Sexual assault at universities
Sarah was a first-year at Carnegie Mellon when a friend sexually assaulted her.
“One night when I was really drunk I somehow ended up at his apartment,” she said. “He’s a cool guy, but he was drunk too. And I started kissing him and it was fine — like, I was fine with that — and then he went further and then I said no, but then he kept on continuing and I was drunk at the time so … I kind of just went with it.”
“That’s my story. It’s a very typical college [story],” Sarah, now a senior, added.
Her story is indeed typical of many experiences of university women. According to a study released last year by the Department of Justice (DOJ), nearly one in four college women are victims of rape or attempted rape. At Carnegie Mellon — which has 2,664 undergraduate women, according to the university’s institutional research and analysis department — that means that over 660 female undergraduate students are likely to have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by the time they graduate. The DOJ also reported that 90 percent of those women know their attackers.
And many, including Sarah, never report the assault. The DOJ estimates that fewer than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it the police. The Carnegie Mellon University Police Department said in its Annual Security and Fire Safety Report that only four police reports of forcible sex offenses had been filed in 2011; only one was filed in 2010; and six were filed in 2009.
University students have an alternative to filing a police report, though: Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 mandates that universities have a disciplinary procedure for students to file complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence. At Carnegie Mellon, this means that students can file a report through a Sexual Assault Advisor (SAA) and have their cases handled by the University Disciplinary Committee (UDC).
According to Gina Casalegno, dean of Student Affairs, 24 such reports were filed in 2012. But the lack of reports doesn’t mean that sexual assault isn’t a problem at Carnegie Mellon: As Casalegno said in an interview, “I don’t think we have any more or any fewer problems here. I think this is a societal problem.”
Rebecca Jacobs, an SAA and senior psychology and Hispanic studies double major, agreed that sexual assault is a problem — even at Carnegie Mellon. “I don’t think people realize that it happens as much as it actually does. I think … there’s the whole joke and perception that people aren’t having sex here, [but] people are having sex here,” she said. “And just because CMU is a very unique school and a very unique experience doesn’t mean that it’s isolated from the statistics and the world of sexual assault.”
Fear of coming forward
The DOJ cites fear of retribution as a reason why many women don’t file a report, but Jeannine Heynes, the coordinator of gender programs, often sees another reason why students don’t pursue disciplinary cases.
When speaking to sexual assault survivors, she said, she often hears “ ‘I don’t want to go forward with it, I don’t want to get this person in trouble’ — they say that a lot, ‘I don’t want to ruin this person’s life’…. Very often survivors choose not to do anything at all. It’s somebody that they know, it’s somebody that they run in circles with, it’s somebody that they probably care about, and so more likely than not, they don’t want to go forward.”
Jacobs also said that part of the reason why people don’t report is because sexual assault is too difficult to talk about. “All control is being taken away from you. It’s very violating: This is like the most intimate thing that someone can be doing [to you],” she said.
Sarah had similar reasoning for not filing a report. “I don’t think there were bad intentions on his part. I think it was just, like, a situation where he was really drunk and he didn’t realize what was happening,” she said. “Because he’s a nice guy ... I don’t think it was him trying to take advantage of me.”
The role of alcohol
Alcohol is a frequent characteristic of sexual assault cases on college campuses; the DOJ reports that in three quarters of college rapes, the offender, the victim, or both had been drinking. Casalegno said that, in the cases she’s seen reviewed at Carnegie Mellon, “alcohol is a significant factor for both parties that are involved in an incident that ultimately could be determined as sexual assault.”
But Heynes is also quick to point out that intoxication is not an excuse for assault. “Two drunk people getting together — ‘I was too drunk to realize that she was too drunk’ — it makes for a very gray area in terms of investigation, but it’s not a gray area in terms of you’re always responsible for your actions. And if you were too drunk, that’s your fault…. You needed to get consent,” Heynes said.
Another problem with sexual assault is that “people are not aware of what consent is and what’s involved,” Heynes said. “I think people don’t realize that the absence of ‘no’ is not consent. So I think sometimes we get particularly in a masculinized culture of ‘see how far you can get.’ And if she’s silent, then just keep going, keep going, keep going. And that is so wrong, right? That is so wrong.”
“And very many people say ‘She didn’t say no’ or ‘She didn’t push me away’ or ‘I just thought she was into it.’ It is the responsibility of that other person to ask, ‘Is this okay? Is this how far you want to go?’ ” she continued. “So silence from a partner is not consent.”
Heynes also clarified that women are not the only victims of sexual assault. “Most of the reports that we get are men that sexually assault women, but I’ve had reports of men sexually assaulting other men,” she said.
“I think another thing is that I don’t think we talk enough about women asking men. I think there’s that idea that men are completely 100 percent always ready for sex, right? And it’s the women that we have to sort of convince,” Heynes said. “But I think there also needs to be a culture of women asking as well.”
In order to better educate students about sexual assault, Casalegno said, “we’ve totally revamped our training and our review of policy and resources and discussion of the issues at play with sexual assault and sexual violence” for first-year Orientaton.
“It’s something we do try to be in touch with in programming [for Orientation], and even this year, definitely we changed up the sex skit a lot,” said Will Weiner, a senior economics and statistics and decision science double major who was a head orientation counselor this past fall. As student body president, Weiner is on the committee that has been overseeing the changes to the university’s sexual assault and harassment policies. “After [talking to] people in Student Life who are involved with working with [sexual assault], we’re saying, you know, ‘What is the message we’re trying to get across?’ ”
Weiner added, “I think it’s very much a freshman year issue and then goes away, at least in terms of conscientious messaging. Obviously there’s stuff that will be happening unfortunately throughout the four years, but I feel like messaging-wise it’s very much a freshman year thing.”
However, as Heynes pointed out, they only had “five, 10 minutes in front of first-year students who’ve got so much on their mind. I don’t know — hopefully it was effective.”
Several first-years, when asked what they remembered from Orientation, recalled “Condom Man” far more easily than any education about sexual assault.
Jillian, a first-year economics major, could recall a skit focusing on sexual assault, but couldn’t remember many specifics. When asked if she thought if Carnegie Mellon was on par with the national average in regards to sexual assault, she replied, “I think at CMU it’s probably below, but I do know of this girl [who was assaulted], so it’s not, like, nonexistent.”
Alex James, an undecided Dietrich College first-year, “actually missed everything on that because I had soccer during most of the Orientation events.” Because of his practice schedule, the only Orientation events he attended were Playfair and House Wars.
According to a report on acquaintance rape released by the DOJ, this one-time educational effort is insufficient. “The Educational programs should involve multiple intervention efforts, with repeated and reinforced exposure to the issue,” the report stated.
Administrators and students are now trying to do more to broaden awareness and education. Casalegno said that they have begun to do more outreach programming in Greek life communities and in residence halls.
Also, Jacobs and three other students — Michelle Ruiz, a junior chemical engineering major; Rachael Schmitt, a sophomore Dietrich College student; and Esha Shanbhogue, a senior mechanical and biomedical engineering double major — form the executive board for Got Consent?, an organization that works with the nonprofit Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) to spread awareness and education about sexual assault.
This week, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the group will be tabling in the University Center and handing out free greeting cards, posters, candy, and condoms.
“A lot of people are worried about how to ask if something’s okay without killing the mood,” Jacobs explained. “It’s supposed to teach people what’s a sexy way to ask [for consent].”
At this year’s MOSAIC, Carnegie Mellon’s community-wide gender conference, “one of the things we’re going to address … is this idea of the hookup culture,” Heynes said.
“It’s this idea that people are coming to parties in order to get drunk in order to hook up. And it sort of goes against everything that consent and healthy relationships and knowing yourself and taking care of others is about.” The conference, themed “The Naked Truth,” will take place Feb. 23 and 24 in the University Center.
Other events planned for the semester include a Take Back the Night event in late March, which is a protest against sexual violence; a “What’s In Your Cup?” campaign during Carnival, which will encourage students to be conscientious about what they’re drinking and to be wary of accepting drinks from others; and a Clothesline Project, during which sexual assault survivors and their allies will design T-shirts that speak out against sexual assault and then hang the shirts publicly on campus.
In the meantime, Jacobs encourages sexual assault survivors on campus to talk to an SAA, even if they don’t want to file a report.
“The great thing about SAAs is that we’re your peers. I know that it can be scary to try and talk about this to someone who you see as being in a position of authority.... You should never feel ashamed about anything that you’ve done that would stop you from coming to talk to somebody about it.”