*Note: Anonymous interviews are rarely condoned in journalistic pieces, but exceptions are made for stories entailing interviews with the victims/survivors of traumatic events.
This is one in a series of stories about health-related issues.
They should have known better.
That’s one of Leigh Ana Eugene’s least favorite misconceptions about sexual assault – that the survivor should have known better than to be alone with the offender or should have known better than to dress in revealing clothing.
In more than 80 percent of sexual assaults, the offender is someone who has a personal relationship with the person assaulted, according to Eugene, executive director of Arise Sexual Assault Services in Portales.
“How do you get to know somebody? As you learn to trust somebody, you’re alone with them,” said Eugene, adding that it is only natural that someone trust a person who is already part of their life.
Eugene said another element of sexual assault that highly distresses her is shaming the person who has gone through it, who Arise officials call “the survivor.”
“People often don’t report, because they feel ashamed, but I don’t like that they feel ashamed,” said Eugene. “Sometimes when people come here, they don’t want to pull up to the front; they want to pull around back or to the side, and that makes me angry … not at the survivor but at the person that made them feel that way. They should never feel like they have to hide; they did nothing wrong. It makes me upset at the perpetrator and whomever has been around them to tell them that somehow this is their fault.”
A 21-year-old local college student said that is exactly why she waited 13 hours to report her assault – which happened when she was 19 – because she felt scared and ashamed.
Afterward, word spread around campus, and people began to talk.
“I think that was the hardest part is learning to go out in public and see people talking about you and not worry about it, because at this point, it doesn’t matter,” said the survivor. “When people talk, they’re doubting you, and no one wants to be made out to be the bad guy in an already bad situation.”
No matter what a person is doing or how many drinks they’ve had, there is no excuse for sexual assault, according to Eugene, who said when it comes to someone having sex with another person, it has to be consensual, and a lack of consent does not make the action anymore OK than when someone says no.
“I think that is the biggest problem we face (is helping people understand that). In contract law, you can’t enter into a contract if you’ve been drinking, so a person who is buying a car can’t sign a contract if they’ve been drinking,” said Eugene. “If you are going into a physical contract with somebody, which is what (sexual) intercourse is, then that other person needs to be able to consent, but if they’ve been drinking, can they consent? If the person is not sober, then they cannot enter into that contract.
“But also, a person cannot sell you a car if you’re saying, ‘ah, well, I kind of want it,’” she continued. “They have to say, ‘yes, this is the car that I want.’ So, understanding that there is a difference between consent and lack of consent and how that works is really important.”
The 21-year-old survivor said she was in her dorm room when she was assaulted.
“It was a coincidence that I hung out with him that night, because he was hanging out with other people in my room. I didn’t see any problem with it, because I had hung out with him before,” she said. “When he went to leave, he said, ‘oh wait, I left my homework,’ and he pushed his way back into the room, then …”
“It’s just not something you talk about every day,” she continued. “He came towards me and pushed me up against my bed. He pushed my face into the mattress as if to say, just accept it. When he finished, he grabbed his homework, and he left.”
The student said that because her offender was not criminally prosecuted, his suspension from school was lifted, but she added that ENMU law enforcement was very kind to her.
“I didn’t want to call my parents and tell them, so he (the investigating officer) called my dad for me,” she said, her voice breaking. “My dad called me and said, ‘we’re going to come get you. You’re going to take a week off.”
Eugene and ENMU Police Department Chief Brad Mauldin both said that sexual assault is any unwanted physical or verbal advances, such as “pushing conversations too far” or “things that may be inappropriate inside an educational or professional environment.”
How does Title IX play into this?
Mauldin said Title IX states that “no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination, under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In other words, “its overall purpose is to end sex discrimination in all areas of education,” said Mauldin, adding that sexual assault is discrimination.
“You’re discriminating against an individual. You’re inhibiting their ability to receive an education,” he said. “We have an obligation as an institution to take action and to investigate circumstances that involve discrimination, harassment.”
Mauldin said there are a lot of reasons why someone might not report, such as fear of judgment from others, fear of repercussions if they were in a situation where they were drinking under 21 or lack of faith in law enforcement, because they do not believe the police will solve their case.
Mauldin said the most recent investigation they conducted on sexual assault was resolved in six hours. While not all cases are closed this quickly, he said all cases will immediately be pursued.
“That is one of the luxuries with having your own Department of Public Safety with sworn law enforcement officers on a fairly small university is that you are going to have individuals specifically dedicated to those types of investigations,” he said.
“As somebody who has never been involved in that (sexual assault), it’s unfair for me to even try to state that I would even remotely know what a victim goes through or what their thoughts are, but I think it’s important that they report, so that we can take reasonable action to protect the rest of the university from this offender,” he added.
How does Arise help?
The important thing about this non-profit organization, according to Eugene, is that it is 100 percent confidential, and all of their services are free, which include physical examinations after an assault, medication, counseling, an advocate to be there every step of the way for emotional support and even explain to survivors what the different processes will entail and what those processes can mean for their personal life.
“If you’re fearful or anxious or have any of those feelings, you need to be able to come in and see us without fear of repercussion, so when somebody calls and says they want to be seen by us, we’re not going to share it with the university; we’re not going to share it with law enforcement; we’re not going to share it with anyone. Everything we do here is 100 percent confidential,” said Eugene.
She said it is entirely up to the survivor whether they want to report the incident to law enforcement and the university. Arise does not share any medical examination or other information without the written consent of the survivor, and their advocates will help the survivor go through the process with any investigations if they choose to report.
“We really feel like that is an important aspect. It puts power back into the survivor’s hands that had been taken away from them,” she said.
The 21-year-old survivor said that she would recommend and has recommended Arise to other survivors.
“They don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you look like. They just care about helping you. You get a choice in what they examine, and you get a choice in the kind of care you receive,” she said. “They make sure that they have your consent with what they are doing at all times. The confidentiality is huge. In that aspect, I think Arise is an amazing program. The level of trust you have to have to share your story takes a lot out of somebody, but I do believe that everyone should check it out if they’re in need of help.”
And most importantly she said, however cliché it sounds, things do get better.
“There will always be those days where I have PTSD symptoms and panic attacks, but they are a lot fewer and farther in between than what they were,” she said.
ENMU Police Chief Brad Mauldin said that the following are ways that students can better protect themselves against sexual assault:
1. Be aware of your surroundings. If you have earbuds in, only wear one at a time and keep the volume to a level where you can still hear your surroundings.
2. Walking in lighted areas.
3. When you go to a gathering or party, go as a group and make a pact before you leave that you all come back as a group, particularly if it is off campus, and make sure you have a plan to intervene on each other’s behalf.
“I think we have beat our students to death over the years with the straight abstinence campaign, and we’ve neglected other areas,” said Mauldin. “Here’s what I’m saying, and I’m not saying I condone underage drinking, but if you’re going to do it and you’re going to be in places where law enforcement is not present to watch over you 24/7, do it responsibly. Come up with a plan, eat a good meal before you go out, pace yourself.”
4. Make sure you have a designated driver.
5. Stay away from community troughs/large barrels of alcohol, because you do not know what’s in there.
“You don’t know what percentage of alcohol is in there and usually they’re pretty stout. And you don’t know that it was only fruit juice and alcohol that went in there. A lot of medications can be dissolved in community troughs,” he said.
6. Do not leave your drinks unattended.
7. Set limits and boundaries in relationships and hold to what those boundaries are.
8. And most importantly, according to Mauldin and Arise Director Leigh Ana Eugene both, don’t be afraid to stand up and do what’s right. Don’t be an inactive bystander. Intervene for someone if you can see them in a situation where someone is taking advantage of them.
“Even if you don’t feel you have the ability, call someone who does. Get a group together to intervene. Call law enforcement to intervene. I would rather see somebody intervene than see somebody victimized,” said Mauldin, adding that everyone should think about what if the person involved in the situation was someone they cared about. What is it was your mother or your sister?
“Just being mindful of the environment and being able to speak up will go a really long way,” said Eugene. “If you are not a confrontational person, that’s OK. Sneak in, grab somebody’s hand, have somebody distract the other person. Do what you have to do.”