‘What was she wearing?’

Columnist discusses sexual assault safety tips for graduating seniors

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Gianna Ortner-Findlay

A graphic created by Editor-in-Chief Gianna Ortner-Findlay features three women on a background of teal, the symbolic sexual assault awareness color. “I think from an outsider’s point of view, I’m a big fan of asking questions,” Rock Hill High School counselor Sarah Luce said. “If something feels weird, I think [in society] we have this-this feeling of like, ‘that is not my business. I’m going to stay out of it.’ I think you do still have to protect yourself.” According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds and every nine minutes- that victim is a child.

By Gianna Ortner-Findlay, Rock Hill High School

For many high school seniors, the month of May is full of both finalities and new beginnings. It is a goodbye to spring, underclassmen friends, the high school experience, and the relative safety of familiarity. But unfortunately, it is also an unwanted hello to the fears of what August will bring, a new academic year, the start of work and a 50% increase in the likelihood of being sexually assaulted.

As first-year college students move away from home to attend school, we will have to pack many essentials; shower flip-flops, lipstick-shaped tasers, hair ties, drink cover scrunchies, a phone charger and many other pivotal things to bring from home.

“I mean, it’s horrible,” Rock Hill High School counselor Sarah Luce said. “I mean, it is unfortunate that [sexual assault] is something we have to deal with in society.”

While both male and female students are at risk for sexual assault while enrolled, or in general, 81% of women and 43% of men have reported experiencing some form of harassment or assault in their lifetime.

“It honestly makes me feel very scared and more nervous to go to college and to be out on my own,” senior Kaitlyn Oyewole said. “Because I am going out of state, and I am going to be far from home, it’s terrifying, but honestly, I feel like SA could happen anywhere and [we] as women need to be very vigilant and aware of our surroundings to keep [ourselves] safe.”

Young girls are often instructed that prevention and awareness are the best policies for dealing with sexual assault, with many carrying mace, pepper spray, knives, window breakers, personal alarms and many other devices, including learning self-defense methods to keep from being a victim.

“I used to run by Trinity River in the evenings in Fort Worth, and after taking the self-defense class,” Luce said, “I felt much less afraid and more able to defend myself if something were to happen, against any possibilities.”

While a movement has gained traction in recent years claiming that victims of these crimes are liars and that their ‘proposed’ attacker is innocent, only 2-10% of these cases are false reports. These numbers are minuscule compared to the overall number of genuine cases, and more than 2 out of 3 cases go unreported.

“Talk to someone. Get help,” Luce said. “Absolutely talk to someone, and I think talking to someone you’re close to is not always the easiest or the best thing to do [when discussing sexual assault].”

These statistics are terrifying,  especially when coupled with victim-blaming (when a victim is shamed into believing or is expected to believe that their assault was their fault) and the ‘boys will be boys’ thought process to excuse away violent behavior by perpetrators.

“I feel like the boys will be boys thing is stupid,” Oyewole said. “I honestly feel like if you raise a boy to respect women and treat women like they should be treated, there’s absolutely no reason why they should feel the need to sexually assault and rape women.”

While the reality of these numbers may seem stark, incoming freshmen can do a lot to be prepared for this next season of life. Preventative measures and increased knowledge can keep them and their friends in a safer environment, starting with learning the process of deescalating a situation or being able to force oneself out of an increasingly dangerous situation effectively.

“I think, find out what resources your campuses have,” Luce said. “[I] went to A&M, and we had The Corps on our campus. You could call if you were out late studying on campus, and they would send [two guys from] The Corps to escort you to your car. Also, go in groups. That can always be helpful.”

Tips We Can Offer

  • Avoid hazardous situations: While sexual assault can occur whenever and is never the victim’s fault regardless of circumstance, avoidance is the first step to help diminish the risk of sexual assault. This means trying to travel with a group of three or more and avoid substances that would inhibit one’s ability to function cognitively.
  • Travel in groups: Most attackers will not go after a victim that is accompanied by more than one to two other people, so traveling in a group should significantly decrease the availability of an attacker. Be sure to travel in well-lit areas or in broad daylight and be constantly aware of surroundings, events, and people.
  • Communicate limits clearly: Be assertive. Passivity will often be manipulated for permission, but it is not. No means no. Consent is not something that can be coerced out of someone and needs to be given when that person is clear of mind.
  • Use your voice: In situations escalating quickly and are in a public place or nearby one, yell to bring attention to yourself and the situation. If one is unfamiliar with self-defense, or the weapon(s) one has brought with it has been taken or used against oneself, the voice is still a weapon.
  • Respond physically: While it is understood that this may not always be possible, attempt to stop the assault by physically pushing the assailant away or by using self-defense weapons or knowledge and then running away. After getting away from one’s attacker, the best next step is to call the police or the National Crisis Hotline.
  • Be aware of the resources available to you: Resources for victims are easily accessible on RAINN’s website, and resources for individual college campuses should be made available on their websites. In addition, be aware of who or what will be able to respond to your crisis, and know the area well to get to a safe place if attacked.

It is essential to be cautious, developing a routine with rules around going out and having safe practices regarding being out alone will help diminish the risk of assault. College overall is meant to be an experience in which students can find themselves and come into their own as young adults in their chosen field of study, not be constantly terrified that they will become another statistic.

“With tips, I feel like I would like to tell younger women never fully to trust anyone, and the only person you can truly trust is yourself,” Oyewole said. “And secondly, when you’re out, watch your food and your drink when you’re out because people tend to roofie [a date rape drug that incapacitated its victim] drinks which could lead to things like [sexual assault].”

Having an open line of communication with friends, families and resources will help keep students safe in and around the campus. Even though the numbers of assault and missing person cases vary (often exponentially skewed by) the victim’s race, these crimes affect all people perceived as vulnerable. Until there is a development that stops offenders from preying on these people, the best thing that the general populace can do is continue taking preventative measures.

“I have not learned any self-defense,” Oyewole said, “but I do have a little kit I carry around that includes pepper spray, window breakers, an alarm, etc., and I feel like that could be my form of self-defense. So no, I feel like you don’t need [martial art knowledge] to keep [yourself] safe, but it’s definitely an important skill [you could] have.”

If you or someone you know is assaulted in a world that diminishes the power of victims’ stories, the best weapon you can use after the fact is your voice. No matter what modern media says, a victim is not at fault for their assault regardless of what they were wearing or participating in at the time of the attack.

“I think, I just- it makes me sad the world that we’re living in, and that you know, just be careful when you go to college, and you’re out in the world,” Luce said. “Just be careful because you’re not going to be in the little town of Prosper anymore, and there [are] scary things here too, but you know, as you explore the world more, you just have to be aware of where you are and what you’re doing.” 

As a young woman leaving home for the first time to attend UNT as a freshman, one who has been taught the importance of using my voice and self-defense, we must have communities surrounding and protecting us. Our first worry when leaving to live in dorms or apartments should not be about getting sexually assaulted; instead, we should focus on getting our education and making connections with our peers. Most importantly, we should be focused on being able to feel safe.

There should be no rest until we do. 

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault or rape, help is available. You can either chat with a representative of RAINN at online.rainn.org or call 800-656-4673.  

This story was originally published on Hill Top Times on May 24, 2022.