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The Courage to Heal: Life after sexual assault

Clara Serrano, a junior business administration major, Alma Ayala, a sophomore business administration major and Kim Navarro, a junior business administration major discuss the product, Unplugged Budz at Take Back the Night last Friday. The proceeds from the sales will go directly to House of Ruth, a local organization that helps women and children affected by domestic violence. / photo by Katie Madden

Clara Serrano, a junior business administration major, Alma Ayala, a sophomore business administration major and Kim Navarro, a junior business administration major discuss the product, Unplugged Budz at Take Back the Night last Friday. The proceeds from the sales will go directly to House of Ruth, a local organization that helps women and children affected by domestic violence. / photo by Katie Madden

Katie Madden
Editorial Director

Brittany, a 21-year-old student at the University of La Verne shared recently how she was raped by another La Verne student, her boyfriend at the time, in campus housing last semester.

“Right after it happened I felt very hurt and confused,” said Brittany, a senior English major, who asked that her real name not be used. “I tried to make it seem like nothing really happened and that he did not nothing wrong even though I knew he did.”

She said she did not initially want to report her assault, but Brittany’s roommate told her mother, prompting a school-led investigation.

The man was suspended for two years, and Brittany obtained a restraining order. But that has not stopped the persecution she said she has faced from her peers.

“He’s an athlete, he’s a popular guy, so most people took his side. So it got even worse because I felt like everyone’s eyes were on me all the time. I thought about leaving school, I thought about hurting myself. Sometimes I just didn’t want to be here anymore.”

Sighing quietly a petite blonde woman, Alyssa, hesitates before recalling her story.

“When I was 17, my 22-year-old boyfriend raped me two separate times,” said Alyssa, now 19, who also asked that her name be withheld. “I was in denial for years because he told me he loved me, and besides those two times he was so kind to me. But when I finally confronted him about it, he shut me down and told me I was being a bad feminist for falsely accusing him.”

Alyssa never reported her assault. She now lives in Indiana with her new boyfriend.

Twenty-one-year-old Los Angeles resident Daisy apologizes for having to regroup when she speaks of her assault. “Two years ago I was raped by an older guy I met at a college party,” said Daisy, whose name also was changed for this story. I didn’t even know it was rape until a few days later because I was too drunk to know what was happening to me. It didn’t even register when he came up to me later that same night to tell me that I ‘really seemed to be enjoying it.’”

Daisy never reported her assault either.

These women represent the estimated one in four young women who will be sexually assaulted during their college careers, according to One in Four USA.

They also represent the victims who Daisy says didn’t experience the “right kind of rap because it wasn’t a scary man attacking us in an alley way with a knife like we’re told it is in movies and the news and by our parents. It’s so much more complicated and scary than that.”

The facts about rape

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 73 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, 38 percent of rapists are friends or acquaintances and 28 percent are intimate partners.

The Justice Department’s 2008-2012 National Crime Victimization Survey finds: “There is an average of 237,868 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year,” meaning that every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Yet only 16 percent of rapes are ever reported to the police.

According to the National Institute of Justice’s 2006 “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Rape Victimization: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey,” one out of every six American women, or roughly 17 percent, has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Men are also victims of rape, however the numbers of assault perpetrated against men are disputed and still significantly less than sexual violence against women.

According to the World Health Organization: “Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.”

Daisy, Alyssa and Brittany understand these effects. Alyssa began drinking almost every day to help alleviate her emotional pain for six months following her assault, Brittany often faced thoughts of suicide in the weeks after her assault and Daisy was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in February of this year.

Despite how common it is, sexual assault is rarely discussed, often due to the stigma that our society places on victims, according to the research, which also deters 84 percent of victims from reporting their assaults. Even when they do report their attacks, they are often not believed.

Handling the crime

“I feel like the (police) investigator on my case wasn’t very helpful to me,” Brittany said. “He didn’t really communicate well with me. I left tons of messages on his voicemail, sent him emails. He would not get back to me until I actually went back to the office. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and get a restraining order.”

Brittany gained a year-long restraining order through the Los Angeles County court system, more than long enough for her to graduate and move away, but it did not come easily.

“My court order date was one of the most horrible experiences of my life because I had organized everything and I thought I was prepared, but because I didn’t bring any physical evidence and my witness couldn’t come because of a school conflict, I almost didn’t get it,” Brittany said.

She added that her alleged attacker “brought statements from friends saying I was trying to get his attention at parties and that I tried to dance with him—just ridiculous stuff. But there was one thing he said that pointed to suspicion that it actually did happen.”

Although Brittany said she was happy with the way the University of La Verne handled her case, she said she felt her case was not taken seriously by many of the law enforcement officers she encountered.

Alyssa said that most of the people in her life still do not know about her assault and she never sought legal counsel or pressed charges because reliving the experience was too much for her to handle.

“After it happened, so many of my so-called friends called me a slut,” Alyssa said. “They told me I lied, that I was overreacting.”

“I didn’t want to deal with police officers telling me the same kinds of things.”

Daisy made the decision to not press charges against her assailant after she sought legal advice.

“I explained the entire situation as factually as I could, and I was told that the best conclusion I would get is that he ‘coerced me’ which apparently isn’t enough to mean rape,” Daisy said. “I decided I couldn’t handle going through the whole legal process if it led to nothing. But sometimes I regret it so much,” she said, choking back tears.

“I don’t even know if he knows what he did was wrong. I think about him every single day and I don’t even think he remembers my name anymore. How is that fair?”

Despite the struggles Daisy, Alyssa, Brittany and millions of other victims have faced, many have discovered that there is hope for them to heal.

The healing begins

College-age victims often say they feel their universities do not properly handle cases of sexual violence. On May 1, The Huffington Post reported: “Fifty-five higher education institutions are currently under review by the (U.S. Education Department) Office for Civil Rights for allegedly mishandling sexual assault and harassment on campus in violation of the gender equity law Title IX.”

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Education released the names of these schools, which include local schools, University of Southern California and Occidental College, as well as several Ivy League universities, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

On March 31, The Harvard Crimson published “Dear Harvard: You Win,” an anonymous letter written by a Harvard student who described her frustrating experience after reporting her sexual assault to the school. The victim’s letter spoke to the frustration numerous college students, who have been victims of sexual assault, have felt because of their university’s inaction.

She wrote, “Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life… My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won.”

These cases cause victimized students, like Brittany, to be hesitant to report their assault. Brittany said that she did not want to even tell anyone about her assault, but after her mother found out, she says her family made her report it, a decision she later was happy she made.

Loretta Rahmani, La Verne’s dean of student affairs and Title IX coordinator for the University, said any report of sexual assault at ULV will be taken seriously and handled swiftly, a statement that Brittany says was true of her reporting experience.

“The three foundations of Title IX are to stop the behavior, make sure it doesn’t happen again and to make the victim whole as soon as possible,” Rahmani said.

Rahmani said Student Affairs is currently taking more steps to update its policies regarding sexual assault and that she is hoping to introduce new education and prevention programs next year.

Rahmani said the most important part of the process is to make the victim feel whole again, as soon as possible. At the University this is often done through a no-contact order, where the two students are removed from shared classes and housing if applicable, and in other cases, there is sometimes interim suspension for the accused almost immediately after the act is reported. Rahmani said that they also refer the victim immediately to the counseling center and to Project Sister, a Pomona-based agency dedicated to helping victims of sexual and domestic violence, and to the health center if there is a health need, such as being treated for injuries, or being tested for STDs. However, she says these are only the immediate steps towards making the victim feel whole, safe and empowered again.

When an assault is reported, the University initiates a preliminary investigation, conducted by one of the school’s Title IX investigators, depending on which department the assault relates to. A different staff member is responsible for conducting the investigation for the groups they represent.

Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Judicial Affairs Coordinator Ruby Montaño-Cordova, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Juan Regalado and Associate Director of Student Housing and Residential Education Eugene Shang investigate complaints against students. Associate Vice President for Human Resources Jody Bomba and Employment and Employee Relations Manager Sandra Colletti investigate complaints against faculty or staff. Athletic Director Julie Kline and Assistant Athletics Director Julie Smith investigate complaints against student athletes, coaches or athletic administrators. Jeff Clark, interim director of Campus Safety, investigates complaints against visitors to the University of La Verne.

There is then a full investigation where the coordinators use the process of administrative hearings. They talk to the witnesses, the complainant and the accused, and use any other practices they can to get the information they need to see if they have a “preponderance of evidence.” This means that if there is any chance the victim’s complaints are valid, disciplinary action will be taken against the accused. Although Rahmani concedes that not every confirmed case has resulted in the perpetrator’s ultimate expulsion from La Verne they will face suspension.

“I would encourage reporting, encourage getting help, encourage sharing because aside from the justice perspective, it is important for victims to come forward and share so they can have the resources that will support them,” Rahmani said. “I believe that seeking help is one of the many roads to recovery. There are various places for seeking help and I think that’s empowering to the victim.”

There are several organizations that exist to help victims of sexual violence receive the help, advice and education they need. Online support groups, such as “After Silence,” offer a safe and anonymous place for survivors to share their stories, ask for help and give advice and support to other victims. Organizations like Project Sister offer a 24-hour crisis hotline and several other sexual assault and child abuse crisis intervention programs as well as preventive education programs that they offer for the community.

The University also offers professional counseling the counseling center. In the case that a counselor is not equipped to help a client properly, they also refer to outside counselors and psychologists who can help.

There is even a new club on campus, called One in Three, that is specifically meant to help provide support for victims and education about sexual violence. Sandy Maas, a senior business administration major and vice president of One in Three, said that the mission of the club is to spread awareness and offer support. Maas is passionate and optimistic about letting victims know that it is possible for them to heal. Although none of the club members go through any official training, they offer support and information that they can share with victims who are too afraid to seek help on their own.

“I want to say that there’s so much help out there,” Maas said. “There are so many people who dedicate their lives to making sure that victims know that they have someone that cares and has the ability to help you get through it.”

For those who seek spiritual guidance to direct their healing, La Verne Chaplain Zandra Wagoner said she can offer support, advice and someone to vent to. While she recommends starting counseling, she says she understands that it might not be a good fit for every victim. Wagoner said that a very helpful practice to heal is meditation, a method she says can be very spiritual or secularized.

“When you find quiet through meditation, that quiet can be used… to be able to draw into oneself and think about what are things in the universe that you want to bring into yourself,” Wagoner said.

“If you want feel more at peace, have a meditation on peace. If you want to focus on justice, have a meditation on justice.” Wagoner said this is only one of the several resources victims should consider in helping them through their healing processes.

She also explained that through mediation people can also identify the persistent negative thoughts, or “tapes” that play in their heads constantly and subconsciously. Often victims feel self-blame, doubt and even self-hatred after their assaults. Wagoner said once a victim identifies her tape through meditation, she can learn to make a new, positive, self-affirming tape that instead plays: “I am human, and that means I am valuable.”

“The first thing I feel like I want to say to victims is, ‘you’re a beautiful human being,’” Wagoner said. “It is such an incredible violation of one’s dignity so I think that is a reminder of one’s beauty and goodness and dignity.”

The fundamental motto promoted by almost all sexual violence support groups and organizations is, “It’s not your fault,” a slogan that was echoed by each of the interviewees, including the victims themselves.

Although she faced self-doubt in her healing process, Brittany has a positive message for other victims.

“It’s not your fault because you never ask someone to make that bad decision,” she said. “Some people might say ‘she was just a skank,’ but that doesn’t give anyone the right to disrespect their boundaries or their rights as a human being.”

“I want to tell (survivors) that you will be okay. Find at least one reason to smile each day and I promise; you will make it.”

Even Alyssa, who still suffers from self-blame, offers an affirmative message.

“Don’t believe anyone when they say you’re overreacting,” Alyssa said. “Don’t feel guilty. Listen to your gut instinct. Always. You don’t owe anyone anything, no matter how nice they were before.”

“Do not ever let anyone tell you that your struggle or your story is invalid or ‘not that bad.’” Daisy added, wiping the tears from her eyes. “We all deal with our pain and our healing in different ways, and that’s okay. I can tell you that the journey will be hard, but you can make it through. You just have to reach out.”

Where to get help

Project Sister 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 909.626.4357 or 626.966.4155

Project Sister: 909.623.1619, info@projectsister.org

Project Sister Office: 363 S Park Ave #303, Pomona, Calif. 91766

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE

La Verne Counseling Center Office: 909.448.4105

Counseling Center Crisis Hotline: 909.448.4650

House of Ruth 24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.877.988.5559

House of Ruth: 909.623.4364

House of Ruth Office: 599 N Main St Pomona, Calif.

National Domestic Violence Hotline:1.800.799.SAFE

Katie Madden can be reached at kaitlin.madden@laverne.edu.

Special Report: The Courage to Heal
The Courage to Heal: Life after sexual assault
Rape Culture: The media's role in normalizing assault
Take Back the Night: Standing for victims

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