An epidemic, according to Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”
Consider this: the widespread occurrence is sexual assault. The community is our own. The time is now.
Penn State, we have an epidemic on our hands.
Since the beginning of the fall semester, local police fielded 15 separate reports of sexual assault — but statistics show that the number reported is nowhere close to the number that actually occur. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 54 percent of sexual assaults are never brought to authorities’ attention.
Some of the people who reported being sexually assaulted were likely violated by someone close to them: a boyfriend or girlfriend, an acquaintance, a family member. The number of sexual assaults where the person assaulted knows his or her attacker — two-thirds, according to RAINN — is startling. The number of times that this happens and it goes unreported, though, is even more troubling.
It’s also likely that some of the people who reported that they were sexually assaulted this fall were robbed of their freedom by a complete stranger — an experience that I’m familiar with.
This summer, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger on the street in State College. I reported the incident to local police, who were caring and easy to work with — but the emotional scar I’m left with is deep, and the issue of sexual assault is one I’ll carry with me forever.
A former crime reporter, I was aware that sexual assaults occurred regularly, but they always felt so distant. I succumbed to the notion that to risk sexual assault I had to surround myself with a certain type of person who would do something that horrific to my body. I thought that I had to do something ignorant, like leave a drink unattended.
I never thought it’d happen to me.
How wrong I was.
I did nothing to deserve what that stranger on the street did to me. And it’s so embarrassing that it took a terrifyingly close-to-home incident to wake me up, to show me that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
And it is not OK. Of course sexual assault and rape are not OK. Of course no one could honestly say that the type of experience I went through is acceptable by any standards.
But the culture at Penn State and in the State College community often abets behavior like the behavior that was exhibited by that stranger on the street that unusually chilly July night when I was walking home.
We live inside a culture of ignorance — a culture where we think, “If it’s not happening to me, it’s not happening.” A culture where a woman reports being violated at a nightclub and is met with the response “How dare she?” instead of “Bravo.”
For the last year, we’ve lived in a new culture where child sexual abuse takes the forefront of many conversations, while we hardly talk about the unrelenting and equally concerning problem of sexual assault among college students.
Don’t get me wrong. The efforts that the Penn State community has put forth to bring light to the issue of child sexual abuse are commendable and important, and that’s putting it lightly. Penn State says it wants to be a leader in child abuse research and prevention. But why not expand that effort to address all sexual assault?
Until the Penn State community accepts that sexual assault is an epidemic around here and commits itself to fighting back, it’s not doing enough.
Why not hold a conference addressing sexual abuse on college campuses and bring in international leaders in research and prevention on that subject? Why not create a research facility dedicated to sexual assault on college campuses and what can be done in our own community? Why not hold more seminars or educational opportunities so that women and men can be trained to understand what sexual assault even is?
I’d be willing to dedicate time and effort to make sure others don’t have to go through the same thing that I did. Because I am strong, and this does not define me. I am not a victim, and this was not my fault. Every single person in this community needs to know that if this happens to them, they’re strong, too.
The ignorance surrounding sexual assault needs to end. The silence must be broken, and the issue cannot continue to remain stigmatized. And the Penn State community has to do more to make sure that happens.
Students need to understand that this issue could be affecting the person sitting next to them in class. They need to know that sexual assault isn’t just something that happens to anonymous women in news reports. And everyone must grasp that coming forward about being sexually assaulted takes courage, and criticizing those who do so will only make it harder for people to get the help they need.
So we’ll start here. If you have any information about an incident where you even think that a sexual assault may have occurred, please call the State College Police Department at 814-234-7150 or Penn State Police at 814-863-1111.
And remember, sexual assault is defined as any sexual activity that is not agreed to, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
We can’t stop sexual assault. But we can sure as hell send a message that what happened to me and what happens to others is not — and never will be — OK.
Everyone has to know that much. Let’s end this culture of ignorance.
Let’s kill this epidemic.
Anna Orso is a junior majoring in journalism and is the Collegian’s managing editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.