Mistrust in the system discourages victims from reporting
While rape and sexual assault are two of the most common types of crimes that occur on a college campus, they are also two of the most underreported.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, on average, only 20 percent of college-age women who experience sexual assault actually report it.
Julie Watson, a student at Southeast Missouri State University, was sexually assaulted a year ago after she and a group of friends accompanied an intoxicated and injured friend back to the home of a male friend, she said. Watson said she didn’t trust the man to take adequate care of her intoxicated friend and she did not want to leave her there alone. The man ended up assaulting Watson that night, she said.
Watson said she waited about two months to report the sexual assault.
“I didn’t realize at first that what had happened to me was sexual assault,” Watson said.
When Watson reported, she did so anonymously to the university’s Counseling and Disability Services because she didn’t think the university’s judicial system or local law enforcement could help her.
She isn’t alone. According to RAINN, 13 percent of victims said they chose not to report because they believed the police wouldn’t believe them, and 2 percent believed the police couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help.
Watson added she didn’t want to go through the judicial process because she didn’t want to have to prove what happened to her and keep retelling the story.
Kendra Eads, executive director of the Southeast Missouri chapter of the Network Against Sexual Violence, said a lack of reporting also comes from miscommunication of the reporting process. In many cases, people report to someone but the report doesn’t get to the right person and the case is considered unreported. In general, Eads said people tend to not report because of the feeling of shame or guilt that can accompany sexual assault.
“Because there’s so much shame around the dynamics of sexual assault, because it is about power and about sex and about a lot of these things that people already have a lot of issues around, there’s a lot of guilt and feelings of helplessness and people internalize those,” Eads said.
Donna St. Sauver, the director of the Campus Violence Prevention Program at Southeast and a victim’s advocate with the Southeast Missouri chapter of the Network Against Sexual Violence, said the number of reports of sexual violence on campus is increasing. She said the increase in reporting does not mean sexual assaults are rising, but that the university is creating an environment that empowers students to come forward. She added that the number of sexual assaults are about the same at all Missouri universities.
“It’s not something to be afraid of,” St. Sauver said. “We should be alarmed because of how prevalent it is in our society.”
Oftentimes, students report to Counseling and Disability Services first instead of to the university’s Department of Public Safety. St. Sauver said students prefer the confidentiality that counseling provides, especially directly following an assault.
She said in many cases, students will change their minds on how they choose to report, choosing to remain confidential at first, but deciding to officially report later.
Eads said reporting options must be provided to victims in order to help them feel empowered after an assault. Victims can go to the NASV office and undergo a forensic interview to record their story on video for later usage, undergo a medical exam and testing, file a rape kit or choose to undergo counseling. Advocates also can help victims report directly to law enforcement and help them understand the process. Victims are able to pick and choose which services they take advantage of.
“Giving them back some of their power by having all of this knowledge and these options is the most important thing,” Eads said.
Southeast’s Counseling and Disability Services also provides options to students wanting to report. CDS can refer students to SEMO-NASV and other local resources and help students report to law enforcement or the university.
Eads added that a lot of the time victims did end up choosing to report to law enforcement but were not met with beneficial outcomes.
“When they do report, there’s not usually a lot of great outcomes,” Eads said. “Sometimes there is, but it has to be a pretty cut and dry case with a lot of physical evidence or a witness or something that can make it a really good case to win.”
For students thinking about reporting, Watson encourages them to do so.
“It makes a difference if more and more people are reporting because hopefully the punishments will get higher,” Watson said.
Students wanting to report can report to a number of sources, including Counseling and Disability Services, SEMO-NASV, the Southeast Medical Center, the Office of Student Conduct or the Department of Public Safety.