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What students should know about sexual assault
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What students should know about sexual assault

April 27, 2020 at 12:44pm

By Elizabeth Ferrer-Alfonso

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month.

The Victim Empowerment Program, as part of the SAPAC (Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Committee), hosted a virtual panel of experts to educate the campus community on sexual assault. SAPAC is tasked with creating programming and coordinating campus efforts around sexual assault prevention.

The panel, hosted April 9, included FIU experts from the Women’s Center, the Victim Empowerment Program, the FIU Title IX Office, the Dean of Students Office, and more. 

Here are four takeaways from the discussion:

1. A survivor’s reaction is automatic.

“We won’t know how we’ll respond, unfortunately and sadly, until it happens to us.” said Elisabeth Simpson, assistant director of the Victim Empowerment Program.

The body is wired to defend and survive, she said. Typical responses to sexual violence are flight, fight or freeze. These responses can vary, influenced by both the current situation and past experiences.

“[The freeze response] tends to create a lot of post-trauma challenges for a survivor because they don’t understand why their body didn’t respond, in that moment,” Simpson added.

Chemical responses set in motion to help a victim survive can take the thinking brain offline and impact a person's ability to form a coherent memory of the assault. 

“It’s why some say the account of what happened changes, but in essence it’s pieces of memory getting integrated into awareness with time and often sensory triggers,” explained Simpson.

2. There are many reasons why survivors do not report.

Survivors can be revictimized in the process of reporting because of the way investigations are conducted, explained Nashira Williams, director of FIU Women's Center. The process can rehash the traumatic events that occurred or even make a survivor feel powerless as they are ushered through the process.

Guilt can play a factor as well, explained Shirlyon McWhorter, director of IDEA and Title IX coordinator. Survivors may believe that they put themselves in that situation and blame themselves for not knowing any better.

Other reasons why a victim may not report is the fear society could look at them differently, or the fear of backlash in reporting a person who has more authority than the survivor. If there isn’t enough evidence to prove their report against a credible person, survivors may feel discouraged.

“Lots of times students will feel like maybe the person that I’m reporting this against is a popular person. Nobody is going to believe me,” said McWhorter.

McWhorter assured that each survivor will be heard, and their case will be thoroughly and fairly investigated. 

“We want to hear what happened to you. We want to investigate these matters.” McWhorter said. 

3. No matter how a student chooses to report, it’s their choice.

Students have choices when it comes to reporting.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)/Victim Empowerment Program (VEP) is fully confidential. Because they are licensed clinicians, CAPS/VEP do not have to report the crime allowing victims to focus on healing if that’s what they wish.

Alternatively, victims can report directly to campus police or exclusively to the Title IX office.

The police department is required to report back to the Title IX office for their records. This does not mean a student has to make a case with the university if they do not wish to.

“Often a person could decide go directly to the police department and not want to really have a case with the university,” McWhorter added. “They get to make that choice.”

It’s important for survivors to know, McWhorter said, that reports to the Title IX office will not be directed to the police department unless the individual makes that decision.

4. There are ways to help prevent sexual assault.

Educating people on consent is key in preventing sexual assault, explained Jake R. Burns, program coordinator of the Dean of Students Office. If there is any uncertainty in a sexual interaction, it is best to avoid the interaction all together.

“When people are communicating before they have sex, they better understand the sexual boundaries, what people like, what is going to make them get the most out of the sexual experience,” said Burns.

Burns also stressed the importance of bystanders intervening. If a person appears to be in a potentially non-consensual or even dangerous situation, bystanders should intervene using the five D’s: direct, distract, delegate, document, delay.

The full panel included: Wendy Ordóñez, outreach and educational media manager for the Victim Empowerment Program; Devin M. Parra, associate director for the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity; Shirlyon McWhorter, director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Access (IDEA) and Title IX coordinator; Elisabeth Simpson, assistant director of the Victim Empowerment Program; Jake R. Burns, program coordinator of the Dean of Students Office; and Nashira Williams, director of the FIU Women's Center.