I worked with my first sexual assault victim at UT 15 years ago this month. She was a freshman who was pretty, bright, and vivacious. She was from the Midwest and had chosen UT in part because of the proximity to the ocean, which she had never seen. In late September, she and some friends went out to a club that was frequented by UT students. They had a few drinks and were dancing together. This student saw an attractive guy who she recognized as an upper-class UT student. He talked with her and she was flattered by his attention. He suggested they have a few drinks back on-campus in her room together. She knew she had already had a few but didn’t want to seem like a freshman and was so attracted to this guy that she agreed.
They stopped by the ABC Liquor on Kennedy Blvd where the upper-class guy bought a bottle of rum and they went back to her room. They had a drink and she went into the bathroom for a moment. When she came out, he was locking the door. “For privacy,” he said. They began making out and then things got heavy. She felt hot and uncomfortable and told him to stop. He laughed and said she should be glad to be with him. She asked him to stop again and he ignored her and had sex with her. After finishing, he unlocked the door, took the bottle of rum, and left. When asked later why she did not scream or fight, she said, “I was just so shocked – I did not know what to do. He seemed like such a great guy.” Although this was 15 years ago, I’ll bet that this same situation has occurred already this semester at hundreds of colleges around the country.
Research shows that college freshman are at the greatest risk for sexual assault in their first year during the time between arriving at the institution and Thanksgiving Break. That is now. New students are unfamiliar with their surroundings, with the social norms, and with the people. Most UT students work hard to make these new students feel comfortable. I just finished a whole week of watching Move-In Team members, O-Team leaders, and Diplomats volunteer hours and hours of time to make new students feel welcome. Clubs and organizations put their best feet forward during Get the Scoop to recruit these new students into their ranks and Greek recruitment is well underway. But there are a few students (national statistics show we have them) who may see these students in a different way – as a potential victim. The Dept of Justice tells us that 82% of rape victims know their attackers. And this is no longer a women’s issue as male sexual assault is on the rise.
Sexual assault, as we all know, is really about power – not about sex. These types of abusers will not take no for an answer and are creative about finding ways to take advantage of students. Unfortunately for our campus community, they don’t wear signs on their necks or badges on their clothes identifying themselves. So students need to identify ways to try and protect themselves.
One simple way to stay safer is to not get intoxicated. I know that is difficult to say to a campus of college students but I have never advocated a sexual assault case on campus that did not involve alcohol. Being intoxicated takes away the awareness of surroundings that helps identify dangerous or strange situations. It also can leave us physically impaired so we cannot respond appropriately.
Another simple way is to look out for each other. I am continually frustrated by students allowing their friends to leave places with people they have just met. Or students who leave friends alone in bars or at festivals. As most of you have left your families at home, your friends and schoolmates need to become your family now. You need to let people know where you are going and when you will be back. When going out in groups, never leave a man (or woman) behind.
A more complex way to stay safe is to understand the word consent. Sex and rape are the same physical act but the difference is consent. Consent is to give permission which is an active word. Consent can not be assumed by the lack of protest or struggle. Not only does no mean no but nothing can also mean no. Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated by alcohol and if in doubt, don’t. The risk is in that situation would never be worth the reward.
If the worst should happen, what should you do? As a victim, get to a safe place. Contact someone you trust (a friend, an RA) and allow them to help you. You have lots of options. If a friend contacts you, the first priority should be the safety and support of the victim. Victims expect to be blamed and disbelieved so a statement like, “This was not your fault” or “I believe you and I am so sorry” can be a big step towards recovery for that person. UT has many resources available on campus as well as in the community for victims of sexual assault. These can be found at http://www.ut.edu/safety/Sexual-Assault-Guidelines.cfm.
I am so excited about all the new faces and energy here on campus. Orientation is my favorite time of year and I am encouraged by the enthusiasm and interest of our new freshman class. I would ask that we all work together this year to protect our new and continuing folks from tragedies of this type. This is not a college memory anyone needs to have.