Over the past two months, members of our community have been disheartened to read about the allegations surrounding the handling of sexual assault cases at UNC. In the wake of the 2011 Title IX Dear Colleague Letter, we have watched similar media stories about universities across the nation, but as with anything, it is often more difficult to reconcile challenges that are close to home. In the coming months there may be more publicity, more questions, and possibly even more disappointment, but there is also the opportunity for a strategic community response to sexual violence.
On a daily basis, our staff and volunteers witness the courage of survivors who share the devastation that sexual violence has had on their lives. While survivors come to the Center seeking help in their recovery process, they come first and foremost baring their deepest secrets to someone who will believe them. Disclosure can take a tremendous amount of courage for anyone, and for our community’s college students, we find that they are doubly fearful of being excluded from what equates to a new sense of family. Statistics show that most violent crimes, including rape and sexual assault, are committed by someone the victim knows. Students often have to worry about how their friends and acquaintances will react if they disclose assault perpetrated by someone within their social circle.
And while disclosing an assault aids in a survivor’s acknowledgment that a crime has been committed, survivors also need compassion from family, friends, and their larger community to support prosecution of these crimes. When survivors are fearful that they will not be believed, they often do not come forward. Low numbers of reported cases create a false sense of safety in our community, assailants rarely face criminal charges, and survivors struggle in silence with the trauma of their assault.
While conversations about what is happening on campus may ultimately prove to be very difficult, these discussions will also allow us to improve our support for survivors, to prevent sexual assault, and to protect the most vulnerable in our community. As we look ahead, we find ourselves searching for answers, providing support and encouragement to survivors afraid of coming forward, and advocating for system changes to best aid survivors.
This was originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of The Center Line, our quarterly electronic newsletter.
Shamecca Q. Bryant is our Executive Director and has been with the Center since 2007. She also serves on the board of directors for the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault.