This article is cross-posted from the May 2015 issue of the APA newsletter “In the Public Interest”.
By Victoria Kontor (Class of 2015, George Washington University)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the act of sexual assault as encompassing a broad spectrum of behaviors, such as physical force, verbal abuse, drug-facilitated assault, and any other unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact or noncontact sexual experiences.
According to a survey (PDF, 793KB) by EverFi administered to 530,000 students at over 400 college campuses last year, almost 10 percent of female students reported having been sexually assaulted by their senior year. Consequences of sexual assault can be emotional, physical and psychological. They include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, social isolation, self-harm, eating disorders, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and substance use just to name a few.
A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 80 percent of sexual assaults on female students were left unreported. These statistics are likely not news to many readers, but four years ago as I prepared to pack up and go to college, I had no inkling of the problem occurring right before my eyes.
An Unexpected Education
I’d like to tell you that I was knowledgeable and prepared for this upon arrival at college, a fresh-faced 18-year-old ready for anything the world could throw at her. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I entered the collegiate world blissfully unaware of these facts. I was ignorant of the thousands of students that sexual assault affects every year and the power it holds to change lives forever.
Although I moved around many times in high school, I was never personally faced with the issue of sexual assault for which I count myself extremely lucky. The problem is, I was not offered any remotely formal education on the matter either. My knowledge extended no further than the “never put your drink down at a party” rule that every parent mentions to their teen at one point or another and what I could glean from the Internet or television.
I can confidently say that I was not ready to start seeing the consequences of sexual assault in my own life — friends and friends of friends would whisper about nonconsensual sex at parties the weekend before. Most of the time nobody did anything about it. Sometimes they didn’t consider the event to be “important enough” to report or they didn’t want to deal with the stress and possible social repercussions of reporting. It was frightening and not many people knew how to handle it appropriately.
I am sure that many incoming college freshmen each year share my sentiments. In my experience, a lack of sexual assault information and prevention education in teens and young adults does nothing but increase the risk for sexual assault. This is something that we can easily remedy and use to create positive change for future generations.
As an undergraduate, I focused primarily on psychology, women’s issues and mental health, which, along with the sharp increase in the number of individuals speaking out on the topic, forced sexual violence into the foreground for me as a critical issue needing immediate attention. It was impossible to remain ignorant as high-profile sexual assault cases on other college campuses across the nation plagued the news headlines. I got to view the evolution of the issue in real time and how it has been dealt with by students and college administrations alike.
I have watched as a lack of justice prevailed and victim-blaming ran rampant. Victims have been forced into silence and even made to transfer schools based primarily on the abuse they felt coming from their own peers. Today the rules of the game are changing — people are finally taking a stand against sexual violence and assault. Looking back at my four years at the George Washington University (GWU), I have watched both the White House and our campus change from reactive to proactive entities in the fight to prevent sexual assault.
George Washington University Takes a Stand
In the past year, George Washington University (GW) has made great strides in the fight against sexual assault.
Nick Gumas (2014-2015 student body president) created a series of videos in support of the “It’s On Us” campaign launched by President Obama. The campaign arose in an attempt to shift our nation away from the rape culture that seems to be embedded within our society toward a better future, demanding bystander intervention in situations that could potentially lead to sexual assault. Women and men alike deserve to feel safe among their peers, especially on their own college campus. From varsity athletes, to Greek life members, to multicultural and multireligious community members of GW, students from 68 student-run organizations and every sphere of campus participated. Visit the GW It’s On Us YouTube channel.
An overwhelming 92 percent of the student body voted during the Student Association elections for the implementation of a stand-alone program addressing sexual assault information and prevention during GW’s orientation week for incoming freshmen.
GW Students Against Sexual Assault are lobbying Sen. Tim Kaine to urge congress to pass the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 (S.355), which would allow for the implementation of safe relationship behavior education for staff and students in secondary education.
GW recently hired a new Title IX assistant director of sexual assault prevention and response, Carrie Ross, to serve as the direct point of contact between the Title IX office and staff, students and the community.
Both the presidents of the GW Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council (GW Greek Life associations) created a Greek Life task force focusing on sexual assault education and prevention.
The list goes on, filled with advocacy for change, support of victims and a transformation of the way our campus views sexual assault.
You Can Help
Sexual assault has the power to leave invisible scars running bone-deep and lives irrevocably changed in women and men alike. It is a violation that together, we can prevent — especially on college campuses.
Advocate for change by joining or supporting your local chapter of an anti-sexual assault advocacy groups, such as Students Against Sexual Assault, or lobby for a sexual assault education course to be offered at your institution.
Act proactively, by intervening in potential cases of sexual assault when you see it.
Ally with victims by respecting their wants and needs, and supporting them as they navigate through the aftermath and the healing process following sexual assault.
Read a response to Victoria’s article by the APA Public Interest Government Relations Office here.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Sexual Violence: Definitions. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/sexualviolence/definitions.html.
EverFi (2015). Sexual Victimization and Social Norms on the College Campus. Retrieved from: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/.
Palmer, E. (2015, February 23). Greek life student leaders to prioritize sexual assault on task force. GW Hatchet. Retrieved from: http://www.gwhatchet.com/2015/02/23/greek-life-student-leaders-to-prioritize-sexual-assault-on-task-force/.
RAINN Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (2015). Effects of Sexual Assault. Retrieved from: https://www.rainn.org/get-information/effects-of-sexual-assault.
Sinozich, S., & Langton, L. (2014). Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females 1995-2013. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf (PDF, 423KB).
Smith, E. (2015, February 26). Student lobbyists to advocate on Capitol Hill for sexual violence education. GW Hatchet. Retrieved from: http://www.gwhatchet.com/2015/02/26/student-lobbyists-to-advocate-for-sexual-violence-education-on-capitol-hill/.
Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015, S. 355, 114th Cong. (2015).
(2015, March 23). University Hires Assistant Director for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. GW Today. Retrieved from: http://gwtoday.gwu.edu/university-hires-assistant-director-sexual-assault-prevention-and-response.
Victoria Kontor graduated from the George Washington University in May 2015 with a degree in psychology. She is passionate about mental health advocacy, women’s issues and public policy, and hopes to pursue a career in those fields. In her spare time, she enjoys running, crosswords and exploring the D.C. foodie scene. She interned with the APA Public Interest Government Relations Office during the spring 2015 semester.