Battling Sexual Assault on Campus From the Ground Up

By Jordana Gilman

As a third year resident advisor (RA) at Cornell University, I was asked to help with a special part of new RA training at the beginning of the year called “Behind Closed Doors,” a program that simulates difficult situations and asks new RAs to deal with them as if they were the real thing. My assignment was to sit in an empty dorm room and explain to the new RA, over the course of about 25 minutes, that I had been sexually assaulted. I was given a script, and the health center’s victim advocate sat in the room with me to facilitate a debrief after each RA tackled this tough conversation.

Although this was a simulation and I was merely playing a part, the experience wore on me as I performed this scenario over and over again. I heard myself saying, “I feel so alone,” or “I’m not really sure what happened,” and “I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t really say no either.” My acting debut became less of an act as I embodied my part and came face to face with my own blurry consent conversations.

The rest of RA training passed, with Orientation Week and the first few days of school. Then, as I was standing in Rosh Hashanah services, I felt a nagging inside me rather than the usual joy that the new year brings. I made an appointment with the victim advocate after my apples and honey nosh.

By the time Yom Kippur rolled around, I was feeling empowered. The victim advocate had given me the vocabulary I needed to understand my experience, and I had the confidence to own my choices. Months before, when I had a sexual encounter that didn’t feel right and didn’t come with consent, my friends jumped to conclusions. Their accusations that I had been assaulted, although not directed at me, hurt me deeply. I felt that something had gone awry, but I didn’t feel assaulted. The victim advocate (which, by the way, is a free, confidential, walk-in service) listened to my story and offered ways for me to look at it. I left feeling clean and light, free of the shame I had endured for months because my friends told me I had been assaulted and I didn’t do anything about it.

While I have been able to learn from this and move forward, I am well aware that many conversations in the victim advocate’s office don’t have the same sunny outcome. The more I open up about this topic, the more I realize just how many people have experienced sexual encounters that leave them feeling violated, used, or assaulted.

On the bright side, Cornell University (and many others!) are taking great strides. Cornell recently revamped its sexual assault policy in a proactive effort to support victims. There are a number of social media campaigns being spearheaded by students, most notably the Every1 Campaign, a creative and interactive online project that generates conversations about consent. Countless attempts have been made to change campus culture and increase bystander intervention, such as the Cayuga’s Watchers program, a student-run, independent, not-for-profit organization established to curb issues associated with high-risk drinking at Cornell University using non-confrontational bystander intervention techniques. Blue light phones and shuttles to and from the libraries abound. Students, administrators, and law enforcement are working together on all sides of this issue to protect students and reduce sexual assault at Cornell.

So what’s happening? We know how a consent conversation should go. We know there are options for getting home safely and we know that the policies have our backs. We’re highly educated, motivated and, though I can’t speak for everyone, we make good life decisions.

So how did I end up having non-consensual unprotected sex, and why did it take me nine months to talk to a professional about it?

I wish I had the answer to this question, and I wish I could take that answer and implant it on a chip in people’s brains so they can learn from my experiences. I wish that the convincing, eye-catching social media campaigns could jump out of the computer as I sit down on the bed with someone and remind me of everything I already know. I wish that the wise words on flyers in the dorm bathroom stalls didn’t fade into the background after the third time I sat down to pee.

I do not have a cure-all for sexual assault on college campuses, but I have an idea about where we can start. Let me preface this by saying I do not think that people who have had traumatizing sexual experiences should discuss them before they are ready. But I think we need to talk about rape and sexual assault, in person, face to face, with boys and girls, students and adults, in a serious and supportive way. We can’t rely on hypothetical, feel-good online campaigns or administrative policies to change decisions in the bedroom.

It will never be comfortable, but broaching these topics directly with friends of all genders and sexualities is an important step in preventing it. This is not solely a women’s issue or a straight issue or a young issue. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the book on safe and healthy sex or if you’re a virgin or if you’re in a committed relationship. Sexual assault can happen and we have the power to talk about it openly and honestly.

Since I am no expert in this field, I can only speak from my own experience. I can report that as I have opened up more about what happened to me, friends around me have started to open up too – about experiences they’re unsure about, nights they can’t remember, regrets or fears they have. I have been able to suggest that they go speak to the victim advocate, or merely tell them, from the bottom of my heart, that it is not their fault.

I think the scariest thing about sexual assault on campus is the feeling that you are alone; that there’s no one to talk to, no one who can really understand what happened (because you might not even understand yourself), no one who can be there unconditionally, without judgment. That feeling exists at the point of giving (or not giving) consent as well. There is no one there to help you with your decision or remind you of all the smart things that the Internet tells you about empowerment and healthy conversations. I believe that talking about sexual assault will address this feeling of isolation and prepare people for difficult conversations in the real world in real time.

On the most basic level, I hope that opening up about this on a blog will not be in vain, and will encourage people who read it to be more open to having these types of conversations, to speak up when someone makes a rape joke, and to be sensitive to the unseen struggles of others.

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