Sexual assault survivors deserve the support the Hulst & Handler report denied them

GRAPHIC BY EMILY FARROW/GRAPHICS CENTER

Aaron McNelis is a senior sociology major.

Determining whether an overarching culture of sexual assault exists at a university is vital. However, too often, sexual assault reports only focus on proving or disproving the acts of the perpetrators, instead of adequately supporting the victims who lived through trauma and will  continue to live with it long after their case has been closed. In the recent Jan. 11 Hulst & Handler LLP report, which addressed the sexual misconduct allegations against the men’s soccer team, it was ultimately determined that USF does not possess a pervasive culture of sexual assault, we must acknowledge that a culture of neglecting victims does exist.

As a society, we claim to be normalizing the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, but the topic is still deeply associated with shame in our culture, forcing victims of sexual assault to cope with a complicated burden: stay silent and risk not getting justice or speak up and risk being shamed. To change this, we must shift society’s focus to the psychological reasons why sexual assault continues to be so prominent in our culture — structures such as toxic masculinity, patriarchal systems of power, and the social pressure women and men both face to conceal shameful subjects like sexual assault, to name a few. By focusing on the act instead of the aftermath, our entire society perpetuates a culture of sexual assault, even if one university’s report deems otherwise.

Anywhere from 20-25% of women are subject to sexual violence while they are in college, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. However, only 5% of students who have been assaulted will report it to their universities, a percentage which only gets marginally higher when universities offer resources like crisis or health care centers. 

So, while the investigators found it “more likely than not” that the predatory behavior that the men’s soccer team was being investigated for is not a widespread issue, if our university is anywhere near the national numbers, I find it much “more likely than not” that the 11 cases dug up in the investigation and the 376 sexual misconduct reports filed campuswide since 2015 implicate hundreds of more survivors who did not report what they underwent, if not thousands. Taking a report like this at face value individualizes the problem of sexual assault and takes the weight off of our school and its responsibility to us to uphold Title IX. 

We know our university is grappling with how to best protect the young adults it serves from gender and sex-based discrimination, and that they are trying to do good. But patronizing punishment methods which have been proven ineffective at achieving their goal  — like placing sexual assault perpretrators on probation, a deferred suspension, or having them write essays  — is not my definition of diligence, and it should not be our administration’s either.

After continued community backlash, there are University reforms underway, though the work is nowhere near done. One exciting promise mentioned in the Feb. 17 Title IX follow-up email from USF is that the school will be hiring a new Deputy Title IX director, in addition to the new Sexual Violence Resource Advocate position it created last summer. These individuals will conduct a review of Title IX and Athletics Department policies and hold listening sessions for the community in Fall 2021, although they could be available sooner. 

Praise for the University at this point would be misguided though. The amount of cultural reform that will take place on campus will only relate directly to the engagement and accountability we demand of our community. 

Reporting sexual assault and learning more about its deep roots in our culture is not enough, we must take accountability for how the sexual assault survivors in our community have been sidelined for too long. There are several reasons why survivors might not utilize campus resources, such as feeling that it may be socially unacceptable to use campus supports or already having alternative methods of coping.

We must create brave spaces on our campus, in our classrooms, and in our friend groups in which survivors feel safe to tell their stories and experiences. We must hold our university accountable and ensure that sexual assault survivors are offered proper support for the psychological and physical ramifications they may undergo, and, above all, that each member of our community is educated on consent and the gravity of sexual assault, for it can have a lifelong impact on both the assaulter and the assaultee.

Despite its many failures and inadequacies, the Hulst & Handler report did succeed at one very important thing — forcing us to hold up a mirror to the Hilltop and take an in-depth look at what we would like to see. While the report’s tone does not reflect the majority of our community’s attitude towards survivors of sexual assault or our commitment to making reforms, it shook us enough to reflect on what kind of culture we would like to see at USF. Universities across our country are updating their Title IX policies and procedures to begin rebuilding their students’ broken — if not shattered — trust, so while USF’s trials and tribulations are not unique, our response to them can be.

If you would like to learn more about how USF is responding, ASUSF Senate will be hosting a Title IX Spring Town Hall March 10 on Zoom which will have speakers from the Student Life, Athletics, and Title IX departments and is open to all students. To register for the conversation, visit @asusf_senate on Instagram or click here. Questions for the panelists at the town hall can be submitted here. Additionally, @itsonusfca will be hosting a space for students to discuss and debrief the situation before the Town Hall.

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