By Suni Jo Roberts
While on campus at the security office, I picked up a brochure titled: “Stay Safe: Reduce your Risk of Sexual Assault.” As someone who formerly worked as a sexual assault advocate, sexual assault awareness always gets my attention, and I was curious to see what WCC’s awareness was like on the issue.
In recent years, sexual assault has been catapulted into the national conversation. Thanks to the Obama era “It’s On Us” campaign to address campus sexual assault and high profile rape cases like the Stanford rape case, activists have used these events to educate the public on rape culture, victim blaming and on common myths surrounding rape.
Opening this brochure told me that the team at WCC that put it together was sleeping through all that consciousness raising. Instead of focusing on the actions of the perpetrator and the rape culture that excuses, minimizes and normalizes rape, this brochure offered tips to students to reduce their chances of being sexually assaulted.
Tips like, “Avoid alleys, doorways and bushes.” And, “Never leave beverages unattended.”
I understand the compulsion to think of rape as something you can avoid by doing everything right. People who think this want to maintain an illusion of safety and believe that very bad things can’t happen to good people. But, this belief is just not true. Bad things happen to good people and in some of those cases, there was nothing they could have done to prevent it, save staying unmarried and never leaving your house. Further, these beliefs have the effect of making survivors feel guilt and shame in a society that incessantly questions their actions.
One tip printed on this brochure especially stuck with me for being misinformed, “If you are in danger, scream, yell, or run to draw attention to your situation.” This tip is not only unrealistic but it is harmful to survivors.
What if a person being sexually assaulted freezes and is unable to scream or yell? Anywhere between 12 to 50 percent of people experience tonic immobility or rape induced paralysis during an assault, according to Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Tonic immobility is an uncontrollable response to an assault in which a victim goes completely limp and is unable to talk or fight off an attacker.
At a presentation I attended given by Campbell to the Ann Arbor law enforcement community on the neurobiology of trauma, she shared a story about a woman who was raped by multiple people after she experienced tonic immobility. Her cue to danger was when the first attacker pinned her shoulders down with his elbow. It can be something that simple.
Now imagine someone who experienced tonic immobility picked up this brochure and read these tips on how to reduce their risk of sexual assault. They would feel like they didn’t do enough, that they should have acted differently and that maybe if they did, the assault would not have happened.
This is exactly what blaming the victim of an assault does; it places the responsibility in the hands of survivors. A survivor did what they were able to do in order to survive, and continue to do so in a world often hostile to them, which takes unimaginable strength. I have witnessed this strength and resilience first hand in my advocacy work.
The tips written in the brochure I picked up and on the WCC website only contribute to a hostile environment that incessantly questions survivors instead of supporting them.
People most at risk for sexual assault are women between the ages of 16-20, according to an article written by Callie Marie Rennison, co-director of the Criminal Justice Research Initiative at the University of Colorado for the New York Times. The average age at WCC is 26, according to the WCC Student Profile, which means a lot of students have already experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes that attend WCC.
It is not up to survivors to end sexual assault on WCC’s campus by following safety tips. The faculty and staff have a responsibility to make students feel welcome, comfortable and supported if they have survived an assault thanks to Title IX, which is a federal civil right that prohibits sex discrimination in education and legally requires schools receiving federal funding to respond and remedy hostile educational environments, according to the website Know Your IX. The tips contained in this brochure demonstrate someone is failing to provide this support. Publishing a brochure on ways to ask for and know someone is giving consent would be educational and at the very least eliminate the harm done by these tips. After seeing survivors tell their truths and change the world for the better from Janet Mock to Gretchen Whitmer to Lena Dunham to the unnamed survivor in the Stanford rape case, survivors have done their part. WCC: it’s time to do yours.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been edited to eliminate data that lacked context.