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Speaking out on sexual assault

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

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.

  • An additional resource that students should all be aware of is the Office of the Student Ombudsperson. As Student Ombudsperson, it is my job to connect people with resources and help them explore their options when facing a whole range of problems, including matters of sexual assault and harassment. No student should feel that they are alone or optionless when facing a crisis as serious as sexual assault. My office is confidential, independent, neutral and informal. I work to empower students to make decisions about their own situations, connecting people to resources or cutting through bureaucracy as needed. I am available by appointment to talk with students about any situation or issue. E-mail me at [email protected] or call 773-702-8422. Please remember though, that e-mails are not appropriate for confidential communications and should be limited to reaching out for an appointment.

  • Sandra

    Thanks for speaking out- I remember how lonely it felt as a survivor at UChicago. Even with the help of Student Counseling Services and supportive friends, talking about your own rape sometimes feels like an unfair burden to put on others. Every time I wanted to speak up about it (a performance of the Vagina Monologues, Take Back the Night…) it seemed too impersonal, and I was not interested in broadcasting my private trauma. The reality is that rape is a public trauma and one that is disgustingly common. Thanks again, I hope some renewed solidarity among the (probably) many survivors on campus can result from your candor.

  • School Links and Resources

    Great article, and thank you for sharing your story. But I just wanted to check in about the links that you said were broken–last time I checked, the first site you mentioned was functioning and the information could be found, and I just checked again to confirm that. I see what you meant about the Resources link, though. This being the case, I think it is important to emphasize that I was able to find a great deal of information and support/resources quickly on the page, and the RSVP page as well. The RSVP program was doing some department shifts this summer, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still in the middle of changing some things, though.

    For anyone in need of support and resources, you should absolutely go to the ombudsperson (as the previous commenter offered), RSVP and Student Counseling Services(they provide a great deal of support for those that come to them), and yes, the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Calls. They are a 24-hour resource, and all of the ones I know involved with it feel very passionately about the proper treatment of rape victims. I have yet to hear of a negative situation so far–if there has been one, then they should be reported so we can never have that happen again!–so I implore everyone who has encountered sexual harassment/assault to try using the University resources, unless they find an outlet that is better suited for them, so that you know that there is at least something right here for you.

  • anon

    I personally did not feel that Student Counseling Services provided helpful support. Maybe it was just my counselor (though I doubt it, as I’ve heard similar things from others), but I was made to feel that maybe I was “too sensitive” and should move on. According to her, any hesitation I had around relationships was due to my family’s background and not, you know, because I had my bodily integrity violated. In any event, I would recommend contacting the Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline before student services in order to get non-judgmental and impartial information about psychological services, as well as medical and legal advocacy. Do I want to believe that UChicago has our best interests at heart? Of course. Do I think this is true in practice? No.

  • Kate

    I think that you make a really great point, Christina, about what you need to hear in order to feel safe. I need to hear the same things.

    When it happened to me, I just wanted to know that somebody knew that my experience was legitimate. Even just vaguely or hypothetically. It wasn’t that I didn’t know myself…but it was hard to give myself permission to feel like the victim of an invisible crime.* So I tried to pretend like it didn’t happen — that it was all misunderstood, and I wasn’t really a victim, and no one had really tried to do anything bad to me, and there was no negligent harm either. That wasn’t very healthy. It seems like if my school had been engaged in my student experience, it would have helped build an atmosphere of respect to protect me from that sort of desperate thinking.

    *Maybe that’s not the most forward-thinking way to put it, but that’s how it felt at the time.

  • anon

    While I appreciate the ombudsperson saying they are a resource, the Sexual Assault Deans On Call go through 50+ hours of training SPECIFIC to sexual assault and the issues that surround it, including how to talk with and help survivors. Please use that resource.

    Christina – thank you so much for your bravery!

  • @Anon: I should perhaps clarify. One of the most disturbing and dehumanizing aspects of the account from Amherst is that administrators, the sexual assault counselor, and many others were all recounted as failing in their responsibilities. The Office of the Student Ombudsperson is not designed to help students specifically with sexual assault. I would hope that students on campus would already know about the Sexual Assault Deans on Call. These are the most appropriate resources in these situations. However, should any student feel that the response to their situation is not appropriate, violates University policy, violates decency, or is otherwise problematic, the Ombudsperson is the designated resource afforded students to help resolve those shortcomings. If students feel that counselors at SCS are not helpful, that is feedback that I can direct as well. When students don’t know who to turn to or where else to go, the ombudsperson is available. My apologies if my previous post left confusion about this role.

  • JS

    The counselors at SCRS are notoriously crappy. If you want any actual help with your mental health you’re better off taking your problems elsewhere.

    Not blaming you at all, just seconding that I have had multiple atrocious experiences at this university both at student health and at student counseling.