Sexual harassment and the victim's paradox

By TORI D'AMICO
On October 13, 2021

Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske, Unsplash.

In light of recent events online in the Ramapo community, the office of Title IX has begun hosting “Title IX Tuesdays” to open up conversations about sexual misconduct. One particular account has caused issue, one which allowed students to anonymously send in whatever they want to be posted to the whole of the follower base without consequence. Unfortunately, the school cannot force the page to be removed. 

The content should be asinine: complaints about classes and thoughts on the dining hall. Instead, students are being objectified and harassed, identified with full names and room numbers. It wasn’t long before messages began rolling in about groping and harassment at a party advertised on the page. 

These posts have since been removed. However, some posts allude to the incident, one screenshot quotes a user speaking to “whoever wanted to report my comment about how me and my friends got sexually touched.”

A following post responds: “Just wanted to say to the girls that are mad their comments were reported — why are you surprised it was reported?” It goes on to say, “Honestly, if the story was as bad as you were saying, it should have been reported so this doesn’t happen to more women.”

This comment stuck with me personally. Survivors should not be forced to feel guilty for what the perpetrator may do in the future should they choose not to report. Pursuing legal justice is even harder than going to a confidential resource.

With all of this in mind, I have decided to share my own story. 

***

There are blue lights on the way home. Orientation leaders tell me to share my location with my friends — always. Every mirror and fridge are stickered with a purple sign telling me who to call to report sexual or domestic violence. I am supposed to feel safe. I don’t. 

Maybe it’s because I know the numbers: one in five women in undergraduate programs will experience sexual assault or rape. College-aged men are 78% more likely to experience it than non-college students of the same age. Campuses are sites of violence, and try as they might, no one can seem to make it stop.

In 2019, Ramapo College reported 26 instances of sexual misconduct, under which are the following: sexual harassment, assault and exploitation, stalking, and dating and domestic violence. While these numbers are smaller than some other, larger, universities, they do not tell the whole story.

Statistics can only show reported crimes, which are definitively lower than the number of crimes actually committed. Of college-aged women, only 20% report their experiences to law enforcement. About 12% of survivors cited the reason they chose not to report was that they believed “it was not important enough.”

It took me nine months to report. I was afraid of my parents finding out, or of people talking about me behind my back and calling me a liar. They did, but I choose survivor over victim.

Reporting is hard for so many reasons. We pick and choose which catcalls, touches and comments we can handle. The rest we try to forget. 

After weeks of self doubt and fear, I walked myself into the Office of Violence Prevention and asked to speak to Marie Danielle Attis. She listened and offered me tissues as I let the reality of my experience truly sink in for the first time. 

I was given options: I could end it there, letting the college be informed of the incident and access resources for survivors. Or, I could be given a hand to hold on my way to the Title IX office to pursue a report. Ramapo’s Title IX office is filled with compassionate, validating individuals, but nothing could make it easier.

For months, I told and retold what had happened. I relived the memory I had tried so hard to suppress. I was told by every person involved in my case that they believed me, that they were sorry for what I had gone through and they wanted to help. But none of them could promise me retribution. 

When I saw posts asking why survivors would tell their experiences anonymously online rather than going to an official resource, my heart hurt for everyone who had written in. They might have been part of the 12% who thought what had happened to them was “not important enough.” 

In a world of online anonymity, survivors face constant retaliation for sharing their stories. Whether being called a liar, being victim-blamed or even having their reactions judged, social media can be a source of toxicity rather than support.

Those online interactions can be reflections of what the world outside higher education is teaching young people. While colleges and universities implement hours of sexual assault awareness seminars and bystander intervention training, students enter the space having already been taught behaviors and beliefs which perpetuate the issue. Prevention begins with awareness, which needs to start at a much younger age than 18.

Changing these trends is a community effort that many professionals and students at Ramapo — and other colleges and universities — are working hard to address, but perhaps the solution to these on-campus problems is not from within. Our society at large needs to confront the responsibility we have placed on survivors to deal and shift the onus to creating systems which do not tolerate, and instead truly punish, sexual misconduct.

If you or someone you know is looking to report an incident or receive support as a survivor, options for Ramapo can be found here. You are never alone.

 

vdamico@ramapo.edu

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