The #MeToo movement has captured national attention by making front page what has long been a dark secret. This movement has been a catalyst for many eye-opening and heartbreaking conversations. It has been sobering to read and hear the confessions of long-kept secrets from so many women in the public eye and our personal lives. The movement has also put many on the road to healing after years of secrecy. The empowerment found through sharing has helped women transform feelings of shame and guilt and onto acceptance, allowing them to move forward.
We still have a lot of work to do spreading awareness. One topic our culture is beginning to investigate is sexual assault on campus. In New Orleans alone we have seen some shocking statistics. A January article in the New Orleans Advocate highlighted the results of a recent survey revealing that 4 in 10 Tulane undergraduate women surveyed had been victims of sexual assault.
The truth is that sexual assault is a seriously under-reported issue. It is estimated that 70% of sexual assaults never get reported to authorities at all. There are many reasons for this. Sexual assault is difficult to talk about. We have had a long history of victim-shaming. Accusations made about victims scrutinize everything from their level or sobriety to the clothes they were wearing when assaulted, making more painful an already awful situation. Finally, it's estimated by RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, that of every 1000 rapes 994 perpetrators will face no jail time at all. None of these facts give women a great deal of confidence that reporting the crime will make their lives any better. Add to that the fact that many women don't want to relive the crime; they would prefer to move on with their lives.
Unfortunately, most don't have the coping skills to heal from a sexual assault. There are many long-term effects that victims experiences, and without support, these can persist for years or even decades. These aftereffects can be emotionally devastating and can prevent victims from having health relationships and peaceful lives. Below is a list of some of the common emotional effects of sexual assault. If you suffer from any of the following, please seek support.
- Depression/Suicidal thoughts
- Flashbacks/Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Pregnancy/Sexually transmitted infections
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Substance abuse
What "counts" as sexual assault?
The term sexual assault is used to describe a wide range of forced or unwanted sexual contact/activity. These acts of sexual violence can range from attempted rape and rape to any other unwanted penetration of a person's body. The term also covers a wide range of other activities. These include unwanted sexual fondling, groping, touching. Examples of sexual assault include the drunk guy at the party who grabs your breast, being forced into non-consensual oral sex, any sexual cohesion be it through violence, threats of violence, or emotional manipulation. If you think you have been sexually assaulted there are support groups on campuses around the country.
Keeping yourself safe
Staying safe means both from unknown sexual predators and people you may know or be in a relationship with. Remember, you get to decide what you want to do with your body, even if you are in a committed relationship with someone, sexual behavior should still be consensual. Many university campuses have taken steps to increase awareness and reduce sexual misconduct. A big focus in on making sure that all students understand consent. Consent is defined as permission for something to happen, and with sexual activity, it should be an agreement between the parties to engage in sexual activity. Consent does not have to be verbal, but it must be communicated in some manner. If there is any confusion about whether or not an act is consensual, it is best to stop. Consent must also be consistent throughout the sexual encounter. If one partner changes their mind, consent is no longer active, and it is a good idea to stop.
There are several ways you can use basic safety tips to keep yourself out of danger:
Always be aware of your surroundings. Stay alert and pay attention to where you are at all times. This also means paying attention to the people around you. If someone makes you uncomfortable or gives you a bad feeling, don't hesitate to leave, run, or scream for help. Many women are victimized because they didn't want to seem irrational when afraid or make other people uncomfortable and so they stayed in a dangerous situation.
Monitor your alcohol intake. Know your limits and stop if you are feeling impaired. You should also make sure to keep an eye on your drink at all times. As awful as it is, perpetrators of sexual violence are not above drugging drinks to incapacitate their victims. Don't take drinks from strangers and avoid communal punch bowls.
Let instinct lead. If you have a bad feeling about something back out. Don't worry about whether you look silly. If you feel afraid, pay attention and act immediately. In his excellent book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker gives many examples of the way that paying attention to gut reactions have saved people from danger.
Stay with your crowd. Look out for each other, and when going home, grab a buddy to assure you both get where you are going safely. Stick together and look out of one another.
If you have experienced sexual assault get support
Many college campuses have resources for victims of sexual assault. Here are a few resources available for local students.
- Loyola University, for example, provides support and counseling.
- Tulane provides a Comprehensive Resource Guide to Services for Victims of Sexual Assault
- Southern University at New Orleans has a Sexual Assault Response Team
- Xavier University's Department of Counseling and Wellness Services provides Sexual Assault Resources for students
- National Sexual Assault Online Hotline
- The American Association of University Women has created an Ending Campus Sexual Assault Tool Kit
- Callisto develops technology to combat sexual assault and harassment.
Taking care of yourself immediately after you have been sexually assaulted
- Get to a safe place
- Contact the authorities
- Emergency contraception
- Visit a doctor
Taking care of yourself long-term
- Join a support group
- See a therapist
The current landscape is one in which many students are feeling uneasy. Young women feel unsafe, and young men feel confused. It is my hope and expectation is that the upheaval puts us on a new path. Respect for the dignity of others is the core issue here. As we move forward, I hope that spotlighting this issues becomes the catalyst for many uncomfortable and necessary conversations about respect and consent and we can move into the future with more care and respect for each.
If you are coping with the aftermath of sexual assault, I am available to help develop strategies that will put you on the path to healing. I work primarily with college students and young adults. Talking about what happened and developing an action plan for dealing with he psychological pain, shame, or grief can help you to deal with the ongoing effects of trauma.
Dr. Eileen Wynne