Sophomore Jessye Bullock was sitting in a dorm room with friends last semester when one of them drunkenly blurted out that she might have been sexually assaulted. Bullock’s first thought was, “How can you maybe be sexually assaulted?”
Bullock said her friend told her that she woke up to evidence of sexual intercourse a few days earlier but couldn’t remember all the details. The friend, who did not want to be named, wasn’t sure if she had protested. Her uncertainty made her hesitant to label the event as sexual assault and even more hesitant to share her experience with anyone.
Bullock said her friend decided against reporting the incident.
According to Kristen Houser, the CPAO of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pennsylvania, this line of thinking is common.
“People want to figure out how they can be safe in the future, and that gets in the way of accepting the severity of what just happened,” said Houser.
This way of thinking is so frequent among victims that it is one of the most common reasons that sexual assaults are underreported on college campuses across the nation, as indicated by the results of a nationwide survey from September.
According to a 2013 Department of Justice report, only 20 percent of all instances of sexual assaults on college campuses are reported. A survey published on Sept. 21 conducted across 27 college campuses by the American Association of Universities shows that this is still true in 2015.
Results from the AAU survey show that rates of students reporting sexual assault incidents to campus officials can be as low as five percent.
SMU has had two reports of sexual assault on campus so far this semester. According to the annual Clery Report, last year there were four reports of forcible sex offenses on campus and three incidents of forcible sex offenses that were unreported to SMU Police, but reported to other SMU campus officials.
Houser believes that our culture also plays a large role in underreporting sexual assault, particularly when the assault occurs between two acquaintances.
“Non-stranger sexual assault that does not involve gratuitous violence happens all the time and yet never makes headlines,” said Houser. “It’s no surprise to me that an 18- or 19-year-old student is going to wonder, ‘Was that serious enough?’”
Another reason students do not report their incidents of sexual assault is because they fear the reactions they will receive if they do report them, said Houser.
“What’s most common is that people just want to take care of themselves and they are very worried about how people are going to respond to them,” she said.
Three years ago, a female student, who wishes to remain anonymous, was sexually assaulted by another student on the SMU campus. She chose to report her incident to SMU’s Police Department after receiving positive feedback from faculty members she told.
Despite the positive feedback she received prior to reporting and during the case, she felt SMU’s motives were not entirely directed at her safety. Rather, maintaining the university image was a higher priority.
“When it came down to the results, they didn’t want to support me,” she said.
Her offender remained at SMU and harassed her despite the fact that he was not allowed to contact her.
The victim transferred to a school on the east coast.
“I didn’t feel safe staying at SMU,” she said. “I didn’t want to stay at a school where I didn’t feel supported.”
Sexual assault is defined in Texas as intentionally or knowingly causing the contact or penetration of a sex organ, the anus, or mouth without the other person’s consent.
Consent can be taken away from a victim through physical force, threats and coercion, manipulation, and inability to participate due to lack of consciousness or state of mind.
Houser states that the issue that arises with consent is establishing it. Our society has adopted the habit of declaring that “no means no.” However, anything other than no doesn’t necessarily mean yes.
“If you have mutual, enthusiastic participation, you don’t have anything to worry about,” said Houser. “If not, there’s a thousand different ways that you can check in with somebody. Sexual assault is not the result of miscommunication.”