Fresh Eyes: No easy answers to reporting sexual assault

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Tamara Jeffriesby Tamara Y. Jeffries

She stopped coming to class.

Marcia (not her real name) had been at good student. Always present, engaged in discussion, she had the makings of a good journalist. And then she stopped coming.

It’s not unusual for first-year students to have trouble adjusting to college life. Sometimes they’re homesick; sometimes they’re enjoying themselves a little too much. Most times — say, after a shocking midterm report — they snap back into gear and begin to “matriculate” in earnest.

Marcia eventually came back, too. But her attendance was sporadic; she wasn’t as engaged. She promised she’d get it together. She couldn’t seem to. So when she showed up at my door and said she needed to talk, I smiled and gestured to a seat. She shut the door. I braced myself.

It was a familiar story: An apartment. A party. A few drinks. A guy.

“I was raped,” she said. No, she wasn’t dragged into an alley by some violent, perverted stranger, but had found herself in that all-too-common situation where one minute, everybody’s just having fun, then things get hazy, then turn ugly.

For Marcia, the assault itself was bad enough. But what really spun her into depression was the fact that her friends had turned on her. The young women she expected to have her back took the side of her attacker.

They had familiar arguments: She shouldn’t have been drinking, they implied. Think of the guy, they said. He was a young college student trying to make something of his life. If she pressed charges, she’d ruin his life. She should just get over it, they said. And she tried. Her parents supported her, and Marcia was wise enough to go to counseling, but the double betrayal weighed heavily.

So she wanted to write about it, she said. She knew she wasn’t the only young woman this happened to and she wanted to tell her story, to become an advocate and raise the discussion.

It was a discussion worth having, I agreed.

The problem of sexual assault on campuses is so pervasive that President Obama created a task force to address the issue. In May, the feds released a list of 55 colleges that were involved in Title IX sexual assault investigations. In a month’s time, the list swelled to 64 — from Ivy Leagues to little-known state schools.

Everything you read about college sexual assault says that it isn’t just one or two “bad” campuses. It’s rampant. Stats indicate that one in five college women experience sexual assault — everything from unwanted groping to gang rape.

Why isn’t more being done? Because it’s slippery. Part of the problem is what Marcia was dealing with: Victims are blamed (or blame themselves) for being in the “wrong” place, doing the “wrong” thing. College students are reluctant to send a classmate to trial. Black women are especially reluctant to report black men, knowing that they are more likely to be convicted and face longer prison time.

Many young women (and men) decline to go public to protect the reputation of their beloved school — or for fear of backlash on campus. Young women know they risk being shunned or “slut shamed” — on campus and online. Even well intentioned counseling doesn’t push victims to pursue the case if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. That can have the unintended consequence of having victims, already shaken and uncertain, wait until they feel “ready.” Meanwhile, their cases weaken until they fade away.

Marcia thought it was time to talk about this. I agreed.

I told her I admired her courage; I suggested that she was going to need it. It’s one thing to talk about your assault in a professor’s office, in the counselor’s chair or even among your dorm mates. But, as a journalist, I know that “going public” — especially about something this sensitive, especially in the age of the internet — results in a huge amount of exposure and critique.

“But if this is what you want to do, I’ll help you,” I told her. We talked about ways she might frame her story with minimal self-harm. She said she’d think about it and get back to me.

She didn’t. I haven’t seen her since. Maybe she’s attending classes closer to home or taking a semester off. I don’t know if she pursued her case against the young man who raped her. I don’t know if she ever wrote about it. But I know she wanted the story told.  So I am telling it.

Tamara Y. Jeffries teaches journalism at Bennett College, one of only two historically black women’s colleges in the country.