Sexual assaults still underreported

By Hazel Schaeffer

Only one sexual assault was reported on or near Macalester’s campus last year, down from three the year before, according to the most recent annual report released by Macalester Safety and Security. Yet instead of taking this as a confirmation of the safeness of our school, perhaps instead the statistic reflects a sobering truth, that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Terry Gorman, Directory of Safety and Security, voiced concern over the report.

“I hope it’s this low, but I’m fearful in my heart that it’s not,” he said.

Gorman said the report is based on statistics accumulated by offices around campus that may be alerted to incidents, including the Dean of Students Office, the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, Health Services and local law enforcement. But Gorman said he believes the statistics could be misleading because there is “very, very much resistance from the victim to come forward.”

Sexual assaults are among the least reported of any crime, largely because victims are often reluctant to come forward as they risk reliving the experience by discussing it with another person. Moreover, assaults are often perpetrated by someone whom the victim knows personally, which can complicate the victim’s chosen course of legal action.

To prevent and respond to sexual assault, Macalester addresses the issue in several different ways. Incoming first-years must complete a sexual assault prevention module. Residential Assistants are trained to recognize and report it in residency halls.

But aside from being sent to the Emergency Room by an RA or security guard, at times victims of sexual assault cannot receive any immediate attention on campus. When victims come forward, their names are forwarded to Campus Security, who then directs them to Health Services in the Leonard Center. Health Services, however, is not open in evenings or on weekends.

Counselor Mia Nosanow recognized this as a problem because “most rapes do not occur from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday,” Health Services hours of operation. Nosanow said the primary way that the center can assist victims is through its counseling services. Each student is entitled to ten counseling sessions a semester.

For medical attention following a sexual assault, Health Services refers students to clinics off campus. One such clinic is Family Tree Clinic, a women’s health clinic that offers sexual health care services and is located just a few blocks from campus.

Michela Bolla ’09, a student intern at the clinic, said that the clinic provides “support services and referrals” to victims. These included STI testing, emergency contraception, and a trained staff member willing to listen in “a comforting environment.”

During a visit, a victim is presented with all the legal options available to them. Counseling is also offered through other organizations specifically dedicated to victims, allowing him or her to “regain some measure of control,” Bolla said.

Gwyneth Shanks ’10, a former intern at the clinic, said in an email that “Family Tree can really only make sure that a patient’s physical/sexual health is taken care of.”

Gorman, Nosanow, and Shanks all noted that victims hesitate to not only seek legal action, but to seek emotional help as well. Nosanow said that victims often experience confusion just in defining their trauma. She said victims know they have been through a painful experience, but shut it out and feel guilty, which confuses victims over weather they were actually sexually assaulted at all. Nosanow emphasized that contrary to popular perceptions, most sexual assaults are not committed in an alley by a stranger, making them appear “greyer” to victims.

“In the population we see at Family Tree,” Shanks said, “many of our patients don’t understand that any unwanted sexual encounter, no matter if it’s with a boyfriend or girlfriend or if they’re really drunk when it happens, is sexual assault.”

Gorman was stumped as to ways to get more victims to come forward. Nosanow said she considered it more of a cultural problem: relationships must be more egalitarian, she said, adding that young women must be taught that “no really does mean no,” regardless of the circumstances.

While a larger number of reported assaults reported next year seems like a horrendous goal for any institution, it is one that security, Health Services and the Family Tree Clinic all say they are striving for.

“I don’t care what the numbers are,” Gorman said. “My concern is, and I think the concern of whoever has had this happen to them, is that I want to get the proper services to them.