The High Cost of Silence

Of all the disheartening statistics surrounding sexual violence, none is more poignant to me than data on reporting. Sexual violence is far and away the most unreported crime, especially when occurring on college campuses. The most cited statistic on reporting campus sexual assault comes from Bonnie Fisher's 2000 study, The Sexual Victimization of College Women, which puts the rate of reporting for attempted or completed rapes at 5%. Let that sink in for a moment...95% of victims will say nothing to an authority about their assault. What is even more startling is that for other "less severe" forms of sexual violation, the reporting statistics completely disappear (see pg. 24 of the study). 

Where exactly does this silence stem from? Having experienced first-hand the struggle of deciding whether to report a rape, I know that one of the influencing factors is the fear of being blamed (more commonly called 'victim blaming' in the advocacy community). This blaming can stem, oddly enough, from prevention efforts. 
Sketches produced from recent sexual assault in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Traditional prevention efforts focus largely on women minimizing their risk for stranger sexual assault by modifying when and where they go out. The recent stranger sexual assaults in Ann Arbor, Michigan almost all point out that the women attacked were walking alone at or after 10pm. Such behavior is a big no-no for preventing rape. While there is most certainly wisdom behind minimizing one's risk of assault, the realities of a college community is that young men and women will be walking around at all times of the day and night, sometimes alone. To merely focus on women reducing their risk can often create a backlash of silence. Self-blame or the fear of others blaming you for one of the worst experiences in your life is becomes a strong silencer.
There is a cost to this silence that we unintentionally create when we focus solely on risk reduction. The epidemic of campus sexual assault goes largely unreported, and therefore unchecked. Rapists often have multiple victims before being detected (see Dr. Lisak's fact sheet). Additionally responses that should be in place continue to remain inadequate and may lead to many personal tragedies, such as the suicide of Lizzy Seeberg. Victims often feel revictimized when they do the rare thing and actually report their crime. Under continual scrutiny that reinforces both self blame and perception of victim blaming victims, many recoil into silence. Lizzy reported being raped by a Notre Dame football player and a week later killed herself. I admire the parents of Lizzy who have spoken out demanding more from universities to support victims that do shatter the silence and report their rape.

How can we end this silence? I encourage everyone to reconsider how they discuss prevention. Prevention is not a burden that demands women be accompanied at all times or never venture out late in the day. Rather, prevention is a community obligation with many agencies and individuals doing their part to create a safe environment for all. College institutions can provide safe rides or walks that allow students needing to go home some means of transportation or individuals to walk with. Other individuals in the community can report suspicious activity or even unsafe areas. Cities can allocate more police to be a presence in areas where victimization is likely and individuals can definitely keep alert to their surroundings and make every efforts to get home in a safe and conscientious manner. Irregardless of all theses possible steps, we must not associate sexual assaults with a failure to be perfect in preventing crime, but rather as a condemnation of those who do harm and a call to the community to increase safety. When we share the burden of prevention, we start to lessen a force creating the silence that costs us safety and potential our own life.


Impact of Investigative Journalism

A revival is coming. I firmly believe that campus sexual violence will no longer be an issue easily swept under the rug due to tireless efforts by some amazing investigative journalists.

Almost four years ago the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) contacted me asking if they could use my case to highlight the mishandling of campus sexual assault. It took another year before a final interview, but I was blown away by the results of their investigation. CPI's investigative series called "A Frustrating Search for Justice" reviewed more than 33 cases over a 12 month period and revealed facts that shocked the nation. The impact of this investigation (assisted by NPR's coverage) landed them the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Award for Justice & Human Rights reporting. Ethel Kennedy revealed to award recipients that the issue was near and dear to her heart since a close friend in college was sexually assault. In addition to this award the series has received the following:

1. The 70th Annual Peabody Award - for their collaboration with NPR
2. The Dart Award for Exceptional Reporting on Trauma
3. The Philip Meyer Award for Exceptional Journalism using Social Science Research Tools (2nd place)
4. The Multimedia Award from the Association of Health Care Journalists (3rd place)
5. The Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service, from the Society of Professional Journalists

In addition to this nationwide investigation Wisconsin Watch undertook one specifically focused on my beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. There series called, "Suffering in Silence Series", took the time to do the math on campus sexual assault and highlighted the case of a good friend of mine who suffered along side me during college, but has obviously refused silence.

(Picture of courageous survivor Abby Panozzo - WCIJ/Andy Hall)

The most important result of all this was that the U.S. Department of Education paid attention and released a new Title IX Guidance that will be the standard used for complaints against universities. In addition to this landmark the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act promises to update the Jeanne Clery Act so that sexual and intimate partner violence proceedings are fair and equitable for both parties. 

A revival is coming. Indeed, it is already underway thanks to the efforts of the following journalists: Kristen Lombardi, David Donald, Kristin Jones, and Gordon Witkin (Center for Public Integrity); Joseph Shapiro, Robert Benincasa, and Susan Reber (NPR), Kate Golden, Alex Morrell and Sara Jerving (Wisconsin Watch)


SaVE our Campuses

The Campus SaVE Act (S.83) is a piece of legislation near and dear to my heart. This week it was reintroduced by Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) in partnership with Security on Campus, Inc. (SOC). I was honored to be one of many individuals and organization able to provide input on the legislation, which will change the way many universities handle cases of sexual violence.

SOC is a great non-profit born out of the horrific rape, torture and murder of Jeanne Clery in April 1986. This tragedy occurred in Jeanne's dorm early in the morning at the hands of a fellow student who entered her room and ended her life. Her parent's heart break turned into an organization that has since enacted the Jeanne Clery Act, the Campus Sexual Assault Victim's Bill of Rights, and several other pieces of legislation that are the foundation of how universities address crimes on their campuses.

(Jeanne Clery 1966-1986)

I owe a great debt of gratitude to SOC, which reached out to me when I first publicly exposed the University of Wisconsin's (UW) handling of my rape. They informed me of one last avenue of justice available to me: filing a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education against the UW. If I had never taken this crucial step in seeking justice my story could not have been used to highlight the severe indifference in which institutions deal with the sexual violation of college women. It may seem odd to be thankful for such a fact, but it is now the most powerful part of my story. Truly no level of the justice system was there for me, nor has it been there for many women before me or since.

I firmly believe the Campus SaVE Act represents a turning point in our nation's history of handling campus sexual violence. With the passage of this Act I can look forward to the day where campus victimization is handled properly and justice provided to those who have suffered. The harm of a sexual assault can be mitigated by a supportive and protective campus environment, and I hope this Act cultivates such a desire in universities throughout our nation. 

Donate to Security on Campus, Inc. to suppor their great and life changing work.


Justice Can Be Served

Seven years to the day, I was sitting at the University of New Hampshire listening to Vice President Joe Biden condemn men who commit sexually violent crimes against the women in their lives and communities. This speech had followed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's reprimand of universities that, at best, failed to provide consequences for sexual harassment and violence on campus and, at worst, further traumatized victims who spoke out.

(Pictured: Laura Dunn of SurvJustice and Vice President Joe Biden)

A ground-breaking research article called, "The Sexual Victimization of College Women"(Fischer et al, 2000) first awakened our nation to the reality that sexual violence affects 1 out of 5 women while on campus and that less than 5% of these victims ever report the crimes done against them. Despite these staggering statistics universities have yet to seriously address this criminal epidemic affecting so many of their students. Instead some universities have added to the horror of campus sexual violence, such as Eastern Michigan University, who lied about the death of a student to her parents when she had been raped and murdered in her dorm room.

My allusion to a personal anniversary at the start of this post refers to my own campus sexual assault, which was committed by two fellow members of my crew team at the University of Wisconsin. Sitting in the VIP section for the Vice President's speech, along with our nation's top attorneys and nonprofit leaders on sexual violence, reaffirmed my calling to advocate for fellow survivors of sexual assault. As I listened to the denunciation of institutions and individuals perpetrating violence against women like me, I received my justice. Now it is my turn to help others achieve it....

(Pictured: Laura Dunn of SurvJustice, Asst. Secretary of Civil Rights Russlyn Ali, S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus, Inc., and Harvard Lecturer of Law Diane Rosenfeld)