The shadow of rape loomed in English Professor Abby Wilkerson’s GW classroom, invading student journal entries and emotional personal essays.
Last spring, the professor responded to her students by searching educational databases for information about rape and sexual assault on college campuses, but said she found few writers and researchers addressing the taboo subject.
Wilkerson wrote a formal report about the lack of rape-related information available in educational literature. She presented her findings to the GW community Wednesday in the Thurston Hall piano lounge with two of her former students, who had conducted studies on related subjects.
Now Wilkerson is calling for professors to integrate sexual assault education into their daily curriculum. She said rape can be discussed in many classes, especially literature classes.
“Professors just need to deal with it responsibly to avoid re-victimization (of the survivor),” Wilkerson said.
As the subject of rape itself manifested in Wilkerson’s classroom, students became interested in investigating rape and sexual assault and how the crime relates to their own lives by studying GW’s campus.
Students Healey Sutton and Naomi Hartman, who joined Wilkerson in Thurston Hall, conducted interviews with GW students in spring 1997 to examine the personal experiences students have had with rape and sexual assault.
Wilkerson said these reports, though they did not convey empirical evidence, convinced her that GW students do not understand University policies and that many students do not even know the difference between rape and consensual sex.
Hartman conducted interviews and gathered information from questionnaires she distributed to GW students. She sent questionnaires to 35 women and 19 responded. Hartman found that 14 of the respondents wrote about incidents of sexual assault, and all of the incidents that were described involved alcohol. Only one of the incidents was reported to University Police. Wilkerson said Hartman concluded that people simply do not know where to turn if they are raped.
“Sexual assault victims do not report crimes because they’re frightened and do not know or believe that the administration can help,” Hartman wrote in her report.
UPD Director Dolores Stafford agreed that victims rarely report rape and sexual assault.
She said only two rapes were officially reported to UPD in 1998, and both of them occurred in University residence halls. Three unofficial reports, which include any rapes reported to community facilitators, community directors or administrators, were filed with UPD in 1998.
Stafford said that in the seven years she has been at GW, every rape that has been reported to her was date or acquaintance rape.
Instead of questioning the women’s perceptions of campus resources, Sutton’s research focused on people’s definition of rape, among other issues about University policies. She said she found that many women and men cannot distinguish between rape and consensual sex because of confusing legal definitions.
One excerpt from Sutton’s report haunted Wilkerson, she said.
The victim interviewed said, “I had thought that a rapist was some insane or evil guy, someone who was out looking for a victim.” After she was raped, however, the survivor said she realized a rapist could be “just some normal guy.”
In the report, Sutton wrote that this particular survivor stressed a need for education because many rapists do not realize that they committed rape.
But many students may be coming to terms with the possibility of rape, especially close to home. A February incident, in which a maintenance worker in an off-campus apartment attempted to sexually assault a GW student, sparked students to consider their personal safety, Stafford said.
After the incident, she said an influx of students interested in UPD’s Rape Aggression Defense classes spurred the University to initiate more classes this spring. She said every class is full.
“The shame is that it’s a reaction to an incident,” Stafford said. “Students should think about their personal safety before incidents, to avoid incidents.”
Stafford said the best way UPD officers and counselors can assist survivors is to help them eliminate feelings of guilt.
“No matter what you do, no matter what you wear, you are never at fault,” she said.