Start Talking: Why The Sexual Assault Conversation Needs To Change

by Lizzie Frabotta

Three days ago, I woke up to a text I’d dreaded since my younger friend began college.

Though she initially didn’t come right out and say it, she’d been “taken advantage” of  or, in plain English, sexually assaulted.

As more young men and women work up the courage to speak about past trauma, universities combat negative PR with new policies or programs to affirm their “intolerance” for sexual assault and rape on campus.

However, these measures don’t seem to do much of anything.

Yes, the number of reported incidents has increased, but what we need to see happening is the number of occurrences decreasing.

I believe this can be done by making consent a more approachable topic.

Even house-trained pets understand “no means no,” but sobriety and a verbal affirmation need to be factored in.

Yes, many have had drunk sexual encounters, and this is common in our culture. I am not saying this is assault or rape because of a lack of irrefutable consent.

I’m not saying being under the influence automatically rules out consent, but the topic needs to be discussed.

I’ve rarely been asked, “Do you want to do this?” to affirm I consent to what is happening. And, I do think this is an important step.

Many of the victims I’ve spoken with, myself included, have some social anxiety. We fear speaking up, especially if we know the other party.

In the pilot episode of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Matt Lauer quips:

"I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude."

Regardless of what another party has done, often, we want them to like us. Sexual assault and rape affect both males and females, but this quote resonated with me.

This is where victim blaming comes into play. There are situations when people ask, “Why didn’t you speak up?"; “Why didn’t you leave?” or “Why didn’t you scream?"

Sometimes, these questions are valid, but why are we heavily questioning the victim for what he or she failed to do in a crisis, instead of the assailant for his or her inexplicable actions?

Why didn’t he stop when she pushed his hands away the first time? Why not the second? Why didn’t he stop when she said they shouldn’t be doing this?

Why didn’t he stop when she said she wasn’t ready? Why don’t we question the ignored uncertainties instead of asking, “What were you wearing?”

This is such an obvious problem, but there isn't just one obvious solution.

Personally, I think we need to create safety on college campuses by building educated peer support systems, and restructuring behavior to prevent students from becoming victims.

We’re all warned as teens to watch our drinks at parties. We’re all warned not to walk alone at night.

But, what we’re not warned about is the miscommunication or the possibility of overestimating your trust in someone you know.

All in all, the conversation needs to change. Both sexes need to openly discuss what consent means to them.

In relationships, it’s much easier to convey what you do or do not want.

In the hook-up culture, it’s not as simple. People are brainstorming all kinds of solutions, like apps that require each party to answer questions to verify consent.

This is a step in the right direction, but, let's be honest: In the heat of the moment, who is going to pull out a phone to access a consent app when it's so much easier to blur the lines instead?

We can't wait until things have already begun to start the conversation.

The conversation needs to reach beyond the parties immediately involved, although that's at the core, and convey the seriousness and commonality of the matter while educating others involved on supporting those affected.

When someone comes to you and confesses he or she has been violated, it's not easy to comprehend. No one I've met so far has really been able to.

For example, as a freshman in college, I was taken advantage of at a Halloween party.

I was unable to leave the room, but eventually made my way out and called my boyfriend, still in shock and having no idea what to do.

He lived in my dorm, so it was a quick run down the stairs. I didn’t say much, but I told him I’d been violated. I didn’t go into detail; I was still shocked and embarrassed.

His initial response to the issue was comforting. He walked me back to my room, and I went to sleep pretending nothing happened –until I woke up and realized the severity of the night before.

Unfortunately, the assailant lived on my floor. I saw him the next morning walking to the bathroom, and I froze in the middle of the hallway.

A few days went by and I heard nothing from my boyfriend. He decided we needed a “break” since he was so busy.

Convenient timing, eh? I don’t blame him; what happened to me was too much for anyone to bear.

However, I don’t think, as college students, we’re educated enough on the mental anguish these events cause.

I remember calling the boyfriend during this “break” one evening, incredibly shaken up because my assailant had come into my friend’s dorm.

I asked him to come upstairs for a few minutes. He told me to “shut my door.” That is all.

He was the only person I’d told, which he knew, and he still never checked in on me. The only comfort he could offer was “shut your door.”

I’ve recognized my own role in the matter above. I could’ve spoken up more. I could’ve physically pushed my way out.

There are a lot of “could haves" here that one might view as "should haves" in hindsight, but what I could or should have done is insignificant compared to what the other party actually did.

I can't even begin to describe how unbelievably hurtful victim blaming is to people who’ve experienced sexual violation.

Do you think we haven't laid awake at night, blaming ourselves and thinking of what else we could’ve done?

The fact that we’re awake at night recounting the memory while the other party goes about their day-to-day life shows the problem is not double-sided. The victim is not the cause.

In both my experience, and that of my younger friend, we each focused our thoughts and emotions on other social circumstances because being sexually violated, handling the situation and speaking out is so taboo.

I was concerned with what my boyfriend would think. I focused so much on saving that relationship.

She, on the other hand, was terrified of what her sorority sisters would think of what she’d done, yet she consented to nothing.

Still, she feared the opinions of her peers because that was much easier than accepting that something so awful had happened to her.

It’s one of those situations you think will never happen to you, so you really don’t know how to cope.

After my boyfriend bailed, it was much easier to explain I was suffering because of a breakup than what happened on Halloween.

Others can sympathize and comfort you over the loss of a boy, but things get awkward when you say your body was taken without your consent.

Once again, we need to get the conversation going. We need to be able to prevent the situation, but also educate people enough to where they can understand how these traumas affect the people around them.

As Lady Gaga and Governor Andrew Cuomo state in their essay urging the passage of “Enough is Enough,” being able to speak about difficult experiences openly is “fundamental to easing a survivor’s recovery, and to removing the shame that still shrouds sexual assault.”

The bill affirms victims’ rights to speak up and attain justice, but there are so many factors deterring “victims” from doing so that Cuomo fails to address.

I do believe both Gaga and Cuomo have college students’ best interests at heart, but we need to take a deeper look at the situation.

Many students are afraid to speak up because, at this stage in our culture, consent is a grey area. We may feel violated, but did we consent?

If we’re unsure, we don’t want to label a fellow classmate a rapist or accuse him or her of a crime.

More often than not, 80 to 90 percent of the time, the assailant is someone the student knows (RAINN). The anxiety of coming forward and potentially damaging a relationship influences coming forward as well.

Almost a year after my assault, I tried opening up to an upperclassman I’d been seeing. I admitted the assault was why I was so cautious about getting close to him.

Three months later, the same boy took my virginity despite me 1. being intoxicated, and 2. saying more than twice, “I don’t think we should do this, I’m not ready for this.”

I’m not calling this rape, and I’m not looking to attack or blame this individual, but this is a prime example of the misconstrued definition of consent.

That is why we need to first change the conversation and the behaviors of everyone involved. This bill of rights should not be the only facet incorporated into the student experience.

We need to humanize sexual assault and rape. It’s something you hear about on TV, witness in films and read about in the newspaper. It’s a horror your parents warn you about before going off to school.

However, no one teaches you how to mentally handle it when it happens to you. No one teaches you how to support a friend who it happens to.

No one teaches you about the reality of someone you know and trust taking advantage without your consent. There is so much left out of these warnings.

Talking about sexual violence and assault makes people uncomfortable, plain and simple.

We see the brave Columbia student carrying her mattress around campus all the way to graduation, and people have scorned her, even the faculty. She’s a nuisance to some.

We don’t want these atrocities thrown in our faces because it’s such a difficult situation to comprehend.

This is another reason not only campuses, but just society in general, can feel so unsafe to victims.

No one understands. As if the experience itself isn’t scarring enough, making you feel damaged and used, you’re suddenly viewed as sexual and impure.

From personal experience, my mother feared me sharing my story because “it’s just not anyone’s business” and “people don’t need to know.” But they do.

The more people who come forward, the more seriously and adequately the situation will be handled.

Though occurrences like this happen everywhere, the majority I’ve seen are within the Greek system.

A possible solution for this issue could be having some sort of forum between chapters once a month, where female sorority members and male fraternity members discuss consent.

Similar forums could take place for non-Greek students at new student orientations, and other times throughout freshman year, when assaults are most frequent.

Most importantly, we need victims and survivors of rape or sexual assault to speak with their peers to humanize the subject and describe the effects you don’t see from the rising statistics, like crying in your room at 4 am, wondering what’s wrong with you.

No one gets to see your whole life change. We need some sort of “scared straight” program — with a different name, of course — to start changing behaviors.

Cuomo’s bill is important, and it is a step in the right direction, but overall, I get the message that we’re trying to increase the number of reports, rather than decrease the number of occurrences.

I realize it’s not something we can change drastically overnight.

However, making the topic more comfortable and more widely discussed can help everyone communicate more efficiently, which would shrink the grey area and increase the safety for potential victims and victims to speak up.