Breaking the Silence: Reporting instances of sexual assault helps survivors and the community

By Melanie Fenstermaker, photos by Avery Brannen and Abby Roush**

“Just tell everyone you fell down the stairs.” That’s what Jenny Hill’s* boyfriend told her after he raped and beat her so relentlessly that he broke two of her ribs. He threatened that if she ever told anyone, he would kill her. Hill used the lie in the emergency room, but the truth hung in the back of her mind. “He was just kicking and kicking and he wouldn’t stop,” she said. “He told me, ‘The only way I’ll stop hitting you is if you have sex with me.’ He told me, ‘Your life is going to end.’”

That was the first time Hill’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her, but it wasn’t the last. Hill endured almost a year of brutal domestic abuse. She was ashamed and didn’t know where to get help. “I didn’t feel like there was anybody in my life at that time who could help me,” she said. It wasn’t until three years after her boyfriend broke up with her that Hill found the courage to report to the police. “In reality, [reporting is] something that I don’t think I really ever wanted to do. It’s exhausting and overwhelming, but at the same time to know that he’s not out there and can’t do this to anybody else is a good feeling.”

Hill, a Utah State University freshman, is one of many Utah State students who have had to decide whether to seek help after being sexually assaulted. It’s important that survivors get help, whether it’s from family, friends or confidential counselors, said Jenny Erazo, the Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information (SAAVI) program coordinator at Utah State. But reporting an incident – which involves telling the police or the university – can help a survivor heal, helps pinpoint perpetrators and displays a more accurate picture of campus and community sexual crimes, she said.

Sexual assault is a historically underreported crime. A 2010 U.S. Department of Justice study reported 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice study found that at least 80 percent of those assaults go unreported. Although it’s difficult to calculate the exact numbers, Erazo said, Utah State seems to “run fairly close to the national averages.” Erazo said she counselled more than 23 students during the Fall 2015 se-
mester, and only four or five chose to report.

According to the Clery Report – a federally mandated document compiled annually by universities to track on-campus crime – only three instances of sexual assault were reported to the USU Police Department in 2014. The Clery Report only includes incidents that were reported on campus, not in fraternities or off-campus housing, so many students who reported were likely not included.

It’s unfortunate when students choose not to report, Erazo said, because reporting gives the university a more accurate picture of sexual crimes. The more survivors report instances of sexual assault, the more campus will focus on preventing it, said Stephanie Bagnell, director of the Center for Women and Gender.

Survivors who report don’t have to share specifics about the perpetrator or the assault. Even if survivors decide not to share specific information, the university can still benefit from knowing where incidents take place, said Stacy Sturgeon, Utah State’s Title IX coordinator. Sturgeon conducts confidential investigations of campus sexual assault cases. “If a person doesn’t want to reveal what’s been done, or what’s allegedly been done, we are limited, but we can see if there are things we can do to make campus safer,” she said. “If we know, for instance, that something happened in a dormitory, maybe we won’t know a name and we won’t know exactly what happened, but maybe we’ll do some training about sexual assault prevention.”

When survivors report instances of sexual assault, it also helps the police and university officials pinpoint perpetrators, Erazo said. Even if a survivor chooses not to press charges, she said, it’s good for survivors to report because it gets the perpetrator’s name on the record in case they commit future crimes. “Typically, perpetrators don’t just perpetrate one time,” Erazo said. “What reporting might do would get a per-
petrator on the radar. If that name has come up before, it gives university law enforcement more ability to do something to identify that person.”

Reporting isn’t right in every situation, Erazo said, and choosing whether to report is a survivor’s personal decision. “Obviously I would love to have everybody report,” she said, “but it really depends on the survivor and if that’s what’s best for them at that moment.” There are many reasonsa survivor might feel uncomfortable reporting. Some survivors are close friends or partners with their perpetrator, and they may not want to re-
port an incident for fear the perpetrator will go to jail. Some avoid reporting because they don’t feel emotionally ready to tell the story of their assault. Others fear the reaction they will receive from family, friends and neighbors.

Derek West*, a Utah State junior who was sexually assaulted while in college, said he chose not to report because he was embarrassed and wasn’t sure how his friends and family would react. West chose not to tell anyone – not even his family – exactly what happened. “I’m a guy and so it’s very, like, not even real for it to happen to a guy. The reality of the situation is very dehumanizing for me. It’s very embarrassing.” West also chose not to tell anyone because it would have created “a lot of heat, a lot of contention, a lot of hatred and fights” among his friends and family.

But West believes sexual assault survivors should report, mainly so perpetrators are identified. “It’s unfortunate that I feel this way and it’s unfortunate that a lot of people feel this way, but people definitely need to speak up. It hurts to share and open up and make these things be out there, but if they don’t they’ll put other people in danger.”

West noted he might sound hypocritical but said his perpetrator wasn’t “making a habit out of” hurting others. He said, “It was just a specific, unique, tailored situation. It was more of just a personal hatred.”

Although reporting can be challenging, it can give a survivor some control over the situation. Amanda Draper*, a Utah State sophomore, decided to tell the reporting officer at the hospital that her boyfriend had forcibly sodomized her. Reporting empowered her to prosecute. She wanted to see her boyfriend behind bars, even if it meant having to tell the story many times. “I knew he was going to hurt me again and probably somebody else as well,” she said. “It is very difficult to keep reliving the experience, but at the same time I knew that if I could just put myself back in that day that I could put this really bad guy away so he couldn’t hurt anybody else.”

Draper said reporting was also beneficial because her emotions toward her boyfriend were validated and she was able to begin healing. The reporting officer who met with her at the hospital wasn’t pushy or cold, she said, and he was able to confirm that she had been sexually assaulted. “Itmade me believe that I wasn’t just overreacting,” she said. “To be able to have someone look at you and say, ‘This really happened and it was not okay,’ that empowered me.” Draper said reporting the assault and going through the steps to prosecute was one of the hardest things she has ever done, but it’s a choice she doesn’t regret. “To be able to report and pursue that, I think, helpedgive me back a piece of what I lost that day.”

At Utah State, those who report can receive academic assistance. While Title IX officials have no power to change grades, Sturgeon said, they can inform a student’s professors about the situation. “If someone has missed a lot of class, we can facilitate conversations with faculty members,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re not getting so far behind that they’re not able to catch up.”

Sturgeon said help locations on campus will work to meet the specific needs of any student who seeks help. Even though it can be emotionally exhausting, reporting is worth it, Hill said, because it will make the community more aware of the issue and inspire other survivors to get help. “I know it’s such a scary situation, but the more people you tell, the better it’s going to get,” she said. “Don’t give up. Keep trying. You’re worth more than what you’re going through right now.”

*Editor’s Note: The survivors’ names have been changed to protect their identities.

** This issue’s cover art, which is also paired with “Breaking the Silence,” comes from a portion of a photo shoot about the emotional effects of sexual assault. USU freshman Avery Brannen and BYU freshman Abby Roush were inspired to do the photo shoot during their senior year of high school in Tigard, Oregon, after hearing that one in five college women fall victim to sexual assault.

Each element of the photo shoot has meaning, Brannen said. Bathing, she said, is personal, so placing the bathtub outside and giving the young woman the illusion of being naked emphasizes her vulnerability.She said the paint – the reds and blues – shows blood and bruises that accumulate when a woman is sexually assaulted. Brannen hopes the work will inspire change. “People are afraid of talking about sexual assault, the difference between assault and rape, and what is consent because it makes them feel uncomfortable,” she said. “But it’s something I want people to look at and I want people talking about because it is a problem and it’s happening. If you don’t talk about it, nothing’s going to change.”

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