Moon in Night Sky

Illistration by Olivia Juenger | For The Post

March 31, 2022

Redefining Sexual Assault

Students, local resources combat the normalization of sexual assault on OU’s campus

By Katie Millard | For The Post

Content warning: This article discuses sexual assault and sexual violence.

In 2018, outrage spurred by three reported sexual assaults between August 25 and September 2 enveloped Ohio University’s campus. Former OU President Duane Nellis said of the incidents: “In our community, we will not tolerate such behavior. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”

Three years later, sexual assault is still a problem at OU.

Many students experience unwanted sexual contact during their time in Athens. Lydia Perry, a freshman studying journalism, explained often students don’t see unwanted sexual contact as a form of assault because of its normalization in campus culture.

“Talking about touching, walking by and grabbing or bad hand placement as somebody’s walking by, those kinds of things I do see a lot,” Perry said.

Perry said she often goes out with her boyfriend, which makes her feel safer, but she has still experienced unwanted sexual contact. She recalled being at a party with him when she felt a hand on her hip. Perry and her boyfriend were both upset to realize they didn’t know whose hand it was and that whoever had touched her had disappeared into the crowd.

For Perry, it hurt even worse because that invasion would not happen to her boyfriend.

“They wouldn't even touch him,” Perry said. “I couldn't even imagine a guy coming by and touching his back. But then if it's me or one of my friends, it's back touching, grabbing both shoulders and it's very more-so touchy.”

This is one of multiple incidents Perry has experienced during her short time on campus. During Halloween weekend, she said she was harassed and assaulted. Perry recalled constant catcalling when she and her friends walked around in their Halloween costumes.

Perry said later that weekend, she was approached by a strange man who grabbed her by the hips and held her to his body. She pulled away, but said he kept coming around her and her friends, doing the same thing to several other girls she could see near her.

“It's scary because you don't expect that to happen, especially when you're not used to that kind of mentality,” Perry said.

illustration of a man

Illistration by Olivia Juenger | For The Post

Tim Ryan, staff lieutenant for the Ohio University Police Department, said OUPD took seven sex offense reports in 2021, two of which were sexual contact crimes. OUPD also issues alerts to students, employees and others in the area of any ongoing reported crimes that may indicate an ongoing campus threat. The department has issued five alerts since 2019, four of which were rape or sexual battery. Ryan explained OUPD’s numbers reflected only what has been reported to them, so it differs from the Clery Act, which requires government-mandated reports of crime on college campuses to be released annually, and he expects numbers have been affected by COVID-19.

From 2018 to 2020, as reported by OU under the most recently updated Clery Act report, there were a total of 1,114 on-campus offenses, 915 of which were related to drug and alcohol use. Of the remaining 199 incidents, 122 were related to sexual violence in some form. These offenses included rape, fondling, statuatory rape, domestic violence and dating violence. There were also 34 stalking offenses, which can be a form of sexual violence.

According to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, only 310 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, and only 20% of college-age female students report assaults. Additionally, there are many assaults that students may not think to report, such as sexual impositions, a misdemeanor in Ohio in which offenders know sexual contact, defined as any touching of another’s erogenous zones, is offensive and out of the victim’s control. Sexual imposition made up two of the three reports that sparked protests in early September 2018.

Madelyne Moore, a senior studying social work, said in her four years at OU, she’s witnessed a lot of students, particularly men, crossing boundaries and making others uncomfortable.

“I've seen girls and younger people, like young women especially, being a little more intoxicated, going home with a sober guy,” Moore recalled. “And there have been times where I'm like, ‘Is that guy her boyfriend? Is she safe? Or is he trying to take advantage of her?’”

The normalization of these offenses means they frequently go unreported. Jennifer Seifert, executive director of the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program, or SAOP, a local resource serving survivors in southeast Ohio, explained some sexual assaults are in forms that have been almost expected in campus culture.

“It's become so normalized that … you (seem to) just have to accept that this is a risk you take right by participating in these different campus activities,” Seifert said. “It's just unfortunate because it makes it less safe. And not only is it not fair but it's harmful, it's dangerous and it creates environments where perpetrators can fly under the radar. When we normalize things like catcalling and groping and these unsolicited types of (contact), it starts to make us numb to when people are crossing boundaries.”

“When we normalize things like catcalling and groping and these unsolicited types of (contact), it starts to make us numb to when people are crossing boundaries.” —Jennifer Seifert

One normalization was called out by Seth McBee, a former computer science student at OU and a current Athens resident involved in the local music scene. McBee posted on social media condemning “girls drink free” policies at house parties as a normalization of assault in campus culture.

illustration of a spilled drink

Illistration by Olivia Juenger | For The Post

“(Houses) often use ‘girls get in free and guys have a cover charge’ as a way of weeding out and making it easier for them to be able to prey on women, particularly underage,” McBee said.

Of the four sexual crimes reported in the past two years through OUPD crime alerts, all of them involved a female victim, and three involved a male suspect, with one suspect’s gender undefined.

As reflected in RAINN’s data, sexual assault impacts every gender. Moore took care to mention how transgender individuals, particularly trans women, often come up in discussions of sexual assault. Moore said there is a misconception that trans women will assault other women and children if they use female restrooms, but the reverse is more common, as many trans women are victims of assault.

According to RAINN, 23% of transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted. Moore said while she knows sexual assault can happen to and be caused by anyone, she said she often sees straight men as perpetrators on OU’s campus. She noted the differences she percieves between straight culture and queer culture specifically in regards to consent, adding that many queer people she knows have experienced trauma connected to sexual assault.

“I think there's an understanding in a lot of (queer) spaces that you ask for consent and you normalize that kind of behavior,” Moore said. “I think in straight culture that falls onto women to just protect themselves without falling onto men to stop harassing women.”

Seifert said much of this is because of socialization of men, who she said disproportionately perpetuate violence against women, other men and children.

“We spend so much time focusing on survivors and that's not wrong,” Seifert said. “That's not a wrong thing to do. But at a certain point, everyone's like, ‘What the hell is wrong with how we're socializing our men and boys that they're perpetrating so much violence in the first place?’”

Encouraging healthy masculinity and consent among boys and men is one way sexual assault can decrease, Seifert said. However, sexual assault can happen to and be committed by anyone.

“I think that historically we talk about male and female, and we talk about males doing that to females, but it goes the other way too,” Kristin “KC” Waltz, a licensed independent social worker and advocate at the Survivor Advocacy Program, said. “And it really impacts people across the spectrum. It's not gender specific.”

Seifert said gender isn’t the only factor in high campus assault rates, explaining frontal lobes do not fully develop until age 25, which can contribute to impulsive behavior and risk-taking. While Seifert noted this enthusiasm to try new things is part of what makes college an incredible experience, she added this biological factor may contribute to actions of perpetrators on college campuses.

Drug or alcohol use is often associated with campus assault cases, but Moore stressed these incidents can happen anywhere to anyone.

“I don't really drink, but I still have to have my guard up,” Moore said. “I still have my keys in my hand and mace on me and an alarm on my backpack. And it's just the fact that it's been so normalized is so harmful. Women get called paranoid and a lot of other people get called paranoid for having all these security measures, but in many ways our culture has taught us to be paranoid and nervous.”

However, if something happens to a student while they are impaired, they are still encouraged to talk to campus officials. Ryan stressed that OUPD does not go after underage drinking when someone is trying to report a sex offense.

“Underage drinking is not anywhere near as important as a sex offense, and we understand that, and we don't want that barrier to exist for people to report,” —Tim Ryan

He also said OUPD officers highly prioritize trauma-informed training for interviews, and they have even made a documentary to provide transparency about what a survivor could expect by coming to OUPD. Even if the incident is not in the bounds of what is illegal, Ryan said OUPD can help connect affected individuals with support and information.

“Our most visible job on campus is to do proactive patrol and to interact, deter and stop crime,” Ryan said. “We are also, less visibly, but widely used as resources and partnering with our campus partners and other departments on campus to problem solve and to make the community safer.”

Some students, particularly students of color, may choose not to file reports due to discomfort with police. According to the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, 58% of multiracial women, 49% of Native American women, 41% of Black women, 36% of Hispanic women and 29.5% of Asian and Pacific Islander women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives. However, according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, for every one Black woman who reports a rape, 15 Black women choose not to report.

Ryan acknowledged distrust between people of color and police, and he said OUPD prioritizes building trust with marginalized communities. He said OUPD has worked with multicultural groups on campus, including the Multicultural Center and the LGBT Center.

If students would like support without pressing charges or interacting with police, OU and other local organizations also offer resources. The Survivor Advocacy Program, or SAP, through OU offers confidential counseling for anyone who has experienced any form of sexual violence, harassment or assault.

Waltz said sometimes students may forgo help because they feel their experience is not as severe as another’s.

“My answer to that piece is that everybody deserves to be supported and to have a space where you can talk and process something,” Waltz said.

Students can set up meetings online or drop in to their office at Lindley Hall Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

“I've been going to the Survivor Advocacy Program for myself, not for something that happened on campus, rather something years and years ago, but it's definitely given me a lot of support,” Moore said.

illustration of a woman

Illistration by Olivia Juenger | For The Post

image description here

If students would prefer to receive help from a resource unaffiliated with the university, SAOP is another local resource. SAOP offers assistance to anyone who has suffered or is supporting someone who has suffered any form of sexual assault, violence or harassment. Like SAP, all services provided by SAOP are entirely free, including counseling and legal support for survivors.

Waltz said accountability, education, open discussions and bystander help are crucial in culture change, adding she knows it can be frightening to be in a bystander situation. Even if one feels unsure about direct intervention, she requests bystanders take indirect action, such as causing a distraction or checking on survivors after the incident.

McBee feels oftentimes people are hesitant to call out their friends for fear of social repercussions, or because they have done similar things, but invites others to break the cycle.

Waltz encouraged students to attend Take Back the Night, an annual event for all students to come together against sexual and domestic violence occurring April 7 at 6 p.m. convening at Athens First United Methodist Church, 2 S. College St. to learn about sexual assault and garner support.

“I think a lot of people think that sexual assault is just rape, and it's not,” Perry said. “There's a whole line of things that fall under that umbrella of sexual assault.”

No matter how common sexual assault or harassment is in campus culture, these actions should not be tolerated or minimized, MaryKathyrine Tran, interim director for the Women’s Center, said. She emphasized unwanted sexual contact is never acceptable.

“Violence is violence and we need to name what is happening to those in our community,” Tran said in an email. “We cannot demean survivors’ experiences by diminishing what has happened to them and we do a disservice when we compare someone’s trauma against someone else’s trauma because they are never the same.”

AUTHOR: Katie Millard
EDITOR: Taylor Burnette
COPY EDITOR: Anna Garnai
ILLUSTRATION: Olivia Juenger
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Savannah Walpole