Vargas: College women shouldn’t have to live in fear of sexual assault


Alani Vargas, Columnist

Head Up. Earbuds off. Keep your keys in your hands. Look behind you every few minutes. These rules of thumb are constantly running through my head when I’m walking outside alone, especially after dark. I can’t even remember the first time that my mom told me these rules — they are ingrained in my head as if they have been there since birth.

After the Daily reported that University Police received four sexual assault reports in nine days, my mind went into overdrive. Despite having one of the most overprotective and caring moms, I often neglect her earlier words of advice while walking around campus. I live in my own bubble sometimes, a problem that can be worsened by my phone screen and earbuds. It’s not that I’m blatantly disregarding basic safety lessons — it’s simply that I feel so safe on campus that I assume nothing bad can happen walking home from Main Library at 2 a.m. The report served as a rude awakening from my carefree attitude.

Sexual assault happens. It isn’t something that only happens elsewhere or could never happen at Northwestern. One in five college women will be sexually assaulted by the time she graduates. This data suggests that I know, or will meet, multiple women who have been assaulted. These statistics are horrifying.

However, there is a strong movement for sexual assault awareness and support for survivors at NU and all over the country. Although this conversation has been ongoing for a long time, it has been picking up recently. I would like to think increased recognition of sexual assault is the result of heightened empathy, but it’s more likely a direct response to activists’ hard work and successful documentaries like “The Hunting Ground” that raise awareness of the issue.

I first saw “The Hunting Ground” last May during a screening on campus hosted by Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators in association with A&O Productions and NU Women Filmmakers Alliance. The theater was packed, and I don’t think anyone walked away untouched by the film, because it was utterly mesmerizing.

“The Hunting Ground” chronicles the epidemic of sexual assaults on American college campuses, cover ups at various universities and rape survivors’ heartbreaking stories.

While watching the film, I felt appalled by the various universities’ responses to instances of sexual assault. The victims in the film often state the colleges advised them not to pursue the investigation and the statistics on how many suspensions were actually given are astounding. Between 2009 and 2013, out of Harvard’s 135 reported sexual assaults, 10 were reportedly suspended. At Dartmouth the 155 reported assaults from 2002 to 2013 amounted to three expulsions. And at Stanford, from 1996 to 2013, only one expulsion came out of the 259 reported sexual assaults.

Not only were the women traumatized by assault, but they also weren’t receiving proper support from their institutions. Even worse, they were being ridiculed. In the film, Erica Kinsman, a former student at Florida State University, alleged she was raped by Jameis Winston, a huge name in college football at the time. Her investigation was flawed, as reported by the The New York Times, and he was never charged for the assault. Kinsman then received threats and was bombarded with people calling her a “slut” and “whore.” One of the big questions that perpetuates rape culture is, “Why didn’t they get help? Why didn’t they tell anyone?” Those questions relate to the stigma surrounding rape and its survivors, not to mention the slut shaming and entrenched double standards in our society, as demonstrated by Kinsman’s story.

I still feel extremely helpless. I can’t physically do anything about the women and men who have already been assaulted, and I don’t know if I’d be able to help myself in a similar situation. I could take self-defense classes, I could carry pepper spray, I could walk with the police on speed dial. But when it comes down to it, I can’t even imagine the type of fear I would experience in that situation.

Despite these fears, it’s fantastic to see NU students come together for events like Take Back the Night and support victims during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Still, it’s beyond sickening that we live in a society where women have to take extreme precautions to not be violated. I shouldn’t have to lie to a drunk guy at a party that I have a boyfriend just to get him to leave me alone because he respects another guy more than me. I have been fine so far. While the threat of sexual assault follows me around campus, I struggle to think of a solution besides keeping my head up and earbuds out.

Alani Vargas is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.