It’s time to change the way we think and talk about sexual assault.
Sexual assault isn’t always something that happens to someone walking alone down Calder Avenue at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. It’s not something that always involves a stranger. It can involve people who’ve never met before and people who will see each other in class the next day — or people who have been dating for months, for that matter.
And it does happen. Just how often? That’s not always easy to answer.
Since Aug. 27, the beginning of the fall semester, local police have fielded seven sexual assault reports on campus or in State College. That’s an average of more than one per week — and those are only the ones that are being reported to police. Penn State’s recently released annual campus safety report noted that 30 forcible sex offenses were reported to police and other local authorities responsible for collecting data for the report — again, the key word here is “reported.”
According to figures on the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, 54 percent of rapes or sexual assaults are never reported to police. If we’re looking for a more accurate sense of the scope of this problem, then we should probably assume those figures we just cited could be at least doubled.
And if we’re being honest, it’s easy to understand why someone would be hesitant to speak up if he or she was assaulted. Too often, the conversation surrounding this issue focuses on what someone could have done differently to avoid being assaulted. Criminal behavior, in conversation, is linked to decisions made by the person who was harmed: walking alone or drinking too much or choosing the wrong outfit for the night.
Last week, student-run blog The School Philly included a few lines at the end of the post intended as a comment on how relatively “safe” State College is. As a staff member for the blog acknowledged on a broadcast of The School Philly Radio, the lines — which were later amended — originally suggested that “Girls can walk around half-drunk and naked... begging for criminals to try something.”
It was right to recognize that these comments weren’t acceptable, but the way in which this issue was dismissed was as concerning as the initial comments themselves.
“...It implied some sort of deviant sexual behavior,” the staff member noted on the radio show. “With that being said, it was clearly a joke. It was clearly irreverent. It was clearly facetious. It was clearly sarcastic.”
Here’s the thing, though — sexual assault isn’t a joke. It’s not irreverent. It’s not facetious. It’s not sarcastic.
It’s a serious issue.
And until we get past the point where we think it’s marginally OK to suggest that someone would be “begging” someone to “try something,” it’s going to continue to make it difficult for people to feel comfortable speaking out about assault when they need to.