Illustration by Sebastian Clark
Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
American university students who have survived sexual assault are challenging stigma and ‘victim-blaming’ by speaking out about their experiences. By working together they have put sexual assault squarely on the national political agenda. In January 2014, President Obama gave his support for their campaign, announcing a White House Task force to address the issue, he said: “Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity. And it’s about all of us—the safety of those we love most: our moms, our wives, our daughters and our sons.”
The accompanying White House report noted, “no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”
Two students, past and present, from the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino have been at the forefront of a growing movement to address sexual violence on campus. Working to raise the profile of rape survivors has gained them widespread support in the The Huffington Post, CNN, New York Times, Glamour Magazine and, more recently, the BBC.
When Clark and Pino began to speak out, they found many students around the country shared similar experiences. For most survivors, their universities hadn’t provided adequate emotional and physical protection. Since most of the students affected were female, they turned to Title IX of the American Civil Rights Act, which states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program.”
“The high rates of sexual assault on female students contribute to an unequal learning environment, which is a violation of federal law,” Clark explained. “In the US, statistics show that women are assaulted at universities at an astoundingly high rate; between one in four and one and five women will experience assault or attempted assault during their time in college. There is not much reason to believe that this is different at higher education institutes in Australia.”
“Women who have survived such assaults often have their education impacted in severe ways.” She said that in the US, “When the university does little or nothing to support these students, they are in violation of federal law.”
Clark and Pino are part of a growing movement called IX Network. Clark said, “We now have a network of over 800 survivors advocating for change. It’s been amazing to connect people with personal support and to learn from each other, but also, as a collective, we are able to put pressure on our schools and government for policy change.”
Clark’s own story has been shared countless times—not so much how she was assaulted, but what happened next. When Clark reported to her university that she had been sexually assaulted, a female staff member told her, “Rape is like football, and if you look back on the game, Annie, what would you do differently in that situation?”
At a press conference in New York in 2013, Clark explained how this made her feel. “I was being blamed for a violent crime committed against me,” she said.
Victim-blaming is just as common in Australia. After a 21-year-old woman was sexually assaulted on Grattan Street in 2012, a (female) Senior Constable remarked to the media, “It’s just a matter of being aware of your environment and not leaving yourself in a vulnerable position.”
Comments like these extend the onus of the victim beyond reason. This Senior Constable holds the victim responsible for the perpetrator, as if the woman had provoked her attacker. Women’s safety becomes not a right, but a privilege that must be earned through good behaviour.
There has been little research into the specific prevalence of sexual assault and violence amongst university students in Australia. What we do know is young women are at a high risk of violence. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey 2006, 12 per cent of women aged 18-24 said they had experienced at least one incident of violence. Yet 6.5 per cent of women aged 35-44 years said the same. A recent Lancet study showed very high rates of sexual violence by non-partners in Australia, relative to other countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. That same study suggested that abuse is common among dating partners.
Professor Murray Straus, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, completed a comparative study of violence amongst university students across 16 countries in 2004. Straus explained that it is not widely known that “dating couples are even more likely to be violent than married couples, despite the fact that the higher rate has been demonstrated by more than 50 studies.”
To university students in Australia who are interested in following in IX Network’s footsteps, Annie suggests that students start doing research on sexual assault. “Look into your statistics about crime on university campuses and if rape and assault aren’t reported, do that research,” she said. “It doesn’t all have to be academic in the traditional sense either; bring survivors together, have them talk to each other and find the common threads.”
UMSU Wom*n’s Officer Stephanie Kilpatrick agrees that the undue focus on the person reporting the crime, rather than the perpetrator is part of the reason only a small percentage of rapes and assaults are reported. She says that on an every day basis students can help by calling out aspects of our culture which help to normalise rape and violence, such as rape jokes (‘fraped’) and songs like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, which some argue questions boundaries of consent.
Another way University of Melbourne students can get involved is through Rad Sex and Consent week, which will be held at the Parkville campus in April. For more information contact the Wom*n’s Collective.
By speaking out, American survivors of abuse and assault are challenging the stereotypes, helping violence to prevail. Domestic abuse survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED Talk ‘Why domestic violence victims don’t leave’ has been watched over 1.7 million times since January 2013. In the talk, Steiner explains, “I don’t look like a typical domestic violence survivor. I have a B.A. in English from Harvard College, an MBA from Wharton Business School.”
Steiner didn’t see herself as the stereotypical ‘battered wife’. Even she thought that she would never have to endure domestic violence, “I would have told you myself that I was the last person on earth who would stay with a man who beats me, but in fact I was a very typical victim because of my age. I knew nothing about domestic violence, its warning signs or its patterns”.
For survivors of trauma, speaking out and hearing stories of abuse and assault can be a trigger for post-traumatic stress. Clark is now being recognised in America—every day somebody approaches her to share his or her story. Clark has described this as “vicarious trauma”. She says, “It’s very traumatic to hear these stories, but I think most of us have the motivation of wanting to make schools safer for the next generation of students. Sexual violence has always been an issue, particularly at university campuses. It’s not a matter of it happening more now … it’s the fact that more people are speaking out and we are connecting with each other.”
As President Obama reiterated in his speech in January, “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”
If you or friend need help or assistance:
In emergency situations or immediate danger call Police on 000.
For Melbourne University staff and students, support is available through a range of services, including Melbourne University Counseling, phone: (03) 8344 6927.
For 24/7 confidential help and referral in Australia call the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counseling Line on 1800 737 732 (1800 RESPECT) online counseling is also available at www.1800respect.org.au.