November 8, 2019
An honest look at the public’s perception of sexual assault – with a hopeful eye toward the future.
Michigan State University continues to be plagued by the Larry Nassar scandal. The Penn State University child abuse tragedy serves as a constant reminder of the pull powerful figures have at established universities. The public was shocked when a decades-old, decades-long case of abuse at Ohio State was only recently brought to light. Meanwhile, individual cases are hitting college campuses left and right, from Stanford University’s Brock Turner to Baylor University’s Jacob Anderson. But far-reaching crimes are kept under wraps and survivors’ statements are swept under the rug far too often, and for far too long.
We are living in a state of “it happened again” and “just another one.” When did college campuses become rampant with stories of sexual assault? Has this long been an issue hidden by stigma and fear? How do we change the public’s view on sexual abuse and the criminal justice system’s view on perpetrators. How do we right decades of wrongs?
To be clear: this issue doesn’t strictly affect twentysomethings fueled by alcohol and illegal substances. It stems higher. To powerful people, trusted people, people decades older than their victims. They, too, are making headlines here. And survivors aren’t just anonymous figures in the paper. Survivors are your children. Your sister. Your brother. Your cousin. Your best friend. Your roommate. It’s time we live in a world where sending them off to school, a place for learning, growth and new experiences, doesn’t make them feel tormented by mistrust and concern.
Just because these stories are only recently hitting newsstands and flashing across television screens doesn’t mean these crimes haven’t been taking place for decades. Amanda McCafferty, co-founder of the Go Teal movement, believes these issues are “nothing new.” Go Teal hit MSU’s campus in response to the Larry Nassar scandal to give hope to survivors and call on the administration to formulate change. McCafferty recognizes that the issue of sexual assault has long been plaguing not only our campuses, but our nation. It’s reached a point where it feels normalized. It’s reached a point where the public no longer feels shocked by a news story detailing yet another assault. But this abuse isn’t new.
“At one point in our history, it wasn’t considered rape if a man had sex with his wife without her consent. At one point in our history, it wasn’t considered rape if she was black. At one point in our history, rape was considered a property crime—women were viewed as something to own,” said McCafferty. “We have consistently and tirelessly been rewriting the laws against sexual violence to de-normalize something that our history has always normalized.”
In the face of the #MeToo movement, survivors have gained a newfound platform to share their stories and connect with others. But long before we reached this stage, ongoing cycles of abuse—sexual, physical, psychological—were still plaguing the lives of people everywhere. Maybe we just weren’t talking about it back then.
Now, there is more open and honest discussion developing around the topic of sexual abuse and its effects, spurring action and implementing change while dually offering comfort for and providing a safe space for survivors.
“Movements like #MeToo are not only encouraging everyday bystanders to speak up when they see something – they are educating the general public on how to safely intervene in a situation. And that is essential,” said McCafferty.
While some things have improved from the recent fire that’s been lit under the topic of sexual assault, the amount of work left to do is undeniable. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is assaulted every 92 seconds. One in six American women and one in every 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape. One in three U.S. women and one in four U.S. men have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. RAINN also reports that only 20 percent of female student victims report to law enforcement, and for every 1,000 sexual assaults that take place, 995 perpetrators will walk free due to low reporting percentages and a flawed criminal justice system.
Let’s boil it down. Imagine you’re headed to class or work on Monday. In your quick commute, you can point to any given three women or any given four men that you walk past on the sidewalk or drive by on the street and, statistically, one of them has been afflicted in some way by sexual assault.
We have a PROBLEM.
It’s not a surprise that three out of every four assaults go unreported. We’ve seen it play out time and time again. At MSU, it took more than 400 survivors to break the long-held silence by the university’s administration and leaders. At Stanford University, Brock Turner abused an unconscious college woman now known as the brave and powerful Chanel Miller. Turner only received a minor sentence followed by lenient probation. Across the world, survivors’ stories are diminished and belittled to nothing because they were wearing a revealing outfit, had too much to drink, or are dubbed “liars” when in reality a mere two percent of all reported assaults are determined false.
So how do we right the wrongs of a university, a nation, that for decades has normalized rape culture? McCafferty believes that in order to spur change on college campuses and beyond, it will take education. Parents often shy away from discussions of sexual assault and schools often neglect sexual education courses, concerned that they shouldn’t be diving into these tough topics with children and teens. The fact is, those children grow up, and they grow up lacking the proper knowledge needed to handle these situations when they arise. Or worse, they engage in these crimes themselves, because maybe they weren’t taught early on what sex and consent should look like. McCafferty says it’s time we educate, so we can stop shying away from a topic “so clearly demanding our attention.”
On top of a lack of education, this is a criminal justice issue. Brock Turner assaulted Chanel Miller beneath a tree, in the dirt, in public, against her will. She laid unconscious throughout the entire attack, intoxicated and undeniably unable to consent. When Turner was approached by two bystanders who quickly intervened looking to stop this unwarranted sexual activity, he immediately fled. These are the actions of a guilty and disturbed man, yet, he was sentenced to serve a mere six months and served only three. His sentence, at maximum, would have (and should have) been 14 years. A sentence Miller fought for.
“I spoke with conviction. I felt that it was working. I felt that it was everything I could have done. So I felt relief and pride and now thought the hardest parts were behind me, but they weren’t,” Miller said in an interview with NPR. “When the sentence was announced, the immediate reaction I had was humiliation.”
Chanel Miller is yet another survivor diminished by a demeaning sentence.
“I applaud Chanel Miller and stand with her. Know her name,” said McCafferty. “She is changing the conversation for the better for all survivors of sexual violence and really being the light we need right now. Our judicial system failed her and, in return, has taught perpetrators that their actions won’t have serious punishment. I hope Chanel proves them otherwise. I hope we prove them otherwise.”
And then there’s Jacob Anderson, a former fraternity president at Baylor University who brutally raped a 19-year-old woman. Because of a plea deal, he is serving no jail time and does not have to register as a sex offender even though, according to the survivor’s lawyer, he left his victim “to die face down in her own vomit.” His only consequence for stealing a massive piece of another human’s life was a $400 fine.
These triggering names don’t even begin to cover the far-reaching ground of the accused whose names may never surface. They merely shine a daunting light on the many ways the justice system fails survivors and allows perpetrators to continue their horrific reign. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, “mandatory minimum penalties for sex offenses are applied less often in the federal system compared to other mandatory minimum penalties.” We are treating a completed robbery as if it is more detrimental to a person’s life than a completed rape. We are letting even the most infamous abusers—the ones making headlines, the ones warranting petitions achieving hundreds of thousands of signatures in a demand for justice—get off with nothing but a slap on the wrist and the freedom to go about their lives. But their freedom will long loom over their victims’ lives, perhaps to the same extent that the assault itself will.
Amanda Thomashow, a survivor and the co-founder and executive director of Survivor Strong, a Lansing-based organization advocating for systemic change in support of survivors, believes this current culture is giving abusers an additional foothold. Meanwhile, it is continuing to push survivors deeper and deeper into silence, because why come forward when Nassar’s abuse reached hundreds of girls before anyone decided to care? Why come forward when decades after a prominent doctor at the Ohio State University dies, it’s revealed that he spent his days abusing young boys? Why come forward when your rapist could become the President of the United States, or when your abuser could serve on the Supreme Court? Why come forward when it always seems too late? These horror stories are the reasons why victims shy away from speaking their truth.
“The message it sends is clear,” said Thomashow. “[Perpetrators] are shown they can disrespect other people’s bodies with little to no consequence. The value of survivors’ stories, lives and bodies is not important.”
Perhaps what we value is the underlying issue. We place value into the notoriety of abusers. Larry Nassar wasn’t considered a serial child molester for decades, despite the fact that this ongoing abuse was recognized by many. He was the esteemed USA gymnastics national team doctor and admired MSU osteopathic physician. And Brock Turner still often isn’t labeled as the convicted offender he is. He is referenced as the Stanford swimmer, a “good guy” and talented athlete who had his sights set on the Olympics. Newspapers still can’t seem to get this one right.
“For some reason, our society values the reputation of a ‘good’ man over the lives and health and well-being of the people they harm,” said Thomashow.
At MSU, countless officials were informed of Nassar’s wrongdoing. A vast number of women mustered the strength to come forward to those they thought they could trust only to be let down by indifference and disbelief. It’s all because of the harsh light that these actions would place on Nassar and the shadow it would cast on the distinguished university. Now, though, MSU isn’t recognized strictly for the malpractice of this one man. It’s recognized for the malpractice of many who valued status rather than acknowledging the pain it was bringing to its students.
In addition, the rape kit backlog acts as another aversion for survivors. DNA plays an integral role in the eventual conviction of offenders, but with hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting on shelves, often survivors experience this invasive exam immediately after undergoing an attack only for the evidence collected to be left untouched. In response, organizations including RAINN are working fervently to end this backlog, leading a national campaign that is educating lawmakers, the media and more on this issue and what action is needed to begin addressing it.
It’s a start.
Nationally, powerful political figures and dedicated organizations are addressing the backlog. When it comes to the work being done in the courtroom, the United States Sentencing Commission reports that the percentage of convictions for sexual abuse offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty increased from 21.4 percent in 2004 to 63.2 percent in 2016. Sexual assault cases are complex, and it is often harder to find justice due to the emotional nature of these crimes and its various underlying factors. It isn’t as cut and dried as “you stole” or “you killed,” even though it should be.
Sexual assault lawsuits require a level of understanding that, unfortunately, many in power often lack for fear of venturing deep into its disturbing territory. Still, there are those who are working to spur change in this field, rewriting this story each day when they go to work. More abusers are paying for their actions now than they have historically, and while it is important to fight for survivors whose stories are being diminished in court, we must not turn a blind eye to those whose trials are being handled fairly and justly.
Locally, Thomashow’s organization, Survivor Strong, is working with law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to teach them how to properly handle and understand cases of abuse and violence. Right on the university’s campus, The MSU Center for Survivors (formerly the Sexual Assault Program) on campus is bringing survivors together, regardless of their sexual identities, regardless of their stories, and regardless of their pasts, to heal in community with those who understand through support groups, counseling and advocacy services. MSU Safe Place is a safe haven that resides in an undisclosed location for spouses and their children who are fleeing abusive relationships, providing advocacy, shelter, counseling and more. The Office for Civil Rights and Title IX at MSU is focused strictly on responding to these campus issues and investigating all reports of harassment and gender-based violence. These organizations and missions are the stepping stones to an on-campus, local and national cultural shift, no matter how small each pebble of hope may seem.
Ultimately, Thomashow says all we need is for people to care. The days of flipping through bleak, enraging newspaper headlines and answering those pleas with inaction needs to become a thing of the past. Change is around the corner if we embrace it and continue pushing. We are educating bystanders and teaching the public what consent looks like. Growth in discussion surrounding abuse, assault and harassment is leading to action. Sexual assault has been, and will always be, a problem that our friends, our families, our college campuses, our workplaces and our nation will face.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.
Maybe we can shrink the statistics in half. Maybe we can demand justice and actually see it play out in real-time. Maybe we can continue giving survivors the strength to share their story and change the narrative with their truth. Maybe, rather than each story of assault ending in shame and heads hung low, these stories can instead end in triumph and in fists pushed up toward the sky, a glimmer of hope for survivors everywhere.
Sydney Naseef is a journalism major and public relations minor in the Honors College at Michigan State University graduating in 2020. She is working as a student practitioner at Martin Waymire, an award-winning PR firm in Lansing, Michigan.When Sydney isn’t at work or in class, she likes to spend her time writing, taking photos or exploring her new love for graphic design – all while listening to The 1975, of course.