Opinion | Sexual assault at Stanford is more common than it seems

Opinion by Diya Sabharwal
Aug. 22, 2022, 2:50 a.m.

Content warning: This article contains references to rape and sexual assault.

The news came to me late at night from my pre-frosh friend texting on our group chat: “Hey guys sorry for late text but heard about what happened near wilbur hope you guys are feeling alright its hella scary and infuriating.” 

Earlier that day, Aug. 9, Stanford had sent a “Community Crime Alert” notification regarding a sexual assault, in broad daylight at 5 p.m., in a parking lot near Wilbur Hall. I received this notification while I was caught up in some work, and I’d heard so many rape stories recently that I momentarily forgot to even react to this one.

Only when I read my friend’s text did I manage to snap back to reality, conjuring up enough emotion to respond to her. There was a time when I myself had the emotional capacity to talk about rape every single time it happened, but that was before I’d run my tired mind through the grieving process over and over again, alongside almost every single one of my closest friends. That was back when the statistic of sexual assault – namely, that one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – was just a statistic, instead of points on a dot plot of familiar faces that were slowly, bravely emerging from the obscurity. 

Nowadays, it feels like a new face emerges on the graph every week, revealing itself to me in hushed whispers on Roble Field, becoming another speck in this constellation connecting us all. 

The poet Phil Kaye once said: “My mother taught me this trick. If you repeat something over and over again, it loses its meaning.

Homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework. See? Nothing.”

Imagine a carousel of women, their eyes all peering into yours, hoping that you’ll trust them with what they’re about to say. One after the other, their stories echo through you as the carousel of your days spins:  “I was assaulted on the bus.” “He kissed me when I told him not to.” “My uncle touched me when I was younger.” 

Rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, see? Nothing. 

This summer, there have been two reported sexual assault cases on Stanford campus. Which means two Community Crime notifications, the second hot on the heels of the first and sparking outrage on Stanford’s Fizz app, prompting my male friends to text me to offer support, and my RAs to send out mass emails. I don’t assume that anything that we say can match up to the heavy task of alleviating the victim’s burden, and it is extremely difficult to find the right words to say when trying to offer sympathy. But by acknowledging and talking about it, we can, at least, help each other process it. Every time we talk about it, we are sending out a reminder that sexual assault happens, and it happens far more often than we’d like to think.

 It is an extremely ugly feeling to hear of a sexual assault and not have the emotional capacity to respond with anger, as was the case with me when I first heard about the Aug. 9 rape case. “Minimization”, or ignoring the impact of the trauma in order to make the traumatic experience appear smaller than it really is, is one of the key coping mechanisms for trauma, after all. It is an unhealthy, but effective, mechanism to apply to get you through the oft-misogynistic parts of Stanford frat culture, hearing heartbreaking narratives from ex-Stanford students assaulted by their professors, and orientation at a University that invites authors to speak about its rape culture but cannot promise its students a college experience free from its repercussions. But now I am remedying my mistake; all my pent-up emotion is boiling over into this piece – all the accumulated trauma spilling like ink onto this page. 

The reported rape from Aug. 9 felt like a last straw for me, catalyzing me to write this article and express my anxiety after a summer of learning to numb my senses. The truth is that many more assaults happen than are ever reported. This summer alone, between the two reported crimes, I’ve had multiple friends tell me about their experiences with sexual assault. None of them decided to report it, for the same reasons that 63% of sexual assaults go unreported.

For survivors of sexual assault, it is mentally challenging to conjure up the details of a rape for the purposes of a criminal investigation; even once they do so, there is always the fear that they will not be believed. In the introductory chapter of Chanel Miller’s book, Know My Name, there is a poignant paragraph that elucidates this well as she recounts her experience with the criminal justice system after reporting a sexual assault on Stanford campus: “Would you like to press charges? He said. What does that mean? I asked.… I didn’t know this little yes would reopen my body, would rub the cuts wrong, would pry my legs open for the public… my three-letter word that morning unlocked a future, one in which I would become twenty-three and twenty-four and twenty-five and twenty-six before the case would be closed.” Miller’s words are chilling, and her story is a testament to the fact that for sexual assault victims, the uphill battle to getting justice can be traumatic in and of itself, perhaps even measuring up to the trauma of the assault itself. 

In Miller’s case, her attacker was a stranger. But studies have found that perpetrators of sexual violence are usually acquaintances of the victim: members of one’s social group who may be well-liked by others and thus make it hard for a victim to speak out against them, fearing their word would not be believed against the attacker’s. This is a situation that I know all too well, having been in it myself. This fear of being perceived as a “liar,” in fact, pervades every stage of the redressal process for sexual assault victims, with research showing that in 49 out of 50 reported rapes in the United States, the assailant goes free – even though, as shown in this study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, only 5-10% of reported rapes are false accusations. A 2019 Atlantic piece brilliantly phrased this phenomenon as “The Epidemic of Disbelief.” The psychological challenge of reliving the experience through an investigation, coupled with the statistical unlikeliness that the investigation will bring justice to the victim, are two of the biggest reasons assaults go unreported. 

But just because you don’t get a Clery Act notification every time it happens, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening – every 68 seconds another American is sexually assaulted. Estimates find that somewhere between 19% and 27% of college women and 6–8% of college men are sexually assaulted during their time in college. Though we do not have Stanford-specific data on this, we can, both rationally and anecdotally, assume that Stanford undergraduates fare no better than the national estimate. 

Assault, assault, assault, assault, assault, assault, see? Nothing.

Toward the middle of my freshman year, I started hearing stories about the men with ‘bad reputations,’ the ones who are rumored to have sexual assault cases to their name. Every time I hear a new story, I am shocked to realize how freely such dangerous people get to move around campus: living in our dorms, taking our classes, sitting with us at the dining hall. I wouldn’t have known that most of them are dangerous at all, were it not through my friends’ worried word-of-mouth. These assaulters’ unencumbered presence signals the omnipresence of rape culture on Stanford campus, and is a constant reminder to stay vigilant. 

I am writing this Opinion piece because, just a day before the Tuesday rape report was released, I was telling my male best friend that I feel constantly afraid for my safety at parties. He said in response that he thinks it is irrational for me to be scared in a public place, because what’s the worst that can happen? 

I offered to walk one of my friends home from my dorm room when she was leaving at night, not wanting her to walk home alone, but she declined, saying: what’s the worst that can happen? 

Meanwhile, all the men whom we fear bumping into at parties, or while walking home at night, feel free to treat women as badly as they please. Because they know, realistically, what’s the worst that can happen?

Well, now the two friends I mentioned know the worst thing that could have happened. All the dangerous men I know are still as protected by their privilege as they always have been.

So I can tell you the story of the girl who never reported her rape, because she was scared her parents would find out about it and restrict her activities in the name of safety. I can tell you the story of the girl who did, and her family still receives threats from the family of the assailant, passionate emails from a mother who refuses to believe her beloved son would think of harming a woman. In both of these stories, there exist parents going to extreme lengths to protect their children. In both of these stories, the rape victim receives the brunt of the blame. 

Rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape. I almost didn’t write this piece, because wasn’t there an Opinion piece about sexual assault published in The Daily just last month? Is it too repetitive to talk about it again and again, and will it somehow lose its meaning if it is discussed too much? I caught myself wondering, do I talk about, think about rape too much? But what is “too much?” And is this constant “rape anxiety” not a core tenet of womanhood?

If sexual assault happens as often as it does, of course it needs to be discussed more. The Daily needs to be a place where such dialogue can be freely exchanged, because there are far too many places where rape jokes are more normalized than sexual assault prevention measures. Because too many people still don’t understand the pervasiveness of rape culture on this campus and on college campuses all over. Because all my well-intentioned male friends who sent out scared texts after the rape report have no idea how many other rape cases they never hear about. Because every rape story deserves thoughtful dialogue and gentle reporting. And if I was scared of being “annoying” by talking about rape again, I realized what a privilege it is for anyone to be annoyed by accounts of rape, rather than relating to them.

Diya Sabharwal is an undergraduate studying Computer Science with minors in Feminist Studies and Creative Writing.

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