The right response to a sexual assault on campus

Dear Colleagues and Students:

In light of recent events on campus, several of us felt that it was worthwhile to engage in discussion regarding the prevalence and consequences of sexual assault. An alert was sent out on Thursday April 11 reporting that an attempted assault had occurred in the CASL Building. Campus safety responded quickly and the alleged perpetrator was identified.

Two features about the process were troubling.  The first concerns the language used through the process of investigation.  The female was initially identified as “the victim” and the alleged perpetrator as “the assailant.”  This was as it should be.  However, once the determination was made that the assailant was known to the victim, she became “the complainant” and he became “someone known” to her.  This language feeds the assumptions that many people hold regarding the nature and consequences of sexual assault, which raises our second concern. Many people assumed that this was a stranger assault and were very concerned for the safety of women on campus. When it was reported that the incident involved acquaintances, many, including campus security, appeared to believe that there was no further cause for concern.

The preponderance of research evidence clearly demonstrates that the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim (estimates range from 75-99% depending on the methodology and the sample). Sexual assault includes attempted/completed rape, as well as other forms of forced or coerced sexual contact. While prevalence estimates vary depending on the methodology and sample, even the most conservative estimates suggest that one out of every eight women in the U.S. will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.  College age women 18 -24 years of age are at most risk for this “acquaintance rape.” If we include all forms of sexual assaults, the prevalence rates are even more distressing with estimates ranging from between 25 – 50% of women in the US experiencing some form of assault from age 14 upward.

All forms of sex assault are associated with negative consequences for victims including higher rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety and physical illness. These consequences occur whether the perpetrator is known or unknown. However, sexual assaults perpetrated by acquaintances are often the source of extreme trauma because victims come to question what is safe and who can be trusted.

This was a most unfortunate incident for the young woman involved.   Let us not compound her difficulties with injudicious language that has the potential to add to her difficulties as well as perpetuate stereotypes of stranger danger.

Information about statistics and resources are available at the following websites: Michigan Resource Center on Domestic & Sexual Violence and UM-Dearborn’s Women’s Resource Center.

Sincerely,

Professors Pamela McAuslan, Lora Lempert, Suzanne Bergeron, Maureen Linker, James Gruber, Pamela Pennock, Georgina Hickey, Tiffany Marra, and Lisa Martin