By Carley Crain
“The sad truth is, a lot of people don’t know what sexual assault is ‘til it happens to them,” said a Springfield student. The student, who prefers to remain anonymous, says she has felt forced to have sex and to please her partners.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), women ages 18-24 who are college students are at elevated risk of sexual violence.
They are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual assault. Among undergraduate students, 26.4 percent of females and 6.8 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.
In August, Springfield College instituted a new Interim Sexual and Gender-based Misconduct Policy. The policy prohibits acts of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and retaliation as well as discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, gender expression, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation in all College programs and activities.
The new policy was implemented to ensure that the College is compliant with federal and state law. Springfield College decided to make it an interim policy, since Federal and State policies continue to evolve as the Department of Education has indicated that it will be issuing new regulations to comply with Title IX in Spring of 2022.
The most notable changes to the policy at Springfield include the implementation of a live hearing, gender harassment being categorized as a prohibited behavior, and the addition of a confidential resource officer.
The number of reported rapes at Springfield College decreased from eight in 2018 to four in 2019 to two in 2020, and reported dating violence cases decreased from three in 2018 to two in 2019 to zero in 2020 (per Springfield College’s annual security and fire safety report) but that might be due in part to the fact that social gatherings and on-campus interactions were limited last year because of COVID restrictions. Now that Springfield College and other institutions are back to in-person classes, sexual assaults are expected to increase at the college level.
Erin Leeper, the Director of Non-Discrimination Initiatives and Title IX Administrator at Springfield College, said that there are several possible reasons why the number of assaults reported were lower in 2020.
“For most of 2020, many folks were home throughout the spring semester and home for the summer,” said Leeper. “Then in the fall, we were not letting folks gather in groups, so I do think that the way folks socialize and the different types of events resulted in fewer sexual assaults occurring. When alcohol and drugs get involved that can create more risky situations, and we did not have as much of that in the fall of 2020. I think that played a part in the low numbers.”
Now, colleges across the country are in what is known as the “red zone,” which is is a period of time that typically occurs during the start of the fall semester through Thanksgiving break, when a majority of sexual assault occurs on college campuses, according to John Hopkins University. More than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November. Leeper said that the “red zone” could last longer this year because of COVID.
Reports of sexual assaults have led to protests on at least eight U.S. college campuses so far this school year, including at UMass Amherst, according to ABC News.
Springfield College employs seven Public Safety officers who are certified to deal with sexual assault. Students who have experienced sexual violence can either file a complaint with the college’s Title IX office or report it to law enforcement. The Title IX office focuses on investigations that do not involve criminal charges, while Public Safety can help students pursue legal action if the survivor chooses to do so.
Accoring to RAINN, college-age women who experience sexual violence often do not report to law enforcement. Only 20 percent of female students who experience sexual violence report it to law enforcement.
Public Safety officers know that many sexual assault survivors are unlikely to report what has happened to them, so they aim to create a close relationship with the survivor, where they can feel safe and heard. Each report is also kept private and confidential, as only officers who are certified in sexual assault can contribute to the investigation.
“We keep in close contact with the survivor and we are always making sure that they know what is next in the process so nothing is ever a blind spot to them,” said Springfield College Public Safety Officer Richard Spaulding.
Spaulding also emphasized the importance of language when it comes to sexual assault. The term “survivor” is more empowering than “victim” for those who have experienced a sexual assault, as it implies they are in the healing process and have been able to get through it.
Springfield College educates students about sexual assault through mandatory first-year student orientations each fall as well as mandatory video trainings. But nationwide, education around sexual assault is complex, as sex education in the United States varies greatly depending on where you live. Sexual assault is often categorized and labeled only as rape, when in reality it can take many different forms.
Assault also isn’t always violent and physical. Non-physical forms of assault, like sexual coercion (unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way), are also forms of abuse.
The culture and social atmosphere of college can provide easy opportunities for abusers, as partying and drinking can result in many students being taken advantage of, along with the factor of peer pressure.
Universities that have fraternities or sororities are at an even greater risk, as rape culture can become normalized in these types of environments. The Guardian reports that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape and that women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women.
“College campuses are one of the more prominent places where we talk about sexual assault and violence,” explained Nora Fitzgerald, an intern for the Title IX office at Springfield College. “I think a lot of it has to do with the party culture and environment, as it leaves a lot of opportunities for things to go out of hand or for things to go wrong.”
Stealthing is another type of assault that is one of the most dangerous and unreported in college. Health.com defines stealthing as “the act of non-consensual condom removal.”
The power and control a partner has in this situation can be life-altering, resulting in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Stealthing can be very traumatizing, psychologically, to survivors, as it breaks a bond of trust and security. U.S. law currently does not recognize steathling as sexual assault.
However, a core issue of sexual assault at the college level is consent.
This is even more common within relationships, where there is an assumption that saying “yes” once means “yes all the time.” Consent isn’t just a simple, one-time permission slip. Consent is an ongoing form of communication that isn’t about tone but about what is said. Consent is not about convincing or persuading a partner, as if they are something to be “chased.” If it is not a yes, then it’s not consent.
TV and movies commonly portray violent “stranger rapes” in narratives of sexual violence. But, according to the BBC, research shows that 90 percent of assault survivors knew their attacker.
“[Sexual assault] is not like it is in the movie scenes,” said Spaulding. “It’s definitely more in the intimate relationships that wind up in betraying trust.”
Many college-aged students also simply aren’t educated on the depths of consent, which can lead to sexual assault. According to trysustain.com, only eight states require consent to be a topic that is taught in sex education classes.
Fear-based tactics are embedded into sex education, trysustain.com reports. Abstinence is preached, even when it’s simply not realistic for many college-aged students. This results in students being uneducated on topics like STDs, abortion, birth control and sexual assault.
There is also the societal stigma and shame that comes when human sexuality is spoken about, which makes many students feel like they have to hide their experiences.
“Society teaches you to be afraid of sex and that there is only one solution — abstinence,” said the anonymous Springfield student.
Since sexual assault is such a “taboo” topic many survivors don’t even realize they have been assaulted if their experiences were non-violent or non-physical. Especially at the college level, many students find themselves in situations where they can’t get out of easily.
Women specifically feel the pressure to please their partner due to remorse and guilt that is associated with saying no. The male gaze, defined as a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women, unconsciously factors into heterosexual relationships.
Toxic masculinity can contribute to a man’s behavior toward sex. This can come in forms of entitlement and assumption of control, which has created an idea that men are supposed to be the sexual purser, while women are expected to be submissive.
“You feel like you owe them something,” said the student. “When it got to the point when it was not consensual, I did not know how to address it. I did not know what to do because it is so ingrained.”
Sexual assault does not just occur in heterosexual relationships. In fact, members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a much higher risk for sexual assault. Hrc.org reports that “44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of straight women as well as 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21 percent of straight men.”
Transgender individuals and bisexual women are also targeted by abusers. In fact, almost half of transgender people will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime, according to a study by Boston University.
This extra risk for members of the LGBTQ+ community could cost them their lives.
Race also plays a role in sexual assault, including in the form of stereotypes about ethnicity. Asian women, for example, are often hypersexualized in media and popular culture, and because of this widespread idea, many abusers capitalize on it. According to Nnedv.org, between 40 and 60 percent of Asian women are assaulted during their lifetime.
So what can be done on college campuses to limit sexual assault? Changing the approach to training and education about sex would be a game-changer. Online training, like the ones Springfield College mandates, aren’t as effective as face-to-face, in person training.
“I feel like the stakes aren’t high enough. Are we talking about it? Yes. But it is going in one ear and out the other,” said the student, when asked about what Springfield can do better regarding sexual assault. “Schools are scared to say that sexual assault has happened on their campuses, and they cover their backs by doing trainings or saying that they have resources.”
More effective trainings, with interpersonal, face-to-face elements, are much more productive.
Expanding knowledge and resources surrounding sexual assault will help students understand more fully the depths of the issue as well as feeling more comfortable reporting alleged assaults.
“All the school talks about is condoms. They don’t talk about how to initiate an appointment with the gynecologist on campus to get [other forms of] birth control,” said the student. “We have STD screenings, and no one should feel embarrassed to go and do that. If we only talk about the worst scenarios, people are going to overlook the symptoms that they have.”
Taking an issue like sexual assault, destigmatizing it and making it relatable to students has proven to be more successful, according to Insidehighered.com, which used pizza as an example to show the concept of consent.
“The presenter compares consent to a pizza and uses it as a metaphor for personal agency, reminding students that just because a person orders a pizza once, she may not want to order it again, or may not want the same toppings. But under no circumstances should anyone ever be forced to eat the pizza,” explained Insidehighered.com.
There is also a focus on drugs and alcohol in mandated trainings, which culminates into victim-blaming, instead of focusing on the core issue at hand: sexual assault.
The problem with sexual assault can not change without challenging the narrative that society has created around sex, women, the LGBTQ+ community and toxic masculinity.
“We do have a campus where we have a lot of resources in that way but even I can’t sit here right now and tell you what to do [if you’re sexually assaulted],” continued the student. “Are you supposed to sit on your computer after an emotionally traumatizing event and look up what you need to do to let someone know what happened?”
To report a sexual assault at Springfield College, call the Public Safety office at (413) 748-5555 or the Title IX office at (413) 748-3922.
Photo Courtesy Boston University