While it is common knowledge that sexual assault is a significant issue on almost every college campus in the nation, many would be surprised by the rate at which it continues to increase. According to RAINN, 11.2% of graduate and undergraduate students in America “experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.”
This unfortunate statistic includes the University of Wisconsin. According to the most recent campus climate survey, 26.1% of female undergraduates have experienced sexual assault since starting college. This is comparable to the national average, where one in four undergraduate female students reported being sexually assaulted. It is clear that college poses additional risks in terms of creating safety measures against sexual violence.
The prevalence of sexual assault is not limited to female undergraduates — this continues to disproportionately affect minorities, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students. The 2019 preliminary findings by UW found women and TGQN students reported the highest rates of sexual assault — though the rate for the latter did decrease since 2015, from 29% to 28.4%.
While this increase in sexual assault reports among female undergraduates does not necessarily translate to increasing rates of the crime occurring, the fact that a quarter of female undergraduates have been or will be sexually violated is horrifying. Similarly, a decrease in reports from transgender, genderqueer or gender-nonconforming students does not mean reduced crime rates. More likely, there are several social factors disincentivizing minority victims of sexual assault from reporting their crimes.
LGBTQ+ students experience higher levels of poverty, social marginalization and overall reported increased accounts of alienation. All these factors contribute to increased vulnerability to sexual assaults. Moreover, it may account for underreporting of sexual assault from LGBTQ+ students.
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Since 2016, hate crimes have been reported to have decreased five-fold at UW. But this does not take into account cases of sexual assault which victimize minorities as a form of a hate-motivated crime. The excessive rates of sexual assault against the LGBTQ+ community and nontraditional students on campus beg a more in-depth look into the nature of these crimes — the unique experiences that make them vulnerable to being victims of sexual assault.
Sexual assault training for professions can be considered superficial in nature and may not address the differences between LGBTQ+ relationships as opposed to heterosexual relationships. Often times, violence — sexual or otherwise — within an LGBTQ+ relationship does not conform to what is traditionally understood as violent behavior.
Even if the case seems black-and-white and its violent nature incontestable, these social factors may lead some to stay silent. As it goes unreported, the victim may continue to be in an abusive environment, further driving them to remain silent about their continual assault.
Unfortunately, this story of institutions perpetuating victim-shaming does not end with the LGBTQ+ community. According to End Rape on Campus, “While 80% of rapes are reported by white women, women of color are more likely to be assaulted than white women.”
This gross underreporting of sexual crimes is the outcome of centuries-long perpetuated rape myths, including victim-blaming and the general hostility experienced by African-American women within the legal system.
Women in poverty can similarly relate, as their cases are often not even taken into consideration for the select few that do report their crimes.
Poverty includes an additional aspect to the barriers of sexual assault — the expenses associated with being sexually abused are often not taken into consideration. Evidence collection, loss of jobs and mental health issues are all common and incredibly expensive consequences of sexual assault. Students themselves can experience further education-related financial burdens as their GPAs decline. They might lose their scholarships, which negatively affects their later employability. Considering the damages accumulated over a survivor’s lifetime, rape can cost between $151,423 – $265,400.
Following the AAU survey, Chancellor Rebecca Blank released a statement expressing her goals for addressing the issue.
“Reducing sexual violence at UW will require changes in behavior and culture as well as in resources and the campus environment,” Blank said.
This sentiment accurately reflects the necessary social change needed for increasing minority representation among survivors who report their sexual assault.
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It is crucially important that sexual assault professionals understand that sexual assault cases do not merely include a victim and a perpetrator. They include a highly complex, well-established system of shifting paradigms of what it means to be sexually assaulted. It requires them to take into consideration communities or individuals that perpetuate victim silencing and how these people affect the victim themselves.
It is no surprise that sexual assault has devastating consequences, both financially and academically. However, it can be especially devastating for survivors of assault who live in environments that actively discourage reporting it.
Creating mandatory programs for undergraduate students which informs students about sexual assault and alcohol safety are excellent programs that have increased student understanding of sexual violence. Even so, the disproportionate rate of minority students sexually assaulted calls for a massive overhaul on a societal level and suggests additional training for professionals to understand the unique nature of minority victims and the barriers preventing them from getting help.
Discussions of race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation and how they relate to the prevalence of sexual assault are paramount to reducing sexual assault rates among minority individuals and encouraging minorities to speak up and seek help.
Samiha Bhushan ([email protected]) is a freshman studying neurobiology and English literature.