Speaking out on sexual assault

In light of recent events at Amherst, U of C must vocalize commitment to support sexual assault survivors.

By Christina Pillsbury

Editor’s note: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.

Last week, a former Amherst College student published an article in the Amherst Student detailing her experiences on campus after being sexually assaulted in her dorm. The article quickly went viral on college campuses. My Facebook feed was inundated with friends posting the article—angry at the A.C. administration, angry at rape culture, and sad for this girl. I, on the other hand, felt excited, empowered, and an enormous sense of kinship that a fellow sexual assault survivor was able to come forth in such a public way with her story.

I thought, what if this inspires other survivors to tell their stories? We as a community could then begin to eradicate the oppressive shame inflicted on us and challenge the system that put it there in the first place. If we all tell our stories, we can then attempt to address what stopped us from telling them before.

When I was 16, I woke up at a party in the middle of the night with a friend on top—and inside—of me. I was initially just mad at myself; how did I let this happen again? The year before, a different friend had held me down, called me a slut, and put his penis inside of me without a condom. I was too afraid of both of them, so why tell anyone? It didn’t occur to me that there might be adults who could protect me while at school. It didn’t occur to me that there were other girls at my school who were going through similar things. We were all just too scared to say anything.

Even though I had the most supportive family, having to see those boys every day at school seemed like it would be much harder if everyone knew. And furthermore, my support system couldn’t possibly control what happened to me at school. Perhaps if a staff member of my high school had told us that we could talk to them, I would have felt safe walking the halls. Looking back, they might have helped, but in a moment of panic and fear, I was in no place to research my options, or figure out a way to bring it up after English class. Maybe if my school or town or country was a place where talking about sexual assault didn’t bring about shame, survivors could have found one another. But instead, I heard jokes from boys in my grade (including one of my attackers) about that girl in our class who was so stupid that someone raped her.

Maybe attacking rape culture doesn’t start with changing the justice system. On an interpersonal level, we can start the conversation as a way of beginning to support one another, allowing survivors to heal in a way that makes sense to each of them as individuals. Much of the recent conversation about sexual assault at this university revolves around the disciplinary process, but we need to look at the issue differently: We need to focus on what the survivor needs. To do this, we all need to feel as if we’ll be supported on campus. We need administrators to make it abundantly clear that this is a place where students should feel safe coming to them for support. And they must understand how to facilitate the building of a safety net in order to heal and empower survivors on campus.

I am not accusing the University of anything; I have no personal experience dealing with assault on this campus. But I also don’t assume that the U of C can handle situations better than other institutions. The University’s online Sexual Harrassment and Violence Resources and Information Index does list support groups and resources for students, but the links leading to the Sexual Assault Section of the “Common Sense” Brochure and the “Sexual Assault Brochure: A Guide to Support Services” are both broken. This system would clearly not be ideal in a moment of crisis, and considering that the Amherst case is hardly the first allegation of a college reacting poorly in cases of sexual assault, I’d probably believe talking to a dean wasn’t worth it. It’s not that the University’s sexual assault policy isn’t comprehensive enough; it’s that other schools have similar policies, yet accusations of mistreatment are still common. Rape culture is so prevalent everywhere else; is there any real reason to believe that the U of C is different?

I, as a woman, as a survivor, as a resident of Hyde Park, as a student of the University of Chicago, need Robert Zimmer, Dean Boyer, and Dean Art, among others, to publicly state that they care about me, and every other student. I need to know that they care about our well-being and that they feel it is unacceptable for someone to have to go through a time of crisis alone. In order to feel safe here, I need to hear someone counteract the threatening statements of members of Congress, of the justice system, and of every douchebag out there who has told me that some kinds of sexual assault or harassment are worse than others.

I hope that University administrators understand the immense responsibility they have to students in this regard. This is a crucial time for survivors and future survivors, and the University has the opportunity and obligation to help support us.

Christina Pillsbury is a fifth-year in the College majoring in English.