When first-year students move into their dorm rooms, they will be unaware it is a place on campus that has been called “rape-supportive,” that it is one of many places contributing to a college environment and culture that is called “rape-prone.”
Based off findings from a 2015 Association of American Universities survey distributed across 27 campuses, including UNC, researchers have found an interaction of constant factors specific to college campuses that make the environment conducive to sexual assault — even boiling down to dorm room beds.
In a study conducted at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in 2015 following the survey by the AAU, researchers conducted interviews with undergraduates and found that most students believed when someone had come into their room or sat on their bed, that was consent.
“It was silly of me to think of it, but at the time I thought that I let it happen just because I let him into my room,” said P, a UNC senior who wished to keep her identity anonymous for the purposes of this article. She said she was talking with her assaulter in her lofted bed before he forced himself on her and raped her during the fall of her first year.
The dorm room is just one small part of the factors that make a campus such as UNC so conducive to sexual assault.
“Campuses have been defined as a very specific kind of sexual assault (environment),” said Barbara Friedman, associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism.
Friedman, who studies student media coverage of campus sexual assault, cited a 2010 Indiana University study that found factors including cultural expectations, living arrangements, socialization processes and specific group settings all contribute to an environment that allows for persistent cases of sexual assault.
“There has been a stigma set that usually guys have to get with a girl at a party to be considered valid,” said Melissa Depierro, a first-year who was sexually assaulted by a student who lives in her dorm. “So many guys seem to take it too far.”
Because such settings and cultural expectations have become campus norms, these studies have discovered an additional finding that is just as concerning: most of these assaults are never reported.
When Columbia University researchers interviewed undergraduates about sexual assault, out of the 80 cases they heard, only five had been reported.
According to UNC student responses to the AAU survey, over 68 percent of students who reported being sexually assaulted in any manner said they never reported the assault because they thought it would be too difficult or embarrassing, or that it wasn’t serious enough.
P said she didn’t report her assault until almost a year after it happened. Initially, she was afraid to talk to her peers about it. Her assaulter was in her friend group, she knew he would deny it and it could ostracize her from the group.
“When I spoke up about it, I lost a lot of friends,” she said. “The most hurtful part was losing all my friends once I tried to come to terms with what happened.”
In addition to the social repercussions like what P experienced, there is also the need for immediate action and evidence from the victim, as well as the time and toll an official Title IX case can take.
“It’s an unfair expectation to have for victims to speak up immediately because there’s a lot of self-doubt that goes into it; there’s a lot of confusion and denial,” P said.
P said she chose not to file an official complaint because of how the process would affect her well-being and schoolwork. Instead she chose to use the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office’s option of a confidential report that would simply and quietly keep tabs on her assaulter.
There is also the risk of it becoming a case of he-said-she-said, which is what DePierro experienced when she reported her case to the EOC Office. She said the office initially cooperated with her and issued a no-contact order with her assaulter. But when more time passed and her assaulter began to verbally harass her, the office told her that the only option she had was a formal investigation.
“Filing an official complaint is such a strenuous process,” P said. “A lot of time goes into that and, as a student, that’s really hard because it’s stressful to do on top of classes. And part of it is I want to move on, I want to put this event behind me, I want to recover from the damage that I’ve been through. Pursuing a case kind of makes it a constant reminder that this happened and makes it something you have to face daily.”
The type of resource that the University is currently lacking is support for survivors following their assault and during a case if they choose to pursue one. But Friedman said the University offers many resources for survivors, and she is grateful that UNC will sometimes revisit policy.
“These are difficult and cruel conditions for someone who is trying to go about their lives in any circumstance, but in this case trying to complete their education,” Friedman said. “We know that all kinds of trauma effect the ability for someone to advance their education. And schools have to be responsible for helping sexual assault victims complete their academic programs.”
There is also the fear for survivors that after going through that process, nothing will come of it, and their assaulters will never see consequences for their actions.
Friedman said she hopes the recent public records court decision, which opens records of reported sexual assaulters, will help with that accountability — especially in keeping the University accountable in the actions it takes against these assaulters. She also emphasized the importance of student will in campus prevention efforts.
P said she hopes to see more of her peers taking that stance and holding each other responsible for instances of sexual assault.
“People know that rape is wrong and sexual assault is wrong, and it’s so easy for people to quit watching House of Cards because of what Kevin Spacey did,” P said. “But when it comes to real life, and you have to see this person, it’s harder for people to take that stance. But accountability is really important.”
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