Starting a conversation about sexual assault
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Two students aim to support sexual assault survivors and educate all students with new group
Nearly one out of every five women and one out of every 21 men have reported being raped at some point in their lives, according to a data sheet published by the Center for Disease Control in 2012.
The odds of rape are statistically even higher on college campuses. The CDC states 37.4 percent of female rape victims were first raped between the ages of 18-24. Now, two UW-Eau Claire students want to do something about it.
About one year ago, sophomore Grace James, who is studying criminal justice, saw a classmate’s video online, in which the student, who no longer attends Eau Claire, came out about her sexual assault experience as a child. James said she contacted the student because she had come out about her own experience the same year, and she suggested the two meet and discuss their stories.
From this was born the idea for a student-run group meant to offer peer support to survivors of sexual assault, as well as provide more education on the topic to anyone interested in learning more, especially considering the campus offered no services of the sort.
“I was surprised something like this didn’t already exist,” James said. “When I went to CASA, it was literally one woman in a room … it felt like this university had thrown one peanut at a group of elephants, thinking they fed them. I just felt like this issue was so much bigger and that we needed more resources.”
Today, the group-in-the-works is called Student Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors, and James and a fellow sophomore, environmental geography student Taylor Limberg, are working to finalize their constitution before it can become an official campus organization.
Limberg said she initially reached out to James after being personally assaulted her freshman year of college. She had seen her classmates speaking out about their own experiences and connected with them through that conversation.
She also said she felt more comfortable disclosing information about herself because James and the other student had been through the same thing. It was easier to talk about because Limberg “knew it had happened to them too.”
After a period of developing the idea and figuring out how to make it into an official group, James and Limberg approached Women’s and LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator, Chris Jorgensen, about being the group’s faculty advisor.
Jorgensen said it was a natural position for him to take, as his office “discusses and explores the issue of sexual assault with regularity.”
Over time, James said, the mission of the group has changed. In the beginning, they considered providing resources for victims of sexual assault but realized they couldn’t. Now, the group is more centered around advocacy and education for both survivors and those who haven’t personally been sexually assaulted but want to know more and support their peers.
Limberg and James both agreed the group is not necessarily meant to provide therapy, but still be a safe, comfortable place survivors can go to talk about their experiences or simply to learn about how to address rape culture, especially on college campuses.
The main points the two said they hope to address are the topics of consent; Title IX and the legal rights students derive from it; how to handle a situation in which a friend confesses they’ve been assaulted; and what exactly sexual assault is, among others.
It is important to note that rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter their gender, age or other demographic attributes, James said.
“I want people to feel welcome to come to these meetings, regardless of if they’ve had an experience or not,” she said. “I want them to come whether they’re male or female or non-binary or transgender because while sexual assault is something that we see a lot in women, I think we forget it happens to men, it happens to children, it happens to the elderly. It happens a lot in the LGBT community and we want people to know that, and we want to work on bringing some intersectionality to this topic as well.”
Limberg said the group also wants to place a focus on activism, working to create a student body that is more educated about assault and even volunteering in the community with organizations such as Bolton Refuge House.
Jorgensen listed several services sexual assault survivors can access on campus but said this group will provide a unique opportunity for student survivors that other campus resources don’t provide.
“Students have very different conversations with other students than they do with perceived authority figures or staff or faculty on campus,” Jorgensen said. “So I think the purpose isn’t to provide resources in a typical official sense, like the university resources do, but to offer community and conversation and support from peers who’ve experienced the same thing, and I think there’s a lot of power in that.”
Limberg voiced this same opinion from personal experience.
“When I went through this, I kind of felt like (the counselor at CASA) didn’t understand what I was going through,” Limberg said. “She was trying to sympathize, but she wasn’t a student, she wasn’t my age, she wasn’t there with me. With other students, you’re kind of on the same wavelength. They get it, you know? They’re not judging you.”
Jorgensen said he hopes this group’s creation compels victims and survivors to report their assaults so the number of reports reflects the number of assaults actually committed each year. The statistics suggest a large number of the population who could benefit from a group like this, he said.
While the group isn’t an official campus organization yet, Student Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors is an open Facebook group that anyone can join if they’re looking for updates on the group, information or peers to discuss assault with.
Limberg and James said they’re aiming to have Student Advocates for Sexual Assault Survivors is up and running by next fall.
“(Sexual assault) is sad and it does make you angry, so we want to give some sense of hope because there is still work to be done,” James said.
“This puts a purpose behind our anger,” Limberg said of the group.
Anyone who has been sexually assaulted can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800)-656-4673 or visit online.rainn.org to chat anonymously. Eau Claire students who have been assaulted should seek medical attention and report the assault to the police and university officials. Students can also visit Counseling Services or CASA on campus to talk to counselors or learn about joining support groups.