April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, shining a spotlight on a campus problem that, while occasionally garnering media attention, often is met with silence, judgment, or misunderstanding. But the statistics are devastating. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), more than one in five women—at least 23 percent—will be sexually assaulted while at college, and 80 percent of those assaults will go unreported to law enforcement.
With that many female college students being sexually assaulted, InterVarsity staff ministers are likely to have at least one student who has been affected in the course of their ministry. And because staff ministers are often trusted adults on campus, they are in a unique position to hear and respond when a student tells them they’ve been assaulted.
Being trusted by a survivor is what caused Greek InterVarsity staff member Alison Smith to become passionate about the issue. “I was in a sorority house after the students led a Bible study, and one of the leaders told me about a student who needed to talk,” Alison recounted. “She revealed that a year ago she had been raped. I found out later that I was the first non–sorority sister that she had shared this with, and the first adult.” Around the same time, a student Alison had been mentoring also shared that she had been sexually assaulted. “The issue became real to me,” Alison said.
Since that first survivor shared her story with Alison in the fall of 2012, she has had at least one student every semester tell her that they’ve been sexually assaulted. And she has worked hard to learn the best way to respond and support those who come to her. “It was really eye-opening for me to learn about the myths surrounding sexual assault and the bias in law enforcement and legal proceedings, and how hard it is for survivors,” she said.
Jonathan Walton, Director of InterVarsity’s New York City Urban Program, has heard many stories of pain firsthand from survivors who received hurtful responses from those they went to for help. “They are blamed, shamed, and silenced,” he said. “I am deeply hurt every time I hear these stories of ostracism, rejection, and indifference [toward survivors].”
So what is the best way to respond? The most important thing, Alison suggested, is to simply listen and believe the student. “Let them know it’s not their fault—that’s always the first thing I say,” she explained. Jonathan’s advice was similar. “Hold your judgments, condemnation, assumptions, desire for control, and fear of failure at bay and listen to the person before you,” he emphasized.
After listening, Alison will often ask the survivor about support, with questions like, “Do you want to call the rape hotline? I’ll call them with you.” If they say no or that they already have, she’ll see if they know what resources are available on campus. In cases where the sexual assault was recent, Jonathan asks the survivor if they’re in immediate danger and if the person who harmed them is still around. Then he works to help set up a network of support around them for protection.
Both Jonathan and Alison also underscored the importance of partnership with others. Alison believes it’s crucial for staff ministers to build a relationship with the director of the Student Wellness Center on campus and be aware of the resources they offer. And Jonathan encourages staff and churches to build a network of five to ten counselors and therapists who can help when situations arise. He also warns people who are responding to survivors to know their limits. “If you are not a counselor, don’t give counseling advice,” he explained. “If you are not a psychologist or don’t have experience responding to trauma, find someone who is and make sure the survivor gets to talk with them. And if you are not experienced in doing healing prayer, go and get some training.”
Follow-up with survivors is important as well. “Continuing to pursue the relationship with students and continuing to ask them questions as time goes on is really important,” Alison said, “because the trauma can manifest later in different ways—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, panic attacks, turning toward drugs and alcohol, etc.”
Staff like Alison and Jonathan are working to spread resources among other InterVarsity staff so that they too will be equipped to respond in helpful ways to students who confide in them. “InterVarsity should be the safest group on campus for those who have been perpetrated and are victims of sexual assault and violence,” Jonathan said. “All small group leaders need to know the value of listening and discipling people through suffering. Thus, all staff need to know that same value.”
Sexual assault has become a more regular topic among Greek InterVarsity staff ministers in particular, since it may affect Greek women more than their non-affiliated peers. And, as the Associate Director of Communications for Greek InterVarsity, Alison has posted blogs about the topic to raise awareness among not just staff but also students.
Mitchell Cox, a Greek InterVarsity alumnus, did in fact become passionate about curbing sexual assault on campus while he was a student at the University of Utah. “A number of my closest friends have been sexually assaulted,” he said. “The prevalence of it on campus has really impacted me personally, as has seeing my friends’ lives [significantly] altered because of the trauma they have to deal with.”
During his college years, his fraternity started a Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Forum on campus and became involved in the local Rape Recovery Center. Their efforts were noticed by local and national news outlets, and even landed Mitchell a spot on Dr. Phil. But he’s most thankful for the ways they were able to influence campus culture. “[We] dramatically changed the perspectives of students and other fraternity members on the issue,” he said. “The conversations we had at our forums or outside of them were real and vulnerable and impactful.”
The fraternity is still involved with the Rape Recovery Center, and Mitchell volunteers when he can. He’s also planning to do the 40 hours of training required to serve at the Center as a survivor counselor, answering calls that come in to the emergency hotline number. “It’s still near and dear to my heart and something I still have a strong desire to engage in,” he said.
There are no easy solutions to sexual assault on campus. Eliminating the problem will take work and partnership from university and college professionals, off-campus professionals, students, local law enforcement, concerned citizens who know the signs, churches, and campus staff ministers. But InterVarsity wants to do everything we can to be part of that solution—to provide safe spaces for students who’ve been sexually assaulted to confide, to help those students find the resources they need to start the healing journey and to partner well with university professionals to provide comprehensive support, to develop fraternity men into disciples of Jesus who advocate for survivors and raise awareness on campus, and to continue to learn more about the issues ourselves so that staff and students have the resources they need.
“One in five women is a lot,” Alison said. “Most women—maybe even all women—know of, or are friends with, someone who has been sexually assaulted. Staff need to talk about it, because it affects so many students. Greek InterVarsity and InterVarsity as a whole have a unique opportunity to speak into this issue.
For more information, check out these resources from Greek InterVarsity: