TW: This article discusses sexual assault.
“I was just walking past this artwork by SAVP [the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Program] that said things like, ‘We believe you.’ It’s a beautiful thing to see, but it’s a lie,” said a Vassar senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in a recent interview. A few weeks ago, she wrote for Boilerplate Magazine about being sexually assaulted by someone she had previously dated (Boilerplate Magazine, “The Gray Area,” 04.12.2018).
This sentiment reflects the feelings of many students, particularly those who have experienced sexual assault at Vassar. The results of the 2017 Vassar College Survey of Social Behaviors and Student Experiences—commonly known as the “What Happens Here” survey—were released on March 1. Students were asked by the President’s Office via email to take the survey last spring, and it had a response rate of 44 percent. The results revealed that 61.3 percent of respondents do not believe that the College would conduct an unbiased investigation of a reported incident, and 66.2 percent do not believe that Vassar would work to remedy underlying factors contributing to sexual assault on campus. These percentages are even lower among students who have been assaulted here, at 75.5 percent and 79.8 percent, respectively. While the rate of sexual assault has dropped since the survey was last administered in 2015—from an overall rate of 39.3 percent to 28.8 percent¹—student distrust in the Title IX Office, which handles such cases, remains high (Vassar College Institutional Research, “That’s What Happens Here: The Vassar College Survey of Social Behaviors and Student Experiences, 2017,” 03.01.2018).
“I didn’t see it as a healing process, and that’s what I needed,” the senior who wrote about her experience said of her decision not to report her assault to the Title IX Office. She said that she had heard from others who had been through the reporting process that because she had been in a relationship with the person who assaulted her, any hearing resulting from a report would examine the relationship in ways that she felt would be invasive and irrelevant to the assault. She added, “Obviously I want justice, and it would be nice if something could be done, but I didn’t want to be gaslit by the institution. I was already being gaslit by him and by his friends … I would rather him just walk away thinking, ‘I got away with it,’ than thinking, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, because the institution [decided I wasn’t responsible].’”
The term “gaslighting,” which is derived from the 1944 psychological thriller film “Gaslight,” refers to a form of psychological manipulation intended to make someone doubt their memory or sanity. In her essay, this senior wrote about how her ex-boyfriend first admitted to having assaulted her, then later tried to take back this admission and told others that the two of them had reached the conclusion that she had falsely accused him (Boilerplate Magazine, “The Gray Area,” 04.12.2018).
For others, distrust in Title IX may stem from negative experiences outside of Vassar. One first-year student told The Miscellany News that before she matriculated, someone she had been dating in her hometown reported an abusive situation that the student was in to the police without her knowledge or consent. “I wasn’t ready to report it, but I figured I’d try anyway, because [the process was in motion],” she said. “I spoke to a social worker and a detective, and then didn’t hear from anyone for a while … Essentially, how it ended was that the detective said it was very unlikely to progress further in my favor and asked if I wanted to continue. I said no, so it was just dropped.” She added, “I’d love to be more optimistic, but I assume that if one system’s faulty, then a lot of them are faulty.”
In order to present the survey results and address some of the perceived issues with Title IX, the College hosted its second forum on the survey last Wednesday, April 25. Administrators from the Title IX Office and SAVP shared information about what their offices do and President Bradley invited students in attendance to brainstorm and share ideas for ways Vassar could do better.
After a PowerPoint presentation of the survey results, Director of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action and Title IX Officer Rachel Pereira talked about how the Title IX Office handles reports. She said that from January 2016 to December 2017, Title IX received 94 reports. Of these, only five resulted in a hearing. “Not all cases will go to a hearing,” she explained. “It is only if the complainant wishes to move forward.” In those five cases, four of the accused were found responsible, two of those found responsible were suspended and one student was expelled.
The College uses the language of “found responsible” rather than “found guilty” because, as Pereira clarified, “We are not a criminal justice body, we are not putting people in jail, we are not finding people guilty. Everything that we do here on campus is to provide an educational experience for students.”
Pereira also talked about actions the Title IX Office has taken since the 2015 survey to make students more comfortable reporting. For instance, the office created a student advisory group, and has held focus groups for LGBTQ+ students and students of color, who Pereira said typically report sexual assault at disproportionately low rates. “We are not happy with the rate at which marginalized students report these incidents,” she said. “We do not believe for a moment that just because they’re not reporting that it’s not happening. We’re committed to providing whatever support and resources we can to address these issues.”
The senior told The Miscellany News that the fact that both she and the person who assaulted her are students of color was another reason that she decided not to file a report, due to the historical and structural racism of systems that investigate sexual violence. “There’s this duality where I feel like you can’t trust the institution to handle these things with care, especially when you’re dealing with the Black community,” she said. “But then also within the Black community, we have a tendency to shy away from these conversations because historically, we haven’t been able to have [them] safely without a white audience coming in and saying, ‘Oh yeah, this person is obviously guilty.’”
Back at the forum, Director of SAVP Charlotte Strauss-Swanson and Student Assistant to the President Cecilia Hoang ’18 discussed recent initiatives, such as mandatory bystander intervention training for student leaders and workshops on supporting survivors. Bradley then asserted, “I’m firmly committed to making our campus the safest and most trustworthy it can be,” before asking attendees to break up into small groups to discuss ways that Vassar could move closer to this goal.
After talking, several students said that Vassar could greatly improve the sexual violence education at New Student Orientation. During the last few years, Orientation has featured skits about consent and sexual assault by a group called Speak About It. However, many students at the forum said that they found these skits goofy and didn’t feel like they took the grave subject matter seriously. Attendees also expressed a desire for education to continue throughout their time at Vassar, or at least throughout their first year, as students currently receive an overwhelming amount of information during Orientation week that some may soon forget.
Students also voiced concern over the fact that they had heard that when the student fellow position becomes a work-study job next year, student fellows will become mandated reporters. Mandated reporters, also known as responsible employees, are required to report any incident of assault or harassment a student discloses to them to the Title IX Office. The administrators present were quick to clarify that this is just a rumor and that student fellows will not become mandated reporters. However, all other employees at Vassar, including professors, who have not undergone training to become a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) advocate, are mandated reporters. This can be problematic for survivors looking for someone to talk to, but who may not be ready to file a report. “That cuts off a whole system of people who you can rely on,” the senior reflected.
Additionally, both the senior and the first-year student that The Miscellany News interviewed felt it would be a good idea for the College to look into restorative or transformative justice, approaches that strive to be survivor-centered and focus on conversation and healing rather than punishment. Of course, these approaches may not be the best option for everyone. Activist Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress around Columbia University for a year to protest how the university handled her sexual assault report, told National Public Radio that trial and punishment are necessary in some cases (NPR, “After Assault, Some Campuses Focus On Healing Over Punishment,” 07.25.2017). Still, restorative or transformative justice can be an option for survivors who may not otherwise be comfortable filing a report.
Last year, the student organization Yes to Equality and Safety for All Bodies (YES!) started a petition to encourage Vassar to implement Callisto, a survivor-centered sexual assault reporting system. Callisto enables students to either submit a report directly to their school’s Title IX coordinator or to save a report in Callisto’s database that they can then submit at a later time if they feel ready to do so. In an effort to unmask repeat offenders, Callisto also monitors whether students are reporting the same perpetrators (The Miscellany News, “Sexual assault survivors must have full admin support,” 04.03.2017).
Ultimately, sexual assault on campus is an issue that requires the attention of everyone within the Vassar community. The senior concluded, “If you’re ever approached by someone who has something to say about the way you treated them, it’s so important to just listen, and before you defend yourself, take the time to reflect on your actions and truly sit with what that person has told you.” The full survey results can be found here.
¹Editor’s note: The rates of reported sexual assault mentioned in this article are the sums of the percent of students who reported experiencing penetrative non-consensual contact during the last year and in previous years at Vassar and those who experienced non-penetrative non-consensual contact during the last year and in previous years. These sums may overcount a few students who experienced different forms of assault, or were assaulted multiple times in different years.