Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct. Please read with caution.
Instagram pages like Voices of Whittier College (@voicesofwc) have appeared online across the country during the recent University Survivors Movement. These accounts have left an imprint on the vulnerable subject of sexual assault that is resilient and unique all on their own. Jane — a pseudonym given by the Quaker Campus to protect Jane’s real identity, for safety — is a third-year at Whittier College, and a co-founder of the Voices of Whittier College Instagram page. She agreed to share her perspective and motivations for starting the page that has sparked meaningful conversations — that will hopefully last — about consent culture, sexual assault on college campuses, and the unnecessarily bureaucratic methods employed during reporting that can make sexual assaults even more traumatizing for survivors.
During November of 2020, an international coalition of survivors of sexual assault gained momentum online as various anonymous Instagram pages appeared. Their goal and intentions were clear. Raising awareness about the frequency and severity of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault to students and the college administration was a vital role in the creation of the VOWC page and the overall movement itself. For a deeper look into the motives behind the page, Jane, a survivor of sexual assault herself, informed me of the consent culture at Whittier College. From Jane’s perspective, there is a normalized presence of nonchalant attitudes regarding sexual assault among peers and administrators. The issue of sexual assault is an unspoken problem on campus, which was one of Jane’s reasons for helping create and bring attention to the VOWC page. While rumors of sexual assaults can spread throughout campus with ease, little is done to address the weight and severity of such accusations.
After formally reporting her assault to the school, she faced an onslaught of disapproval and accusation of lying from several of her fellow peers on campus. The amount of backlash and judgment that Jane faced after reporting her sexual assault highlighted the prevalent rape culture that thrives on college campuses across the U.S., including our own.
Title IX, an educational amendment, serves as a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex under federally-funded programs. Sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct fall under the umbrella of sex discrimination, thus requiring schools to investigate reports of such nature internally. However, the goal of the Title IX amendment has shifted and expanded over the years, constantly evolving in ways other federal laws have not. The amendment is subject to change so much that the law itself has come under scrutiny for not establishing an equitable balance between the rights of the accuser and the accused when it comes to cases of sexual assault. This lack of consistency within the law, as well as the administrators who enforce it, create a lack of trust within the institution’s system in various places of higher learning.
Fostering an environment where reporting is supported is crucial to dismantling stigmas surrounding sexual assault that develop into the normalized culture of addressing consent and sexual misconduct within colleges. For Jane, her experience reporting through the Title IX process at times felt performative. The culture around reporting sexual assault is often met with too much emphasis on reactionary help, rather than attempting to be proactive in hopes of helping to alleviate sexual assaults on campus before they happen. Jane explains that what survivors of sexual assault need is focused and trauma-informed care, solely dedicated to supporting and advocating for survivors, without conflicts of interest.
As a current third-year student, Jane cannot recall any other sexual assault or trauma-informed awareness activities on campus, aside from an online training module completed during first-year orientation. After Jane reported her own assault to the school, the investigative reporting was an overall triggering experience to endure. She felt sl—t-shamed and had thought the reporting itself was careless. There were misspellings all throughout Jane’s report that detailed her sexual assault and the investigation that came after. Jane said, “When they presented the information to me, there was no trigger warning. I knew it would be triggering information, but when they are straight up victim-shaming you, you would at least expect the school to present information through a trauma-informed way . . . which is what they failed to do.”
Jane now finds support through others in the University Survivors Movement. She is currently in a group chat with people from Brown University, Gettysburg College, Boston University, and more colleges across the country. The widespread nature of sexual assault on college campuses is what caused Jane to open up about her own experiences. Her experience was not solely an isolated event, but is a part of a much larger pattern that occurs across schools. Jane explains that she and the rest of the members of VOWC want to eventually become public with their identities, but ensuring their safety is still the immediate priority right now. Stepping into an online space centered on a vulnerable topic was triggering for Jane and the other members. They have had to take breaks from posting anonymous accounts of sexual assault. While not all members of VOWC are survivors, they are all allies, and the material they engage with that is related to sexual assault can be emotionally triggering.
The experience of starting the VOWC page has been complex for Jane, but her main priority is to center and help survivors. She explained that, “It’s a lot of pressure on how to handle that information to be less triggering to people looking at the page.” The complexity of Jane’s emotions regarding the page stir a mix of disappointment and sadness when she reads all the stories. From her perspective, resources and structural support should have been in place so that a lot of the sexual assaults could have been prevented.
Overall, Jane is happy seeing the amount of support for the page, despite the backlash she receives through direct messages. Jane continued, saying, “It’s also really rewarding to see that people are actually engaging with the content and sending their stories; it provides a feeling that we can actually accomplish something by this.”
Administration’s response to the VOWC page has been mixed. Some faculty members and professors have followed the page on Instagram in a show of support for the advocacy that Jane and her peers are displaying. However, Jane feels that administrators fail to acknowledge student voices and student work directly. The work of past students to make strides toward establishing more resources on campus for survivors of sexual assault is often marginalized. Direct acknowledgment and credit for student-based advocacy is necessary to honor student voices in the fight for true equity on college campuses.
While talking to Jane, her passion for creating a safer environment for students beams from her. Jane wants to assure students at Whittier College that may still be coming to terms with their assault that they are not alone. Jane emphasizes to all students and survivors of sexual assault that, “We want to create a support system. We want to make students feel safe. We want to change the culture here. We’re here for them, and we will always be here for them. There’s resources and people who care.”
Featured Image: Courtesy of Voices of Whittier College