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The Truth About Sexual Assault On Campus is Not What You Hear in the Media

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Increasing reports of colleges and universities mishandling sexual assault cases have begun to spark a much-needed discussion about students’ right to safety while receiving an education. 

We all have a role to play in ending sexual violence on campus, even if that role is simply as consumers of media. When we read articles about campus sexual assault, or watch new reports, it's critical for us to recognize whose stories are being told. The survivors that are most often portrayed by media, as of recently, are white survivors at elite schools.

Mia Ferguson, along with other survivors, filed a Title IX and Clery complaint against Swarthmore. She speaks about media coverage saying, “For a lot of the "big name" schools, reputation is a driving motivation. They want to seem polished, untarnished. So when they do something wrong, and specifically illegal, it's easy to get it in the press, because it's so shocking and exciting to see their tarnishes."

For other lesser-known schools, it can be harder to receive press coverage. “Less funded schools, whose students aren't predominantly rich and/or white, won't get media attention for most things – unless what they are doing is unusually scandalous. Then again, when it comes to handling discriminatory crimes, all the schools are doing scandalous things.”

Part of the shocking nature of accusations of sexual assault being mishandled on elite campuses plays into a rape myth — that rape only happens in certain areas, or to certain people. These assumptions do not help survivors anywhere. Sexual assault can happen anywhere, to anyone. 

On July 15, a group of survivor activists gathered in Washington to call upon the Department of Education to act on the mishandling of sexual assault on campuses. Jasmine Lester, a survivor from Arizona State University, attended to protest her school’s refusal to investigate harassment. "After the rally outside the Department of Education building, while many other survivors were approached for interviews, I wasn't approached much. I don't think it's a coincidence that the pretty white survivors with long straight hair got more attention than I did," says Lester.

“I think this definitely has to do with the acceptable victim narrative, the idea that rape culture presents itself as a dark, dangerous man forcing himself on pure, innocent, white, blond girl, and that's not my story. My abuser is a white female professor, and I wasn't raped but the prolonged sexual harassment and psychological abuse I suffered had a devastating impact on my life.”

Within the national movement of schools seeking justice and filing complaints, there are actions being taken to create spaces for all survivors to share their stories. “As a group of students who do fit this mold that society likes, we have to push for the space for many more voices — voices that other people can affiliate with,” says Ferguson.

“Right now, there's very little hope because ‘non-elite’ school voices aren't out there much – but they will be, I promise in the next couple of months – they'll be there – and if students from community colleges, small colleges, state schools, tiny liberal arts schools wants to participate, those whose voices have been highlighted, want more voices around them," she adds. Ferguson is working with a group called End Rape On Campus that provides students with support in filing federal complaints. EROC wants to help “whoever wants to get their voice out there, get their story understood because it's relatable to a huge subsection of the population.” Ferguson urges survivors looking to tell their story to reach out to her. Reaching out to survivors receiving media attention allows them to speak to the media about discrimination in all aspects of identity.

Another great resource for students and survivors is Know Your IX, a campaign launched this month that aims to educate students about their rights under Title IX. On their website they acknowledge media bias, writing, “Most anti-violence activism and media coverage assumes a ‘default’ survivor who is a white, straight, able-bodied, legally documented, wealthy cis woman. Know Your IX is dedicated to resisting this tendency and building a movement centered on the experiences of real survivors whose experiences with violence occur at the intersection of various forms of oppression.”

Having a ‘default’ image of what a survivor looks like can have damaging effects on survivors seeking to share their stories. “I think that maybe it's hard for people to see me as a victim because I'm black and a lesbian; it's easier to see me as crazy,” says Jasmine Lester. Coverage of only one type of survivor may lead people to incorrectly believe sexual assault only happens to certain people, causing them to discredit others’ experiences.

Every survivor that comes forward to share his or her story does everyone a tremendous favor. They shine light on problems that are shrouded in darkness, and tackle a system that thrives on silence. It is our job to ensure that there is a space for all survivors to come forward if they choose to do so. We need to support the survivors that have shared their stories, and create opportunities for others to do so.

Call upon media to feature the experiences of all survivors. When watching news reports or reading articles, consider whose stories are being told. Tweet at or email your favorite reporter and ask them to do a story on the difficulties of reporting sexual assault if you are undocumented, or on financial aid, or as a queer woman of color. Survivors are already fighting for these stories to be heard — we need to be as well.

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