By: Virgil Hayes
In 2013 I was one of many who cheered for the Florida State Seminoles as they went on to win their third National title. An achievement that fans believed would be the beginning of a new era in FSU football and an end to the sexual assault allegations surrounding Jameis Winston. Three years following FSU’s successful title run I found myself in an auditorium style classroom patiently awaiting the screening of The Hunting Ground; a documentary that tackles the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
In addition to winning a plethora of awards from film critics, the documentary has received praise from President Obama, prompting his administration to launch the “It’s On Us” Initiative. Following the screening of the film I was able to speak with Sofie, an anti-sexual violence activist and co-founder of End Rape on Campus. What follows is an interview between yours truly, and an activist that has sparked a MUCH NEEDED revolution. One that empowers sexual assault survivors and calls for accountability amongst any who are complicit in upholding a culture of silence. Because much like feminism; education on sexual violence is for everyone.
Virgil: So thank you first off for doing this interview.
Sofie: Yea Sure.
Virgil: Ok to start off, can you summarize what rape culture is, and a few ways that it manifests itself on college campuses?
Sofie: Yea, basically rape culture is the societal acceptance of sexual assault and it’s also its kind of hard to simply define it. But I think that the way that we often see it play out is when people are not found responsible for sexual violence cases, when people don’t believe survivors when they come forward, and when you basically have an entire culture turning a blind eye to the issue and prefer to ignore it rather than addressing the issue. That’s part of it certainly and also this notion that women have very little control over their own sexuality as well.
Virgil: So the next question would be, how important is it for guys to understand what rape culture is and what are some of the things that guys should do to dismantle their support of rape culture?
Sofie: Yea, um, so I think it’s really important to engage men in the conversation because you’re not going to be able to address the majority of perpetrators; which are men, if you don’t talk to them. So it’s something that’s really important, and also there is something that a lot of people are unaware of when they are framing sexual assault with only being a women’s issue. So 1 in 6 boys are sexually assaulted before they are 18.
So that’s actually a really big problem that we’re not talking about and also because of rape culture, this really toxic expectation that we have for masculinity, meaning you determine how masculine you are by being powerful and not talking about things like that. And so you’re actually more likely as a guy to be sexually assaulted, than to be a perpetrator of sexual assault. So rarely do we actually talk about that, so it’s really important to engage men because they can also end up being sexually assaulted. So we want to make sure that everyone is being engaged in this conversation because it does impact everybody.
But also some of the things that we’re trying to do on campus, are to require states to have consent education for high schoolers. Because it’s way too late to be talking about this before we get to college. So we want to make sure that when people are forming their sexual behaviors that they are getting used to the idea of confirmative consent from the get-go. So we’ve been pushing or confirmative consent education for the high school and middle school level. But other ways that men can help, is if you are in a fraternity or some group that regularly has parties, designate someone to be a sober monitor.
So essentially like, making sure that everyone is having a good time and nothing shady is going on. And that person can be a designated bystander because all too often because of rape culture, people see things that could lead to sexual violence occurring but don’t take action because they don’t want to be a “c***blocker”.
Virgil: As a survivor of sexual assault, what are some of the myths concerning sexual assault that you have heard? And how do you think these myths contribute to rape culture?
Sofie: Some of the other very common myths, are that it’s only straight white girls who are the face of sexual assault and that is also very problematic and not true. The rates of sexual assault for indigenous women and women of color are much higher than sexual assault rates for white women. So that’s also something really important to be aware of, and then other common myths are that; “Oh you know, I know this person who was falsely accused one-time”. Like people think that the rates of false accusations are around 50%, when actually it’s between 2-8%. So no one ever says, “Oh you reported a robbery are you sure? Are you sure he really stole your phone?” (laughs)
Virgil: (laughs) yeah exactly, exactly. At the event on campus, you stated that the way that you and other survivors were treated by the institutions/schools was far worse than the experience itself. Can you give a couple of examples of the harsh treatment that you received and why did you choose to stay and challenge the institution?
Sofie: Yeah so, basically what ended up happening is that I was assaulted and I found that there were several other people that were assaulted by the same guy, and so we first decided to try and pressure him to resign from his leadership that he had in his club. He was a respected leader and it didn’t seem appropriate for him to be there. And we also wanted to send a message that this would not be tolerated. So he had to step down from that position, but then less than a month later he sexually assaulted yet another person. So at that point we realized, oh my God we have to go to the school because it just didn’t work. So um, we went to Berkley and like four of us at this point and reported him. And they basically acted like there wasn’t really anything they could do about it because it was so close to the end of the year and then never involved us into any investigation after that.
No hearing, no opportunity to bring in other witnesses; nothing. So I just gave them (Berkley) the benefit of the doubt. But then it turned out they were just working out some stuff behind our backs with him so that he would be on disciplinary probation. So that if he sexually assaulted a fifth person then maybe they would care, and it wasn’t a part of his official sanction but he ended up graduating a semester early. I was trying to find out what was going on in the midst of this because nobody was talking to me; and I had found out that he was going to graduate early through a friend. And so when I reached out to Berkley like “Wait what is going on?” They just passed it off and passed it off, and didn’t get back to me until two days before he graduated.
He now goes to a very prestigious law school because Berkley did not take action against him, and that law school happens to be 15 minutes walking distance from where I grew up. So every time I go home, I’m just in a complete state of anxiety because I haven’t seen him in like four years.
Virgil: Rather than merely offering lip service, what do you feel students need to see from institutions such as the police department (whether on campus or city) and various colleges that will allow them to truly feel safe on campus?
Sofie: (sigh) yeah there is a lot of lip service and its really frustrating that colleges are dealing with this as a public relations issue. But essentially some of the main things that they can do, is to educate their students about confirmative consent, bystander intervention, and what sexual assault looks like and various myths that surround it. And to actually have those conversations in a small group setting that will allow people to speak honestly and to learn in ways that can actually translate into their own lives tangibly. So having that small group interactive training towards the beginning of the school year or at student orientation is really important. I think it’s important to have annual campus climate surveys that have uniformed language, so that schools are asking and identifying how many people on their campus have been sexually assaulted while there and if they reported, what was their experience? Was it positive? What were things that they didn’t like or thought could be done better?
But then also asking people who didn’t go through the process of reporting, like why do you feel that that was the best decision for you? And asking questions to learn more about this issue, and then the results of that should be published. And also to publish the numbers of sexual assault reports they are getting, where they have found perpetrators responsible. And in the event that they have been found responsible, what type of sanctions did they end up getting as well.