Rape victims offer advice to today’s college women

December 15, 2009
By Jessica Ravitz,
‘December 15, 2009 9:53 a.m. EST’

A student spoke out about being raped in her dorm room and was both confused and let down by her school's actions.

A student spoke out about being raped in her dorm room and was both confused and let down by her school’s actions.

(CNN) — If you are already in college or headed there, sit down. If you’re the parent or friend of a student, listen up.

One in five college women will be raped, or experience an attempted rape, before graduation. Less than 5 percent will report these crimes to officials on or off campus, and, when they do, there’s a good chance the system will let them down.

These shocking statistics were first issued nine years ago in a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal laws are in place to require schools to act on these allegations and look out for the rights of victims.

But a recently released investigative journalism series indicates that when it comes to dealing with sexual assaults, many higher-education institutions aren’t making the grade. The investigation was done by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit that says it seeks to make institutions more transparent and accountable.

“Schools are aware it’s a problem, a big problem,” said Kristen Lombardi, the center’s lead reporter for Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice. She pointed to a “culture of silence” and said critics say, “The biggest sin is one of omission. They’re just not dealing with this issue head-on in a public manner with their student bodies.”

Over the course of nine months, Lombardi and her colleagues spoke to 33 women who’d reported rapes, interviewed about 50 experts and surveyed more than 150 crisis clinics and programs on or near campuses. They also reviewed cases and combed through 10 years of complaints against institutions that had been filed with the Department of Education.

Schools are aware it’s a problem, a big problem. … They’re just not dealing with this issue head-on.
–Kristen Lombardi, Center for Public Integrity

The alleged rape victims and others shared stories of secretive hearings, administrators who encouraged students to drop complaints and failures to sufficiently pursue the accusations and seek punishments when warranted. Others spoke of gag orders, confidential mediations where women sat across from their attackers and feelings of being revictimized at the institutions they thought would help them.

“I was too young, still in too much shock and too emotionally gone to make decisions on my own,” said a woman who, as a freshman, reported a rape in 2001. “I needed an adult I trusted. The school did not provide such a person.”

Many said administrators appeared more concerned with protecting their employer, or the school’s reputation, than they were with protecting students. A number of women ended up leaving their universities. One student in the investigative series was written about posthumously, after killing herself.

Part of the problem stems from ignorance, said S. Daniel Carter, the director of public policy for Security on Campus, a national organization committed to advancing safety for students.

For one, he said acquaintance rapes, which dominate campus assaults, are often wrongly dismissed as “misunderstandings.” And lack of coordination when it comes to responses isn’t helped by the fact that too few school officials are trained to understand the impact of sexual assaults.

I was too young, still in too much shock and too emotionally gone to make decisions on my own. I needed an adult I trusted.
–Student rape victim, 2001

“People are going to do the best they can, but they only have limited knowledge based on their profession,” said Connie Kirkland of George Mason University in Virginia, a school that’s emerged as a model for others.

Kirkland, the school’s director of sexual assault services, has held this position since the office was established in 1993, making it among the first of its kind. She said the university jumped to action soon after then-Gov. Douglas Wilder issued in 1992 recommendations regarding campus sexual assaults. And while other Virginia schools made efforts early on, Kirkland said that when Wilder left office in 1994, most schools folded their programs.

Meantime, budgetary woes at schools across the country mean the programs that do exist often come and go, she added.

Kirkland said nothing serves victims better than having a clear point of contact on campus, an office and professionals who are trained — and can train others — to understand all aspects of these sexual assault crimes, including legal options, the psychological toll and health concerns.

A compassionate and well-meaning professor, administrator or residential adviser, for example, may listen, but they can’t be expected to provide full-fledged therapy or tell a student what it means to file a police report or go to court, she said. And a therapist can’t offer legal navigation any better than a law enforcement officer can be responsible for emotional processing.

I wish I’d been less trusting of my surroundings. … In college, you feel as if you are invincible.
–Sexually assaulted student, 2007

CNN reached out to women who spoke out about their rapes in college to find out what they would have done differently if they’d known then what they know now. In general practice, CNN does not name sexual assault victims, but here, in their own words, is advice from these women:

Feeling invincible, an age of denial and disbelief

“I wish I’d been less trusting of my surroundings,” said a woman who said she was assaulted as a sophomore in 2007. “In college, you feel as if you are invincible, when in reality, trouble could be hiding behind the façade of a casual get-together or a party where you feel completely safe. Always keep control of yourself and your surroundings, and keep a close eye out for your friends as well.

“And if you are a friend of a person who has been assaulted, all I can say is that though it might be hard, please listen and support that person,” continued the former student, who said she was “met with a response that I never expected — laughter and disbelief. Because of that, I kept silent until my attacker assaulted a friend of mine almost a year later.”

Said another rape victim: “Do not binge drink or leave drinks unattended.”

Reaching out elsewhere, protecting your interests

“I wish I’d told my parents sooner,” said a woman who reported a campus rape that happened in her dorm room in 2003. “My parents now know about it, but when it initially happened, they did not. I was just so ashamed.

“You’re too inhibited to make rational decisions, to understand emotionally what’s going on,” she added. “Whether it’s outside counsel, law enforcement, a friend or a parent, do not rely on the university to serve your best interests. And don’t sign anything.”

Seeking out professionals who understand

It is important to know all of your options after you are assaulted so you can choose how to overcome this.
–College gang-rape victim, 2001
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“Get help from a professional as soon as possible. I spoke with a counselor at Victim’s Assistance a few days after my assault, and that was crucial in helping me overcome this. There are a lot of different emotions after you are assaulted, and speaking with someone who really understands sexual assault is imperative,” said a woman who reported a gang rape by athletes in 2001 when she was a sophomore.

Furthermore, she said, “Family members and friends are also victims when this happens to someone they care about. The technical term is ‘secondary survivors.’ Sometimes it is difficult for them to deal with their own emotions and still be supportive to the primary survivor. Secondary survivors should not be afraid to get professional help, or to speak with a counselor about their own feelings. That way, they are not projecting their emotions onto the primary survivor. Seeking professional help also gives you options, and it is important to know all of your options after you are assaulted so you can choose how to overcome this.”

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  1. January 14, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    Good article. I am not a woman but this information is useful enough to know, how is thing should be handle (worst case scenario) if this ever happen to your close one. Knowing this information is the strength to overcome the victim fear or embarrassment. Thanks for sharing this. I am glad I read this.

  2. Arletha Skinner
    April 25, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    I empathize with those that were attacked, because I am a victim of attempted rape.
    but I disagree that the college administration lacked knowledge, I think they were more concerned with the colleges reputation then they were stopping the victimization of women. Some believe it is our reponsibility to be able to detect and attacker, what does and attacker look like, talk like come enraged crazy person, if this was so of cause we would run in the opposite direction. Most men would rape if they thought they could get away with it. A potential rapist look for the opportunty, or right right circumstances, or if he can create the right circumstances.I agree being aware,do not drink alot,or accepted rides with someone by your self and there is safety in numbers. Last, trust your instincts and practice safety. Arletha

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