Sexual Assault Awareness Month: What happened and what comes next
One in five women will be sexually assaulted while they are attending college in the U.S., according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. This indicates that 3,250 women at the University of Oregon will suffer some kind of sexual abuse in four years of school.
About 300 community members marched in the 39th annual Take Back the Night event in Eugene on Thursday — a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses around the country. The event provided an opportunity to stand in solidarity with survivors.
The national march concluded sexual assault awareness month, a time when many on campus learned about sexual assault through a variety of other events.
Take Back the Night started with presentations in the EMU amphitheater, including a performance from the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team, a speech from UO Mujeres, a poem from representatives of Planned Parenthood and speeches from the Women’s Center’s Fatima Roohi Pervaiz and Itzel Chavez.
Members of the group UO Mujeres painted half of their faces to resemble a skull to represent those who have survived sexual assaults — and those who have not.
“Sexual violence happens at epidemic proportions throughout the country and around the world to people of all genders,” said Chavez. “It has impacted many of our lives, whether we are survivors or allies.”
Following the speeches, the crowd marched toward downtown through UO’s sorority row to stand in solidarity with panhellenic women.
According to the UO Women’s Center, a goal for the event was to focus on abuse in diverse and marginalized communities, as well as illuminate the different instances of sexual violence.
Breaking the Silence: Experiencing the stories
UO’s Panhellenic Council invited a Denver based non-profit named Breaking the Silence to construct a nine-room, interactive experience that re-creates situations where sexual violence occurred. The series of stories demonstrates varying forms of sexual assault told through the voices of survivors, and in one case, a perpetrator.
Leading up to the event, Allison Watt, director of Breaking the Silence, said the Panhellenic Council “wanted something really balanced that challenged students and brought different perspectives”
“We feel like these stories in particular really do that,” she said. “It brings a different lens on interpersonal violence than the typical story you might hear over and over again in the media. It shines a different light.”
Two members of the PHC community, Rachael Wallace and Nicole Leisy, walked through the exhibit together linking arms. They said that even if someone hadn’t lived through a similar situation, learning about others’ experiences could still be saddening and scary.
In the first three rooms, attendants entered the living space of a middle-aged woman whose partner threatened to torture her, although they would learn how she and her children finally got away from him as she regained control of her life.
Viewers continued into a child’s bedroom while a man explained how his mother forced sexual relations with him when he was a child.
The next rooms showed the back of a truck covered in clothes and beer cans. A man’s recording explained how he sexually assaulted a woman while she was sleeping and is now facing the legal and emotional consequences of his actions.
Wallace and Leisy found value in listening to the stories of survivors and those who have committed sexual assault; the stories communicated the intricacies of sexual abuse.
“Sexual assaults aren’t all the same,” Leisy said. “When you’re in college, you think of someone drinking too much and being taken advantage of.”
She said she knows such instances are prevalent on college campuses, but she’s glad the exhibit spread awareness that abusive relationships take many different forms.
“We just hope people will start the conversation,” Watt said. “[A]fter you leave the exhibit, [we hope] you go forward and you talk to somebody about it and just figure out how do we change our current culture and really prevent this from being so prevalent.”
April 2017 marked a formal attempt at changing the university’s handling of sexual assault.
The Faculty Senate created the Student Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Violence Complaint and Response policy to improve how the university responds to sexual harassment and violence complaints. The Senate originally approved the policy in November, but additional changes were made to it before it was voted on again. Senators gave the new policy high praise and voted unanimously to approve it earlier this month.
The policy outlines what UO employees must do when a student tells them about an experience of sexual harassment or assault. Most faculty and staff are no longer required to report what students disclose to them about sexual violence experiences. Certain university employees are still designated reporters: athletic directors, deans and department heads, residential assistants and UOPD officers.
Melissa Barnes, the graduate student member on the policy task force, is mostly pleased with how the policy turned out; however, she says she is uncomfortable that UOPD officers have to be on the list of designated reporters, something that was non-negotiable, she said. President Schill now needs to approve the policy in order for it to be put in place.
“I do expect the senate and President Schill to sign off on this,” Barnes said, “and put the institution on the right side of history on these issues.”
Watt, the director of Breaking the Silence, said she saw students respond with hope and a desire to change the culture at UO. She said that after Breaking the Silence comes to campuses, there is a trend of more reporting and more conversations about sexual violence issues.
According to the UOPD crime log, reporting of sexual violence on campus is trending upward. Kelly McIver, the public information officer for UOPD says this is due in part to a streamlined process and new requirements for what gets reported.
In 2016, 20 cases of sexual assault were reported on campus, eight more than the previous year. Six cases have already been reported in 2017.
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