A Plea for Rape-Free Campuses

Each year thousands of students arrive on college and university campuses to begin their path toward becoming educated citizens of the globe. And until recently, each year as parents drop their sons and daughters at campuses across America the thought never crossed their minds that their daughter might be one in five college women and one in ten college men who will experience sexual assault while a student. Headlines litter the media outlets about assaults on campus--rape between students who know one another; gang rapes; pre-meditated rapes by predators who may have a reputation but are never brought up on charges. The aftermath of a rape takes the survivor to issues of post-traumatic stress--inability to concentrate, fear for safety, fear of engaging socially and much more. It can also inflict a stigma for the survivor if she or he chooses to press charges, either through campus disciplinary systems or in the criminal court system. The last thing a student affairs professional wants is for their campus to have a reputation as a place where students are unsafe. With a track record of few convictions for alleged perpetrators of these violent acts, the unreported rape double victimizes the student. Not only are they living with trauma but also the assumed justice that might serve to interrupt future incidents and mobilize healing, both for the individual and for peers, is rendered ineffectual.

In 1976 when I was a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary I was sexually assaulted at knifepoint by a stranger in a church, while finishing up a summer internship. Far from home on the West Coast, I found myself alone, with the family I was living with away on vacation and the assurances of my religious upbringing shattered by this act of violence. Like many young adults whom I have had the privilege of accompanying as their chaplain through their journey from assault to survival, through healing and hope, I was plunged into a faith crisis. I wondered why God had not protected me that day; I was exhausted by recurring nightmares of being attacked; I was undone when one of my best friends grew distant because he 'just couldn't handle it'; I wondered how I could tell my parents; and having survived this horrible experience, I wondered what was ahead for me, where I would find support.

About twenty years after I was raped, while a chaplain at a small college in Minnesota I was invited to a student women's spirituality group. The night I attended, the group was having a discussion about women and violation and ways they could support those who had experienced violence in their lives. We sat in a candle-filled room on campus sharing stories of a roommate who had been raped by the brother of a friend; one of the students who had been raped by a date in high school; another student who talked about being drunk and waking up naked, not remembering what had happened, feeling uneasy about telling the college administration. I then shared my own rape narrative with them. As their chaplain I wanted them to know that I understood the fear, the worry, the aloneness and I also wanted them to know that I was there to support them as a caring professional, one who believes that sexual violence should not happen and that my role is to accompany them through the process of healing.*

As we begin another academic year, as we welcome a new class of young adults to our campuses, I call upon my colleagues in higher education--chaplains, campus ministers, student affairs leaders, counselors, sexual assault prevention offices, faculty, presidents, and provosts--to join me in making 2015-16 the year of the rape-free campus, where every student is mobilized to say 'yes means yes'; to speak up, guard, defend those who may be at risk, to be clear that acts of sexual violence will not be tolerated. We must hold up the community standards of respect, care, and dignity, must tell the truth about what is happening, and absolutely must attend to those who come forward naming this reality. But it doesn't stop there. Rape-free campuses will only be a reality when student leaders from campus athletic teams, fraternities and sororities, dorm councils, and religious communities across all parts of campus join administrators and faculty to create a safe, healthy, intellectually vibrant and respectful place for peers. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes an awakened mobilized campus to prepare healthy, engaged, global citizen leaders in a safe, healthy, wonderfully generative way. Isn't it time?

*For the complete story see, Lucy Forster-Smith, Crossing Thresholds: The Making and Remaking of a 21st Century College Chaplain, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.