Sexual Assault: Are You Aware?
One in four women and one in six men are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, according to national statistics. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time, the victim knows the perpetrator, and has known him or her for over a year.
In 2010, 5,000 students at UB participated in the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), a survey about sexual violence: 425 students reported being survivors of attempted rape, 260 students reported being raped, and a little over 1,300 students reported being sexually touched without giving consent.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness month. Throughout the month, organizations around the world aim to educate people about what sexual assault is, what defines consent, who is at the highest risk, how to protect oneself from assault, and the ways someone could get help.
Anna Sotelo-Peryea, the research and planning coordinator at Wellness Education Services and a violence prevention specialist, works to raise awareness and educate people about sexual assault at UB.
"I've talked to survivors who feel like once they tell someone they've had a sexual assault experience, they are treated completely differently," Sotelo-Peryea said. "They're treated as fragile, or like they have three heads, because people start looking at [them] differently. It shouldn't be that way. They are still the same person."
Sexual assault is defined as any sexual act committed against a person without his or her consent. The word "consent" can be interpreted in different ways, but in a sexual sense, it is defined as a voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement that cannot be coerced. This means that any sort of "consent" that one may receive while one of the parties is drunk is not actual consent, because the individual is not in his or her right mind, according to legal-dictionary.freedictionary.com.
Statistics show that only 40 percent of cases that are identified as sexual assault are actually reported to the police. In many cases, the first person the survivor chooses to tell is a family member or loved one, and it has been statistically proven that the reaction of this first person told dictates whether or not the individual will tell others.
Sotelo-Peryea stresses that providing support for the individual and taking the blame away from them are the best things that one can do to help. It is also important to inform the victim of the options that they have and safe places to go to get help. Police departments, hospitals, the wellness center at UB, and crisis services are all organizations that can offer information, support, advice, or whatever is necessary to make the victim feel better.
Crisis services in Buffalo offers a 24 hour hotline - which can be reached at 716-834-3131 - for any and all emergencies, and also provides someone with an advocate to accompany him or her to the hospital and stay with them the entire time.
"The most important thing to do is just believe them," Sotelo-Peryea said. "How you react is important. Talk less, listen more. People have a hard time wrapping their mind around the idea that something this horrible happened to someone you care about, so you question to understand what happened. These questions can come off really blaming toward the victim. Bear in mind, for them to speak to you is a huge thing. How they're received can impact their mental health outcome. It sounds like a very little thing, but it can have a huge impact."
Dr. Kathleen Parks, a senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions, finished collecting data in 2010 for a research project on drinking behaviors. She surveyed approximately 1,000 female incoming freshmen at a four-year university, beginning in the fall semester. She then followed up with these students every fall semester for the next five years, collecting information on the progression of their drinking behaviors.
In the spring component, 200 women were invited out of the approximately 1,000 to phone in every day for eight weeks to talk about their experiences with alcohol. They were asked if any verbal, physical, or sexual aggression occurred.
While correlation does not imply causation, the results from this study suggest a link between the consumption of alcohol and sexual aggression: when females consumed more than four alcoholic drinks, they became 19 times more likely to experience acts of sexual aggression. On days when women drank less - on average consuming two drinks - there was no difference in the likelihood of experiencing aggression in comparison to when they consumed no alcohol at all.
Parks says it's important to note that this research does not aim to blame the survivors of sexual abuse in any way - she is looking for patterns, so that women and men can become educated on the topic and aware of behaviors that may place them in vulnerable situations.
"I study women to try and figure out what specifically the risks are for women," Parks said. "I can empower women with the risk factors [so that] they can help themselves to prevent these things from happening. Even though I think women should be able to do anything they want to and be safe, that's not reality. So the more I can do to help women protect themselves, the better off we are."
UB offers help to students who are survivors of sexual assault and to students who are considered "secondary survivors" - individuals who have a loved one who has been affected by sexual assault. Two groups on campus that offer support are The Men's Group and the Student Survivor Advocacy Alliance. Both groups focus on advocacy, awareness, and education of the topic of sexual assault.
Ashley Bennett, a graduate student in the school of social work, is the founder and one of the current leaders of the Student Survivor Advocacy Alliance, better known as "the Alliance." The organization offers life and learning workshops about the bystander effect and how to help a sexual assault survivor, along with healing activities.
"We want to make a safe place for survivors," Bennett said. "We focus on a lot of the advocacy and activism because we haven't gotten to the point where it doesn't exist. So we need to make sure that while it exists, there are people here to support survivors, and this is an environment where they feel comfortable seeking help. Where they feel safe. Where it's okay to be a survivor of sexual assault."
Dr. Amberly Panepinto, a counselor at UB with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, suggests that education about what sexual violence actually is and the importance of explicit consent could be beneficial to all students.
While Panepinto recognizes that people might feel that explicit consent might be considered a "mood killer," it really protects everyone.
On April 28, UB will be participating in the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, which raises awareness about sexual assault. There is no registration fee and donations are optional. All of the proceeds go to crisis services and the advocate program, which provides practically anything a sexual assault victim could need, from a comfort kit, to someone who will stay at the hospital and advocate for the survivor's rights.