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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

McKay: Stigmatizing Sexual Assault

Amherst College student Angie Epifano's recent account of her experience as a rape victim at a prestigious institution created controversy throughout the Amherst community. She recounts administrative failure to properly deal with her case and anecdotal reflections on her personal journey. But her story holds more weight than a mere personal account of injustice it serves as a cautionary tale that is relevant to us at Dartmouth about the dangers of victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault.

Epifano was raped and then subsequently mistreated by the administration and counseling departments who, she writes, told her that pressing charges would be useless. The administration told her, "There's not much we can do." Instead of stopping with their already devastating admission that they were neither capable nor willing to help, they then questioned her veracity, asking, "Are you sure it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup ... You should forgive and forget." This appallingly unsympathetic comment came from a sexual assault counselor on campus. The attempts to downplay Epifano's experience or even somehow place the responsibility on her as opposed to the rapist continued from a sundry of sources: the dean, the counselors, the mental health professionals during a brief stint of hospitalization. Epifano, for all of the suffering she endured, finishes the piece with forgiving, yet disdainful, reflection. "The fact that such a prestigious institution could have such a noxious interior fills me with intense remorse mixed with sour distaste," she writes. She then raises one of the most important questions for our generation of college students: Why can't we be honest about sexual assault?

Campus rape is a prevalent yet incredibly controversial issue. From Wesleyan University's "rape factory" incident to Boston University's hockey team scandal, instances of sexual assault on college campuses frequently make national headlines. However, these instances are merely those that happen to garner national attention, while countless rapes and assaults go unreported. According to the American Association of University Women website, 95 percent of rapes are left unreported. Why is this the case?

Epifano argues that it is the predominant culture of shame surrounding reporting sexual assault at Amherst that creates this problem. This accusation appears consistent with her story. The institution itself encouraged her, the victim, to maintain her silence in order to avoid undergoing the strenuous and frustrating challenge of proving the rape to a disciplinary board. The administration's recommendation that she not report her assault reflects a culture of silence. But the reality is that even in reporting the rape, Epifano might have just been heavily scrutinized by the disciplinary committee and unjustly branded a liar.

Even beyond Amherst College, or college campuses in general, the national culture surrounding rape is predominantly marked by victim-blaming and heavy stigma. How else could a nation even allow a dialogue about "forcible rape" versus "non-forcible rape" to occur? Or allow a legislator such as Roger Rivard to promote incredibly incorrect and dangerous misconceptions with comments that "some girls rape easy" in reference to his belief that many girls consent to sex but decide to "cry rape" later. This ignorant belief held by so many that those who report sexual assault are lying creates the culture of shame that deters so many victims from seeking justice.

The majority of rapes on college campuses involve victims who already know their rapists. Administrators may see this existing relationship as cause to view the victim with greater scrutiny. This misconception that victims "cry wolf" leads to a culture in which a victim must prove that she did not somehow incur or agree to her rape before she seeks justice. What was she wearing? Why didn't she scream or fight back? Why did she go home with him in the first place?

In order to enact permanent change, an institution cannot merely attempt to combat rape and sexual assault, but also seek to counter the pervasive prejudices and misconceptions that perpetuate a shame-based culture. Effective attempts to negate such negative attitudes begin with the students. The college must make an active effort to properly educate students on sexual assault. Perhaps Epifano put it best when she wrote, "There is no reason shame should be a school's policy." Epifano's story serves to criticize rape culture, but also to offer insight to school administrators. I hope that both the administration and the student bodies of colleges everywhere, including Dartmouth, will answer her call to change the culture surrounding sexual assault.