Sexual Assault at Penn State (And What To Do About It)

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Almost three years have passed since Katie* was raped in a Penn State fraternity, but the horrific event still remains fresh in her scarred mind.

“Between the summer before my freshman year and now, I’ve never been able to get close to a guy,” said Katie, now a junior at Penn State. “I just imagined his hands on me every time and sort of spiraled into a breakdown. It’s not just one night they hurt you when they do stuff like this, it’s every night from then on. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t dream about what he did to me.”

Katie isn’t alone in her experience. According to recent studies from the Department of Justice, one in four women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before they graduate from college. At Penn State’s campus alone, since the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, almost 30 sexual assaults have been reported to local and off-campus police departments. Since the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence found that only 16 percent of women report their assaults to law enforcement, this would mean that somewhere around 187 students have been victims of sexual assault since August of last year.

Often sexual assault victims experience difficulty bringing themselves to report crimes committed against them out of fear that they will be blamed for what has been done to them. Katie was one of those hesitant victims.

“I still feel responsible, because like, I went out in a short skirt and drank and danced, and I feel like people are gonna be like, ‘Well, what did you expect to happen?’” Katie said. “But then part of me doesn’t think that’s fair. I wasn’t his for the taking no matter what I was wearing or whether I drank, and he just decided to do whatever he wanted anyway.”

“Victims are never responsible for their victimization,” said Peggy Lorah, the Director of the Center for Women Students. “What they wear or where they choose to go are not reasons or excuses for being assaulted. “

While it’s agreed that attire should have no part in the frequency with which women are sexually assaulted, alcohol still plays a prominent role.

“I’d say 85 to 90 percent of sexual assault cases are alcohol related,” said Detective Chris Weaver of the State College Police Department. “Even our stranger cases usually involve alcohol. The victims are often victimized because of their level of intoxication.”

The unfortunate reality is that alcohol is a huge part of Penn State’s culture, and women who partake in its consumption tend to find their defenses significantly lowered. That was certainly the case with Katie.

“I was a little too fuzzy and tipsy from the shots and the Natty to be as uncomfortable as I’d usually be with this guy I just met rubbing his crotch up against me, and he kept sliding his hand up my tank top and creeping his fingers up my waist toward my chest,” she said. “Finally he grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me toward the door and pulled me up the steps to his room. I tried to say I didn’t want to, but everything was spinning and I threw up instead.”

“When people are intoxicated, it’s harder for them to think that other people will believe them, and they’re more likely to blame themselves,” said Penn State junior Stephanie Wain, the creator of a documentary about sexual assault at Penn State called ‘Unreported.’ “But why should rape be a consequence for drinking?”

When victims are able to see the imbalance between their actions and those “consequences” and choose to report the crime, action is taken immediately by the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), which is comprised of the State College Police Department and the Mount Nittany Medical Center.

“We have a coordinated response where we get together right away and the nurse does the interview,” said Detective Weaver. “We tell them we want to get them checked to make sure they’re okay before we work on getting anyone into any trouble. The nurse leads the interview, and we’ve incorporated a lot of our police questions into the medical questionnaire. Then they do the examination and it’s turned in to us.”

The Women’s Resource Center in downtown State College is also a key component in the SART.

“They have a core group of volunteers that take part in special training so that there’s a little bit more of a continuity of services,” said Detective Weaver. “We cross train with each other, and we all have a good understanding of what to do and a good working relationship.”

“The whole goal of the program is not to victimize them, especially when we’re getting them to the hospital to make sure they’re medically okay,” said Officer Kelly Aston of the State College Police Department. “We let them know that we can figure out prosecution and whatever else later and just focus on their well-being and safety for now.”

Even when victims are brave enough to report these crimes, there is no guarantee that their assaulters will receive punishment.

“We’re stuck with the wording of the Pennsylvania crime code,” said Detective Weaver. “If it doesn’t fit, we can’t charge.”

“It’s a very rude awakening for a lot of individuals and their parents,” said Audra Hixon, the Assistant Director of the Center for Women Students, to Wain. “We get a lot of parents who say, ‘This happened to my daughter, I can’t believe no one’s going to do anything about it.’”

However, cases that aren’t sound enough to go through in court are still eligible for referral to Student Conduct, Weaver said.

“Student Affairs focuses on the conduct and the behavior, whether it’s reasonable and appropriate,” said Detective Weaver. “Since they look at it like ‘do we want this person out there engaging with other students this way’ and follow up accordingly, they can do everything from expulsion, suspension, probation, hold diplomas, alcohol courses, anything. They’re gonna deal with it.”

The Center for Women Students also offers victims additional services while they’re dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

“After an assault, victims often need academic advocacy as they deal with what has happened,” said Lorah. “At their request, we will email or talk with faculty members to ask that victims be given accommodation as far as attendance, assignments, and exams.”

Despite the fact that such services are provided for known victims of sexual assault, “The problem is that for every one that is reported, there’s ten that aren’t,” Wain acknowledged.

This means that somewhere around 90 percent of victims aren’t getting the help that they need after this kind of traumatic experience.

According to Wain, the response to such horrifying trends in sexual violence in State College shouldn’t simply be to tell girls to how to protect themselves.

“We teach women not to be by themselves or go outside alone, and we have all these precautions for women, but why is it that we don’t tell men not to rape? Where is that education?” asked Wain.

There is a group at Penn State called Men Against Violence that aspires to spark conversation that will lead to such education.

“Our goal is to mitigate instances of sexual assault in any way,” said the group’s president, Tanner Fitzgerald, to Wain. “We do that by trying to reach out to men and trying to get them to change their behavior instead of telling women not to put themselves in situations, which is a more common thing.”

However, Fitzgerald and Wain don’t intend to blame all men for the actions of a few.

“Not all men are rapists, but almost all rapes are committed by men, so you have to approach men in that way,” said Fitzgerald to Wain. “If we go into a fraternity, we’re not saying ‘We see all of you guys as a group of rapists,’ but ‘statistically, since 99-point-whatever percent are committed by men, we need to have this conversation with you and not with women,’ so that’s kind of our standpoint.”

While the mission of such a student organization is inspiring, this small group of men isn’t enough to initiate the change that Penn State needs to overcome this issue, Lorah said.

“All students need to be educated about what sexual assault is and how it often happens, and we need to makes sure that men have this education as well as women,” said Lorah. “We need to educate men about what constitutes consent and about respecting women and themselves.”

Wain’s documentary on sexual assault served as a call to action for the university, asking them to create a mandatory class to provide men with this essential education.

“Students are made to take gen-eds like CAS 100 and English 15 to graduate, but a three-credit class addressing sexual assault or social diversity has yet to be made mandatory across the Penn State curricula,” noted Wain.

Lorah and Detective Weaver back Wain’s sentiment.

“There is a three-credit course taught by Caren Bloom Stadle on sexual and relationship violence that many students take,” said Lorah. “I don’t see a [mandatory]three-credit course ever being approved by the faculty senate and implemented by a college.”

“I think it’s important to have discussions about these issues, but I don’t think that a lot of people would take a class about this,” said Detective Weaver. “I do think there should be required life skills type courses that would cover this topic at some point. They should be mandatory.”

Whether a mandatory general education course on the topic is necessary is up to Penn State’s Senate, but it’s clear that sexual violence is an ongoing issue on campus that needs to be addressed.

“I believe that we have a responsibility to pave the road for awareness of sexual assault,” said Wain. “If a class could help, then why wouldn’t we do it?”

The impact of the course could result in significant impact, not only for the peace of mind of students already emotionally and physically abused in this fashion, but for all students that face a similar danger.

“He’s a monster to me,” Katie said. “Not the kind that lives under my bed, but the kind that comes into my head anytime I’m in one.”

*=Victim’s name has been changed at her request. 

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Alicia Thomas

Alicia is a senior with majors in Print Journalism and Spanish and a minor in International Studies. Chances are that she's somewhere talking about her semester abroad or ranting about sexual assault prevention right now. She can be reached via Twitter (@aliciarthomas) or email ([email protected]).

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