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It is a frustratingly common problem: while colleges and universities have increased the availability of support resources for students who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, the actual number of students who seek out those resources for support remains abysmally low, varying between 2-11%.1 Why are the overwhelming majority of sexual assault survivors choosing not to report their experiences or seek help on campus?

Psychologists Kathryn Holland and Lilia Cortina (University of Michigan) recently published findings from their research investigating barriers survivors experience in reporting sexual victimization to their college or university. In their article, “It Happens to Girls All The Time”: Examining Sexual Assault Survivors’ Reasons for Not Using Campus Supports,” published in American Journal of Community Psychology, Holland and Cortina identify that survivors face different barriers in accessing different kinds of resources, specifically, Title IX offices, sexual assault centers, and housing staff. The barriers survivors identified related to: accessibility, acceptability (including five distinct sub-types of acceptability), appropriateness, and alternative coping.2

According to Holland and Cortina, both community norms related to the appropriateness of seeking help or reporting, as well as institutional practices and policies, create barriers to help-seeking that prove difficult for many survivors to overcome. They urge campuses to consider a range of steps that may remove these barriers, including limiting the staff who are required to report incidences, pursuing stronger accountability measures for “‘less serious’ forms of sexual assault,” and adopting accountability processes that look different from the criminal justice system’s processes of investigation and adjudication.

Principal author Kathryn Holland agreed to answer questions about the implications of her research for Campus Prevention Network members.

EverFi: One finding that I found surprising was that survivors were more likely to anticipate negative reactions or consequences when using formal reporting options, like Title IX offices, and preferred to disclose to informal support resources, like friends. What are the implications of this finding for training employees who work for formal university resources?

KH: We frequently see these fears about reporting to the police, and it is concerning that these same fears are expressed about disclosing to the university. For example, survivors were worried that they would be blamed or not taken seriously. Survivors who had experienced what people may consider “less severe” assaults, like being groped at a party, also thought that formal supports would not care because this happens so often. I think the important thing is that survivors need to trust/feel comfortable with the person they are disclosing to. Survivors need to know that staff will respond with compassion and discretion, like a friend might. Employees who handle reports must be trained to understand responses to trauma and use trauma-informed interviewing. It may also help to increase their visibility on campus. For instance, a Title IX coordinator who participates in trainings, events, etc.—who students know by name and face—may be easier to report to. Students should know that staff are trained to take all forms of sexual assault seriously. Survivors should never have to worry that they may be scorned or ignored if reporting behaviors that are not stereotypical rape.

EverFi: Your research indicates that one reason survivors may not seek help from a sexual assault center is that they perceive those resources are only appropriate for those who were “severely traumatized or distraught.” Do you have thoughts about how sexual assault centers may more effectively encourage help-seeking by survivors who consider their experience to be less severe?

KH: I think that it would be helpful to include more detailed information about resources in ongoing sexual assault education and prevention efforts—discussing the actual services that the center can provide and explicitly saying that services are not just for students who are in an acute crisis. I think that testimony from students who have used the center could be powerful—having survivors who sought help for different kinds of gender-based mistreatment or violence (like sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or dating violence) talk about their experience seeking help from the center. Any way to remove ambiguity about what it is like to use the center. In addition to trainings, putting flyers in bathroom stalls that include this kind of information could help too. Many centers are already doing this work on campus, but we must continue changing the culture that normalizes and minimizes unwanted sexual contact, dispelling myths about sexual assault, and challenging the objectification of women.

EverFi: One possible consideration you suggest in your article is for campuses to explore restorative justice options for less severe forms of sexual assault. Why might this help increase reporting rates?

KH: Many student survivors are hesitant to make a formal report, to the police or university. Unfortunately, that’s not really surprising given that formal reporting processes can take control away from survivors and cause additional trauma. Within a college community, survivors are often concerned about their private information becoming gossip during an investigation, or being ostracized. Survivors are also concerned that reporting may harm the perpetrator. Some survivors certainly want to see their assailant expelled, but what others really want is the person to acknowledge what they did was wrong, apologize, and ensure that they will not do it again. I think this is where restorative justice becomes useful. These processes are focused on acknowledging that harm was done and figuring out how to make it right. Survivors can have more control because these processes actively include them in the decision about how the perpetrator can repair the harm. Restorative justice may not work in all cases—the survivor must be okay with the process, the perpetrator will likely need to take responsibility for their actions, there must be significant preparation—but I see this as another tool that can be used to help more survivors get the justice that they want and deserve. Having a variety of options for reporting, like this, may help increase reports.

Thank you, Kathryn, for sharing your insights on how campuses may increase survivor reporting and help-seeking rates on campus. Increasing incident reporting and help-seeking is key to creating a safer, supportive campus community.

Ready to address low reporting rates on your campus but not sure where to start? Help prepare staff and faculty to respond to survivor disclosures with these strategies.

References:

  1. Fisher, Daigle, Cullen & Turner, 2003; Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2011 in Holland, K. J. and Cortina, L. M. (2017), “It Happens to Girls All the Time”: Examining Sexual Assault Survivors’ Reasons for Not Using Campus Supports. Am J Community Psychol, 59: 50–64. doi:10.1002/ajcp.12126
  2. Holland, K. J. and Cortina, L. M. (2017)
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