Op-Ed: Suggestions for Improving the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Experience at Whitman College

Emily Volpert, Whitman College Senior

At Whitman, the number of reports of sexual assault has consistently increased over the last five years. While reports of sexual assault on campus are steadily increasing, far fewer assaults are investigated than are reported. And according to the 2000 National Crime Victimization survey, 90% of sexual assault survivors do not report the assault.

Research shows that rates of sexual assault are high on most U.S. campuses: A national survey found in 2014 that by their fourth year of college, 25% of women report experiencing either being physically forced to have intercourse, being the victim of an unsuccessful attempt to force them to have intercourse, or having unwanted intercourse when incapacitated.

The national statistics combined with Whitman’s numbers made me wonder: Why is it that some victims of sexual assault choose not to go through the Title IX Process as it is currently set up at Whitman?

For my sociology senior thesis, I decided to ask. I performed a survey asking sexual assault survivors on the Whitman campus what they experience (socially, emotionally, and in interactions with the institution) after their assault. Twenty survivors completed the survey. Their voices are extremely important. I present here a condensed version of my findings and suggestions for improving the survivor’s experience on our campus.

Whitman students who have experienced sexual assault on campus report feeling many cultural and social pressures when deciding whether to file a report or open an investigation. These pressures include self-blame and shame, guilt, victim blaming, rape myth acceptance, internalized rape myth acceptance, fear of retaliation, uncertainty/confusion, hesitation to report acquaintance assault, fear of re-victimization, depression, severe anxiety, strained personal relationships, a feeling of loss of control, and skepticism of the institutional response in the wake of their assault. They also expressed experiencing: difficulty dealing with emotions from the assault in conjunction with daily social norms and expectations; difficulty functioning within the college institution as an assault victim; fear of re-victimization when disclosing their assault with support systems; perceptions of and experiences of institutional betrayal in the wake of the assault (including dissatisfaction with institutional support systems); and negative impressions of Title IX processes and Title IX Administration at Whitman College.

The results of this survey show that steps can and should be taken to improve the sexual assault survivor’s experience at Whitman College. Whitman’s goal is to educate its students, while ensuring their health and safety. Survivors of sexual assault should not have to feel that their experience was invalid, that they will not be believed by others, that they do not deserve support, or that they are alone in their experience. However, these negative re-victimization experiences are easier to identify than they are to eradicate.

Some survivors expressed negative responses to the Title IX process, the Title IX Administrator, the Counseling Center, the Health Center. Suggestions for improving the sexual assault survivor’s experience on the Whitman College campus have emerged directly from the students who responded to my survey, including the following:

1. Because survivors indicated that they were “confused” by the Title IX policy (even as described to them by the Title IX Administrator), the policy should be simplified and made more accessible to students. The Whitman College Grievance Policy is 27 pages long. The policy applies to both Whitman employees and students. Sexual assault is found at the very end of a lengthy list of actions that the policy defines as “sexual harassment.” The policy does not define sexual assault and other forced sexual encounters separate from “sexual harassment.” As a result, the policy does not even say, for instance, that someone who is found guilty of “sexual assault,” (defined as “…non-consensual penetration of, or forcing someone to penetrate, an orifice (anal, vaginal, oral) with the penis, finger, tongue, or objects” will necessarily result in expulsion. A student should not have to work their way through 27 pages of jargon to eventually find a chart which purports to show how a student pursues a claim for sexual assault.

There should be a separate, greatly-simplified policy regarding student sexual harassment and assault so survivors can better understand what they could expect from the process. That simplified policy should state expressly at a minimum, when a student forces another student into sexual contact against that person’s will, that assailant will be expelled from the college. There should be no discretion whatsoever for college administrators to excuse sexual assaults.

2. When a Whitman student is sexually assaulted, there is no way for them to talk to trusted professors, faculty, staff, coaches, supervisors, etc. without knowing that the report will inevitably go to one single employee of the College, the Title IX Administrator. Due to mandatory reporting policies, if a Whitman student reports to Whitman faculty, staff, coaches, supervisors, student academic advisers or resident assistants, those individuals are obligated to report the details of what the student said to the Title IX Administrator. This policy does not apply to employees of the health center, the counseling center, the YWCA Sexual Assault Victim’s Advocate, and Adam Kirtley (in his capacity as a pastoral counselor). The ethicality of mandatory reporting policies on college campuses is a controversial issue in academia, and some schools have worked to change policies to protect victim’s rights.

Because of the mandatory reporting policies, if a student reports to a trusted faculty member (excluding those listed above), that information is required to be reported to the Title IX Administrator. If any student, for any reason, feels uncomfortable working through a sexual assault report with the person who happens to be in the position of Title IX Administrator, they may choose not to report.

The Title IX Administrator at Whitman also holds the office of Associate Dean of Students, and so students may interact with the Title IX Administrator in other capacities (or plan to do so), which could make reporting to them more complicated. To alleviate some of these concerns, I suggest that Whitman consider hiring a second Title IX Administrator, or creating a team of Title IX Administrators to assist students with Title IX concerns. This way, students would have more than one single option of who to seek help from within the Title IX process in the wake of an assault.

3. The negative impressions of the Title IX process and Title IX Administration at Whitman should be further researched and analyzed, especially the pressure felt by some respondents to open an investigation when they felt they were not ready to do so.

4. After a survivor engages with the Title IX process, the College should ask them to share about their experience with the Title IX process. This could take shape through an anonymous survey so that the students who are going through the process can express how they feel about the Title IX process. This feedback should be actively encouraged by the Title IX Administration in continuous efforts to improve survivor’s experiences on the Whitman College campus.

5. Because some respondents feared re-victimization in reporting their assault or seeking help, Whitman College employees (especially those in the Health Center, Counseling Center, and Title IX Administrator’s office) should be made aware of the types of responses that cause sexual assault survivors to experience re-victimization, and should make every effort to alleviate those feelings in survivors who seek their help.

6. Because some respondents who visited the Health Center after their assault report that they felt invalidated in their experience of sexual assault because they were not offered STD tests, Health Center staff should consistently offer STD tests and pregnancy tests (when applicable) when a victim informs them that they have been assaulted, and consistently offer information about where they can have a rape kit performed (when applicable).

7. Because some respondents indicated feeling isolated within the institution due to their sexual assault victim-status, the Counseling Center should create a sexual survivors support group. This could help alleviate feelings of isolation and discomfort during all stages of the Title IX process, or for those survivors who do not desire to report their assault at all. Whitman College could connect with institutions that offer support groups for sexual assault survivors and model a group off an already successful program.

8. Another way to improve survivor’s experiences on campus would be to educate Whitman students on the best ways to respond to sexual assault disclosures from their peers. All 20 of my respondents told a friend about their assault experience. The Whitman College Green Dot program equips Whitman students to help their peers by making every effort to prevent sexual violence, but Whitman students could also benefit from further education surrounding best practices when responding to a victim of sexual assault. That type of training could be a part of the Green Dot orientation program, and could help not only survivors of sexual assault, but also those to which they disclose their experience. It is always better to be prepared for a potentially uncomfortable disclosure (like that of sexual assault) than to be caught off guard and not know the best ways to validate survivor’s experiences. This training could help build community and increase the overall sense of emotional and physical safety on the Whitman campus for survivors.

The personal descriptions collected in this survey from survivors of sexual assault should be taken seriously by the Whitman College Administration. The willingness of survivors to provide personal information about their experiences with the Title IX process shows that there is a great opportunity to learn from these brave survivors. The Whitman College Administration has the unique opportunity to support student victims of sexual assault. The Administration should further explore the brave voices of sexual assault survivors, and continue to take steps to improve the Title IX processes in place.