Breaking the Silence: Sexual Assault at Vanderbilt University

Four and a half years ago I received my acceptance letter from Vanderbilt. At the time, I didn't know that a majority of my friends would become sexual assault survivors, or that I would be dedicating my life to a cause that I was personally affected by at this university.
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This summer many Vanderbilt students and alumni learned something new about our community: Sexual violence occurs on our campus. But this June was not the first time this has happened here. Rape and sexual assault is an ongoing, systemic problem that occurs within the Vanderbilt community more often than we like to believe. Four and a half years ago I received my acceptance letter from Vanderbilt. At the time, I didn't know that a majority of my friends would become sexual assault survivors, or that I would be dedicating my life to a cause that I was personally affected by at this university.

While I was happy to see that a case of sexual violence is receiving the adequate legal care, I am concerned about all of the survivors whose experiences have not been similar, and those survivors who did not even feel comfortable coming forward. Where are the voices of every other survivor of sexual assault on our campus? Is justice truly always served? In looking at this case I am left contemplating more questions than I am given answers.

This past summer the nation learned how Vanderbilt deals with sexual assault through the highly publicized football player rape case. As a nation we have been led to believe that incidents of rape on college campuses are always properly dealt with, the victims receive the proper care, and that the perpetrators are properly punished for their actions.

And yet, I know this is not how Vanderbilt deals with all cases of sexual assault, and I question what made Vanderbilt's response so different in this instance.

Here is a very different story than the one from this summer: A friend of mine who was raped her freshman year in a dorm room by one of her friends reported the incident to the Women's Center. However, after she chose to pursue the investigation, Women's Center and Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Disability Services Department staff dissuaded her from trying to ensure that her rapist would receive the proper punishment he deserved on the grounds that she had more important things to focus on like building her resume, maintain her GPA, and "moving on." A campus leader with an almost perfect GPA, her involvement on campus became sporadic and her grades began to slip. After much deliberation, including conversations with family friends and private counseling, she decided to drop the charges in order to start moving forward in her own life. While this is only one incident, it is representative of a larger issue on our campus. I have heard stories similar to this from numerous women on our campus, which further demonstrates the ongoing silence and perpetuation of rape culture that exists within our community.

Even after details of the case have been brought to light my questions remain the same: What has made this instance of rape from this summer so different from all others? Will this be the method our administration will take to deal with every case of sexual assault from this point forward? Did the initial involvement of the Metro Police Department, versus just VUPDS, affect how it was handled by Vanderbilt? Why is this the first time we are hearing of sexual assault on our campus?

As Vanderbilt students we idolize an environment that focuses more on developing our resumes than our community.

In the spring of 2010 I joined the majority of victims of rape who remain silent about their assault. I could not imagine risking the institutional and communal re-traumatization of betrayal and shame. I already felt betrayed by my attacker and the smaller community I belonged to, I could not imagine going through some of the negative experiences I had heard others had after reporting. I am now in my fifth year at Vanderbilt, and last semester alone I met 30 women whose experiences were subpar in reporting their crimes to Vanderbilt staff and faculty.

The lack of dialogue on our campus directly correlates to the silence of survivors; many survivors, male and female, begin to feel isolated causing them to feel like they are the only ones fighting this battle. The administration continues to perpetuate this silence by not providing adequate education, prevention, and awareness for every student on our campus. While The Women's Center has implemented The Green Dot's program, I think we must call attention to the ineffectiveness of its application. Sexual violence on Vanderbilt's campus is more complicated than wearing a Green Dot. In response to the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act the administration is now requiring all incoming freshman to watch videos through the Vanderbilt University Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness (VUPETSA) program. Since this is a recently implemented program it is hard to know its effects just yet. Rather than confronting the rape culture and prevalence of sexual violence on our campus, our administration chooses to respond only to the "more serious" cases of rape or the ones that have the potential to directly affect the reputation of the institution.

Sexual assault is not an athlete problem or a Greek problem. It is a campus problem. As a survivor of rape, undergraduate student, former athlete, campus leader, and member of Greek life, I challenge my fellow students to no longer remain silent to the atrocities that plague our campus. The only way we can end sexual violence on our campus is to rise in solidarity and take a stand against the injustices that occur within the Vanderbubble. We must foster an environment where conversations about sexual violence effectively and productively occur. The debilitating silence must be transformed into engaging forms of education, prevention, and awareness. Victims of sexual violence must feel comfortable reporting and talking about their experiences, while also receiving the support they have a right to and need. The sexual violence that persists on our campus can only decline if we break the chains of silence that are preventing us from making productive change.

I encourage students, staff, faculty, and alumni to respectfully engage in dialogue about how sexual violence affects each individual person and our community as a whole. Conversations need to occur that address the silence that has become an accepted part of our campus, what we can do to actively join together as a community to fight this issue, how we can prevent the issue from occurring, and what we can do to make students more aware that this is an issue that effects all individuals in our community. It is necessary for Vanderbilt administrative staff to take steps to implement effective and productive education for all faculty and staff members, properly make students aware of their rights, support victims through their reporting process, target education towards the possible perpetuators of this violence and not only women, increase awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence on our campus, and by having experts in handling these matters on staff. Students need to encourage each other to shape our community into one that empowers and prevents sexual violence, that supports survivors rather than shame them, to voice our opinions about the issues we have with sexual violence on our campus, and to engage in dialogue about sexual violence. Rape happens here. What are you going to do about it?

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