Survivors and activists have sought for decades to shine a light on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses with everything from Take Back the Night events to No Means No education campaigns. A Columbia University student who graduated in May made national headlines when she spent her senior year carrying a mattress with her everywhere she went on campus to represent the dorm room bed where she alleges she was raped as a sophomore. The alleged perpetrator was allowed to remain on campus.
And yet the debate about how best to address sexual violence on campus rages on. For that matter, researchers can’t even seem to agree on how often sexual assault occurs on campus. On the one hand, the 2006 federally funded Campus Sexual Assault Study of more than 5,000 women and 1,000 men at two large (unnamed) universities found that 1 in 5 female college students had been sexually assaulted. However, a 2014 Department of Justice report based on the answers of 160,000 respondents in the National Crime Victimization Survey found that an estimated 0.6 percent of female college students had been sexually assaulted.
Experts have pointed out significant shortcomings in both surveys, but some recent data, gathered in the first quarter of the year and released in June, aligns with the 2006 study. These findings come from a joint Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of more than 1,000 randomly selected recent college graduates. The poll defined sexual assault as five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object. One in 5 of the female respondents reported having been sexually assaulted in college. Five percent of the poll’s male respondents also reported being sexually assaulted while in college.
Regardless of the numbers, few would argue that any sexual assault is one too many. Counselors who are on the front lines of prevention efforts on college campuses say that decreasing the number of sexual assaults can’t be accomplished simply by raising awareness but must also be accompanied by widespread behavioral and cultural change. That is a complex and daunting task, but the counselors we spoke to — who are engaged in research or are working with campus programs — believe that current campaigns to reduce sexual violence through education sessions, campuswide activities and, in some cases, even the theater, can bring about lasting change.
A holistic approach to prevention
For decades, prevention efforts failed to address all of the factors that contribute to sexual assault, instead placing the onus on individual women and what they should do to prevent being assaulted, says Laura Hensley Choate, an American Counseling Association member who researches and writes about women’s and girls’ issues. Until relatively recently, she adds, little thought was given to also addressing perpetrators or potential perpetrators in prevention efforts.
As researchers began focusing on college men’s attitudes and behaviors, it quickly became apparent that most of these men didn’t have a clear understanding of consent. In fact, many still believed that, in certain cases, women “were asking for it,” Choate says. Another significant finding also emerged. Although prevention efforts consisting of short-term education programs sometimes temporarily changed men’s attitudes, they did not change behavior. Any lasting change would need to involve long-term education.
ACA member Brittany Talley, coordinator of the Campus Violence Prevention Program (CVPP) at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, agrees with that assessment. She has found that although many students — women included — have learned that “no means no,” they don’t really understand that a woman’s decision to consent to sex is completely independent of what she is wearing or whether she has slept with the person in the past.
In the presentations that Talley gives, she also emphasizes that a literal “no” isn’t the only way of communicating that a person doesn’t want to have sex. “We talk about what ‘no’ might [sometimes] sound like — ‘I don’t really feel like it’ or ‘I don’t really want to,’” she says.
Not surprisingly, alcohol is another huge component in many campus sexual assaults. “There is huge misunderstanding about alcohol use and consent. Some students don’t realize that if you are too drunk to drive, you are too drunk to consent [to sex],” says Talley, a provisionally licensed professional counselor.
Talley addresses these myths and misunderstandings in a talk that all freshmen and transfer students are required to attend when they arrive on campus. The 35-minute education session focuses on dating and sexual violence, including how prevalent it is, what constitutes violence, how to get help and how outsiders can help. Talley also hands out cards with a help number and information on what to do after a sexual assault.
In addition to giving presentations and workshops to classes and student groups, Talley has coordinated a number of highly visible awareness events on campus. Part of the goal in these campaigns is to help engage bystanders because she believes that they play a crucial role in preventing sexual assault and violence. For instance, she says, if students at a party or bar notice that someone is being plied with drink after drink, they should step in or get help.
This past fall, the CVPP participated in RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) Day, an annual event devoted to sexual assault education. Most vividly, umbrellas are designed and displayed by participants to draw attention to the issue of sexual assault. The umbrellas can be decorated in any manner the participants wish but must include at least one mention of RAINN somewhere in the design. In addition to making its own umbrella, the CVPP invited various student organizations to submit umbrellas. This was done not only to raise awareness but also in hopes of getting more student organization members involved in prevention efforts, Talley says. On RAINN Day, 20 student organizations displayed umbrellas. Some organizations used serious themes, while others designed their umbrellas as emblems of support. For instance, the group made up of criminal justice students designed an inside-out umbrella because sexual assault turns a person’s life inside out, Talley notes.
The CVPP has coordinated other efforts as well, including the clothesline project, in which T-shirts bearing the stories of survivors of sexual assault were hung up on a clothesline on campus, and “Sexy Time Talk,” in which students lead discussions that focus on the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Only time will tell whether activities such as these will have a significant effect on the sexual assault rate on campus, Talley says. In the meantime, students and staff are reaching out to assist survivors who want help but haven’t been able to take that step, she says.
“One of the most common ways I hear of a case is through other students or a staff member,” she says. “They may ask me to reach out to a particular student, or professors might walk students over or have me come to their offices.” CVPP is part of the university’s counseling and disability services, and in addition to her prevention efforts, Talley counsels survivors of sexual assault.
ACA member Jennifer Sharp oversaw a sexual violence peer education program known as PHREE (Peers Helping Reaffirm, Educate and Empower) at Penn State from 2009 to 2012. “PHREE members worked with the [university’s] Center for Women Students to develop a variety of events designed to support survivors of sexual and relationship violence, provide accurate information about violence and raise awareness,” says Sharp, a national certified counselor (NCC).
PHREE coordinates educational presentations at residence halls and sororities on topics such as dating violence, healthy relationships, sexual assault and consent. It also uses creative, often performance-based events to raise awareness. During Sharp’s time, PHREE members engaged in the university’s participatory theater project, Cultural Conversations, which focuses on social justice issues. PHREE’s performance was on body language. Various participants acted out representative scenarios, and then audience members and performers engaged in a discussion of the issues.
During Sharp’s tenure, PHREE also planned and assisted with activities for sexual assault awareness months that included “survivor speakouts” and poetry/spoken word events that emphasized themes of sexual assault and survival.
Sharp is now an assistant professor of counseling at Northern Kentucky University, where she helped secure a grant to fund the Norse Violence Prevention Project. “The grant essentially provides funding to coordinate and strengthen existing resources for survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking,” she says.
Sharp is also implementing the Norse Violence Prevention Peer Educator program, which is based in part on the knowledge she gained while working with PHREE. Peer educators are currently being trained to advocate and offer support for survivors of trauma.
Providing services, support and a sense of safety to survivors
Even if the number of sexual assaults on college campuses is reduced significantly, there will always be survivors. Some of those who have experienced sexual violence will seek counseling to help them process and move beyond these devastating events.
Survivors who seek help immediately or shortly after the assault and those who seek help later face many of the same issues, but there are differences in their presenting issues and primary needs, says Sue Swift, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at the Collins Center, a community center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, that provides mental health, crisis, medical, support and legal services to survivors of sexual assault and violence. The center also uses advocacy and education in its efforts to help end sexual violence in the community.
“When we work with survivors immediately after an assault, we have the primary goal of stabilization and re-establishing at least a basic sense of safety,” Swift says. Establishing safety is especially important in cases of campus sexual assault because the survivor may attend classes, socialize or even live with the person who committed the assault, note counselors who work at on-campus facilities.
When a survivor comes into the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at the University of Virginia right after an assault, counselors first determine whether the student’s living situation and general physical environment are safe, says ACA member Charlotte Chapman, an LPC who serves as the director of counseling services at the center. It is also important to start establishing a sense of emotional safety by ensuring that the survivor has a support group or safety net in place.
“A lot of people will say, ‘I don’t want my parents to know,’” Chapman says. “We’d prefer that they use family as a source of support, but that’s not always what they want. … We talk to them about tapping into [support] resources on and off campus.”
Sometimes their best friends aren’t on campus with them, especially if the survivor is a first-year student and hasn’t yet formed strong social bonds, Chapman notes. In such cases, counselors at the women’s center will talk to the student about how to access her or his network of friends through methods such as Skype.
Survivors of sexual assault need help to feel safe because of the range of frightening emotions they are experiencing, Swift points out. “Often, survivors at this stage [immediately or shortly after an assault] are feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable and fearful,” she says. “Counseling can help [survivors] sort through and reduce anxieties [and] develop plans for getting support and taking tiny steps forward.”
“With these acute clients, we might spend a good amount of time normalizing their reactions and feelings but also helping them with grounding techniques and coping skills to deal with the anxiety and stress they are probably feeling,” Swift continues.
Counselors at the Collins Center may also help survivors of sexual assault access resources such as law enforcement, medical assistance and campus services (when appropriate) if they haven’t already done so, she says.
On the other hand, Swift says, survivors who come in for counseling years after an assault are in various stages of distress or healing. Some survivors may seek counseling after a triggering event, while others arrive ready to talk after years of burying their feelings, she says. Regardless of the circumstances that bring them in, these survivors have all had time to tell themselves a “story” about their assault — a story that may include distortions and inaccuracies, Swift says.
“Survivors often blame themselves in some way for what happened or feel badly about themselves,” she explains. “They may feel the assault defines them. Their self-esteem and relationships may suffer.”
It is important for counselors to understand that survivors often have a deep sense of shame. They feel as if the assault was their fault or that they could have prevented it, even when they know intellectually that this isn’t true, say Swift and her colleagues at the Collins Center.
Counselors can be effective at helping survivors of sexual assault work through these feelings, Swift says. She and her colleagues at the Collins Center have found that a supportive approach that allows survivors to set the pace works best. Typically, Swift and her fellow counselors begin by helping these clients to develop coping skills and providing them with psychoeducation about trauma. Most survivors will need help correcting cognitive distortions about themselves and their assault, such as blaming themselves, Swift says. These clients may also benefit from grief work to help them mourn the losses they’ve experienced as a result of the assault, she continues.
“Support groups can also be very healing,” Swift asserts. “Being together in a group, even informally, with others who understand your pain is transformative for many.”
If a client cannot find a support group that offers a good fit, bibliotherapy involving the stories of other survivors can be an extremely helpful alternative, she says. “Many survivors think they are ‘crazy’ until they hear their thoughts and feelings expressed by another survivor,” she adds.
Caution! On campus, confidentiality may not apply
This past January, a University of Oregon student who alleged that several members of the basketball team had raped her sued the university for mishandling her case. Although the players were eventually dismissed from the team and suspended from the school, the survivor alleged that the university had delayed its investigation to ensure the players could remain on the team for the remainder of the season.
As part of a counterclaim — which has since been dropped — the university requested that the campus counseling center release the student’s treatment records.
The incident served as a glaring reminder that counselors who work in campus mental health centers need to ensure that their clients understand that, in certain cases, their records and confidentiality may not be protected. The state of Oregon claimed that it had a right to the student’s records under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows an educational institution to access student records to defend itself against lawsuits.
“FERPA covers educational records and only educational records. Treatment records for mental and physical health are specifically excluded,” says Perry Francis, who served as the chair of ACA’s Ethics Revision Task Force. However, he explains, the student’s lawsuit in this case specifically mentioned emotional distress, and in Oregon, the law says that if mental health is included as part of a lawsuit, defendants have the right to defend themselves with access to the records. This is an area in which counseling ethics and law collide, notes Francis, a professor of counseling and coordinator of the counseling clinic at Eastern Michigan University.
“Legally, short of a court order, we [the counseling clinic] are not going to release a student’s records,” he says. Counselors do have to follow the law, but before releasing anything, the counselor should discuss it with the student to make sure he or she understands, adds Francis, a past president of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of ACA. The counselor should also talk to the student’s attorney to discuss what the order specifies and how the counselor or counseling center might limit the information they release. It may be that not all of the records are germane, notes Francis, an LPC and NCC.
M.J. Raleigh, a past ACCA president and the director of counseling and psychological services at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, confirms there are times when she and her staff have had to release information, but they take actions to limit it.
Anne Marie “Nancy” Wheeler, the risk management consultant for ACA’s Ethics Department, says a counselor who has been asked for a client’s file might be able to provide only a summary of the file rather than the entire file.
“If a counselor receives a subpoena, in many states, the counselor can see if a summary will suffice,” she says. “This is sometimes addressed by state statute, or sometimes the client or counselor can file a motion to quash or a motion for a protective order, which would lead to a court order from the judge. If there is an actual order from the judge, the scope of that order will determine whether a summary or the entire record can or must be released.”
So where does this leave survivors who come to college counseling centers? Raleigh and Francis emphasize the necessity of informed consent for all clients who seek services at a college or university counseling center at every stage of the counseling process, beginning with the intake form. Counselors need to make sure clients understand that there may be circumstances under which the center won’t be able to keep records confidential, they say.
Michelle Wade, an ethics specialist with the ACA Ethics Department, says that counselors who are compelled to release client information should work through an ethical decision-making model. This will help them look at all possible options and outcomes of releasing client information to determine the best course of action that causes the least amount of harm to the client.
“Professional counselors should be aware that they may be called upon to disclose confidential client information under a variety of circumstances, and legal requirements may dictate compliance with such requests,” says Erin Shifflett, director of the ACA Ethics Department. “However, it is imperative that counselors consider their ethical obligations as well. Prior to disclosing any information, counselors should develop a rationale for the disclosure which explores the ways in which the client may be impacted by the release of confidential information and ways to mitigate any potential risks.”
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Charlotte Chapman at email@example.com
- Laura Hensley Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Perry Francis at email@example.com
- M.J. Raleigh at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jennifer Sharp at email@example.com
- Sue Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Brittany Talley at email@example.com
- Anne Marie “Nancy” Wheeler, Michelle Wade and Erin Shifflett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org