In Summer 2011, I remember sitting in a room full of students and being warned about the omnipresent danger of sexual assault on college campuses.
Sexual assault, an insidious crime based on the principles of power and control, is any sexual contact without consent. I remember the speaker mentioning the “red zone,” which is the first six weeks of college when the rate of sexual assaults is the highest, and the fact that one is more likely to be assaulted by someone they know than a stranger. I also remember thinking that it would never happen to me or anyone I know.
I, like countless other students, wore ignorance like a safety blanket. I believed that if I traveled in groups, didn’t accept drinks from strangers, and presented myself like a lady, then I would not be a target. I believed that sexual assault, like other forms of interpersonal violence, was avoidable. Regrettably, I was wrong.
During my first party of my first month of my first year on campus, I watched an unconscious girl disappear from a living room floor. The house was packed with students, but no matter who I asked, no one could tell me what happened to the girl. I was devastated that the very thing I was warned about happened before my eyes, and I did nothing to stop it.
Later that year, I found out that my best friend had been sexually abused throughout her childhood, my cousin was constantly forced to have sex by her boyfriend, and that someone I considered a brother’s first time was rape. These are not unique stories. The sad truth is that approximately 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted during college, and that number is likely higher because sexual assault is the most under-reported crime. Even worse, due to the perpetuation of rape culture and the stigma surrounding sexual assault, many assailants walk free while survivors are shamed into silence.
I can’t say that the experiences of my freshman year are the reason why I became an advocate for women’s rights and gender equity, but I will admit that the helplessness I felt the night of that party contributed to that decision. At that moment, I encountered a barrier that prevented me from acting, but I also found the encouragement I needed to educate myself on the issues so that I would never face that experience again. Unfortunately, sexual assault occurs on every college campus; however, as an Old Dominion University student, I take personal responsibility to raise awareness and promote the safety of my fellow monarchs. I have since become involved with the Old Dominion University Women’s Center, which acts as a safe space for survivors and works to educate the campus on how to identify potentially dangerous situations and to intervene as an effective active bystander.
As a graduate student, I have observed the positive impact of my work in prevention and awareness, and my advocacy continues. I am currently the coordinator of the Monarch Peer Activist Coalition Theatre, which allows students to use their talents to educate others on sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence. Stand By Me, our culminating performance and rally, will take place on March 15th at 8PM in the Goode Theatre (46th and Monarch Way, Norfolk, VA). Stand By Me is a theatre-based collaboration between the Old Dominion University Women’s Center, the Theatre Arts Department, Virginia Stage Company, and local artists to show our commitment to creating a sexual assault free community. The event, free and open to the public, will feature live music, free food, prizes, and a cash bar. Doors open at 7PM.
No one “begs” to be assaulted, and revealing clothing is not a legal reason to rape. Unless we work together as a community to create a survivor-supportive culture and safer Hampton Roads, then we cannot expect change. Whether you believe it or not, everyone is effected by sexual assault; therefore, it’s everyone’s responsibility to influence change. Attending awareness events like Stand By Me is just one of many ways you can stand in solidarity with survivors and show your support for a violence-free community. During the 2016 Oscars, Vice President Biden stated, “We must and we can change the culture.” On March 15th, you can be a part of that change.