When Angela Esquivel was drugged and sexually assaulted during her senior year of college, she longed to erase the experience from her memory.
But the part-time professor realized after entering graduate school that even with counseling and support from loved ones, she could not wipe away her traumatic past. She decided to face it, reaching out to her university’s sexual assault awareness and prevention center and switching her program of study to student affairs.
Esquivel is now an advocate against sexual violence and a member of the Dean of Students office’s crisis response team. She lives in Thurston Hall, and over the last year, pressed for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill and at the White House with an adviser who authored the bill.
“I think it helps me not regret or resent what happened,” Esquivel, who came to GW in 2010, said. “I think a crime like that really involves obviously being disempowered, and so for me, it’s a part of staying empowered and having control over what role this thing is going to play in my life.”
Nearly 20 percent of college women are victims of attempted or actual sexual assaults, according to the Department of Education. But studies have shown that the vast majority of campus sex abuses go unreported. At GW, the number of sexual assault reports totaled 11 in 2010 and 16 in 2011.
President Barack Obama signed the new Violence Against Women Act into law March 7, requiring universities to include instances of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking in their annual security reports. The changes will go into effect for the 2014-2015 academic year.
Another part of the law, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, calls for stricter guidelines for informing victims of their legal rights and strengthening sexual assault prevention policies at colleges and universities.
“As members of the GW community, it should matter to all of us when even one of us goes through something like this,” Esquivel said. “I think students are the key to prevention mattering, because that’s not something that we as administrators can instill necessarily in someone. We can try, but the preventative efforts are so much more impactful and meaningful when they come from the students."
She said at the press conference that after her assault at the University of Southern California, law enforcement investigators told her they did not believe her attack was severe enough to warrant a criminal case. But Esquivel's assailant began to stalk her – sending her notes, gifts and flowers – and she was ultimately granted a restraining order.
"But I was the one who had to turn around and walk the other way whenever I saw him on campus," she said at the conference, adding that by the time her school concluded its own investigation, graduation was approaching and administrators told her it was too late to take action. "My assailant walked across the same stage I did on graduation day."
Universities are already required to report campus crime under the Clery Act, passed in 1990 to lay out across-the-board rules for compiling crime data and issuing warnings.
The new law also includes rights for groups like Native Americans, immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Esquivel said it was important that Congress not only renew, but also strengthen the law to protect and support survivors of these types of attacks.
“I was feeling like it had been a privilege for me to heal, and there’s something so intrinsically wrong with that. That shouldn’t be a privilege. That should be something that just is – for everyone – and so that’s what this legislation is trying to do,” Esquivel said.
Vice President Joe Biden penned the original law as a Delaware senator in 1994, which gave $1.6 billion toward the investigation of violent crimes against women.
Esquivel said VAWA encouraged her to undergo conflict mediation training at the University of Michigan, where she earned a graduate degree in 2008, and to work as a counselor at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
“I think that’s why the passage of VAWA felt so personal. Not just because I had the opportunity to, in some small way, be a part of it – through the press conference or those other lobbying conversations – but I think because I can see what it can do for people,” Esquivel said.
As an activist, Esquivel has witnessed the dialogue surrounding sexual assault evolve to include more populations and cover more types of sexual abuse.
She said she produced a short film during college about sexual violence on campus, and recalls the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women asking her to remove segments that showed stalking and harassment because the version of VAWA at that time did not cover those issues.
The part-time professor, who teaches human sexuality in the School of Public Health and Health Services, became involved with sexual violence issues on a national level after she signed a petition in support of VAWA. Weeks later, the director of a dating violence prevention organization reached out and asked Esquivel to speak at a press conference.
“It instantly felt bigger than me,” Esquivel said. “I was thinking about the people that I know, and don’t know for that matter, who for whatever reason are not in a place to say yes to something like this even if they wanted to.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., contacted Esquivel – a former constituent – and stood beside her during the press conference.
Esquivel is also the co-founder of the As One Project, a non-profit organization that provides support to family and friends of sexual assault victims.
She has teamed up with Terri Rosenberg, an alumna of Pennsylvania State University, who chose to take on sexual violence issues after the sex abuse scandal at her alma mater surfaced last year.
Tara Pereira, an administrator who oversees GW’s compliance with the discrimination prevention act Title IX, wrote in an email that the As One Project was “a unique approach” to sexual violence on a national scale.
“Angela is asserting herself as a leader in the field of women’s rights, particularly in the violence against women arena. She brings a passion and dedication to this work like few I have seen,” Pereira added.