I remember sitting in freshman orientation at UNC in Chapel Hill, watching upperclassmen perform skits about campus safety, relationships, and sex. The message about needing to be safe on and around campus was loud and clear.
But for the roomful of mostly 18-year-old’s, at least a few of whom were as naive as I was, some important things were left unsaid. The upperclassman didn’t talk about the reality of a campus where women greatly outnumber men and the competition for dates and boyfriends gets fierce. No one mentioned the fact that a young woman might have to choose between being alone and putting up with cheating, promiscuity, or sexual pressure.
No one told me that you needed a group of girlfriends that you truly trusted – trusted with your life – when you went out. Girls who would not let you leave with some guy you met at a party or at a bar – no matter how happy you seemed. Girls who would get in between you and the sleazy guy on the dance floor whose hands were everywhere. Friends who would get you home safely when you had too much to drink, never leaving you passed out in a frat house, apartment, or on a street corner.
The first-ever Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct underscores the threats that women face at colleges and universities across the country. It shows that, nationwide, 23.1% of female undergraduates experienced non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, threats, or incapacitation since enrolling at their campuses. Among the 27 universities that participated in the survey was UNC-Chapel Hill, where nearly a quarter of female undergraduates experienced sexual assault.
Just as troubling as these statistics are the data on victims who didn’t report sexual assault and bystanders who didn’t help. According to the survey, more than half of the victims – even those of rape – said they did not report it because they didn’t consider it “serious enough.” Many said they did not report the incidents because they were “embarrassed, ashamed or felt that it would be too emotionally difficult” and/ or “did not think anything would be done about it.”
Among students who suspected a friend had been sexually assaulted, a full third said they took no action. About 1 in 5 students reported witnessing someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, and more than half of those did nothing at all. Additionally, more than 40 percent of respondents reported witnessing a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter, and nearly 80% of those did nothing.
So, sure, there are ways that UNC and other universities should continue to strengthen prevention, education and enforcement efforts around sexual assault. Victims have to be supported and protected, and there must be serious consequences for perpetrators. Universities can’t hide sexual assault cases simply because it’s bad public relations.
At the same time, as women, we have to know that we are worth more than this kind of treatment. We have to stand up for ourselves, report bad behavior and protect ourselves. We simply cannot stay silent and allow sexual assault to stay in the shadows – to be the secret norm. We have to support our fellow women, and speak out against behavior we know is wrong.
As parents and teachers and mentors, we have to teach our young women how valuable and precious they are. We have to lift them up and teach them to be strong and confident.
And, we must teach our sons the right way to treat women. We can’t let them believe that sexual assault or misconduct is acceptable in any form. We have to raise them to stand up to their friends who are doing terrible things and to offer help to victims. No one wants to think of their son doing the unimaginable to a young woman, so teach them right.
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog. You can follow her on Twitter @saraylang.