wait until it happens to you or someone you know. Take inconvenient truths in stride, support victims through those critical points and learn your rights so that you can recognize when you or someone you care about has been wronged. Take care of yourselves and each other. Work to build and foster communities, both at Cornell and beyond, that are conducive to victims speaking up — both in their own way and in their own time. And when they do, believe them. 

Anabella Maria Galang ’23 is a graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. At Cornell she acted as a Resident Advisor for first year students, mentoring victims of sexual assault and violence. She is currently a research associate with the Columbia University Stem Cell Initiative. She can be reached at [email protected].

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