March 1, 2004

Campis life

By Eric Rangus

Last year, less than five sexual assaults were reported to the Emory Police Department. Last semester, two sexual assaults were reported to the Office of Residence Life.

According to Leslie Campis, national estimates of sexual assaults per 10,000 female college students is 350 per year. Emory has around 5,800 female undergraduates and graduate students. So, the estimate of actual sexual assaults against female Emory students--if campus numbers mirror those nationally–is more than 200.

That means the vast majority of those 200 sexual assaults--date rape, acquaintance rape, sex without consent--of Emory female students last year (and some male ones; sexual assault is not limited to women alone) were unreported.

"My experience has been that the whole issue of sexual assault is very underground at Emory," said Campis, Emory's new coordinator of sexual assault response and education services. She began the newly created position, which falls under auspices of the Counseling Center, on Jan. 9.

"It's not really acknowledged," Campis continued. "April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but it's not in Dooley's Dates. And I'm pretty sure there's not a banner that's going to hang in the Dobbs Center to advertise it. My sense is that, because there has been an absence of someone in my position, that perhaps has contributed to lack of disclosure by students who have had unwelcome sexual experiences and sexual assaults. This is a small community, and it does not have user-friendly system."

While it is likely that sexual assaults have been underreported on campus, the need for a person to address the crime long has been identified. The Counseling Center, Student Health Services and the Women's Center are just some of the groups that lobbied for the position (one many universities have).

When Campis was hired, her title was "Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator." She changed it quickly.

"I chose the wording very carefully," said Campis, who has a counselor's calm, approachable demeanor mixed with an activist's strong will and passion. Campis' previous position was as senior consultant to the Medical Coping Clinic in the Boston Children's Hospital psychiatry department. She also had a private pediatric psychology practice in suburban Boston.

"'Response' is to acknowledge that sexual assault is happening," Campis continued. "'Prevention,' according to the research, isn't identified as a possibility anywhere, and it puts an onus on women."

Instead of "prevention," Campis prefers the term "risk-reduction." It's more empowering, and one way for women reduce their risk of being assaulted is to listen to their instincts, which often are correct.

"This is not about wearing skirts that are too short," said Campis. "That's just another way women are blamed. This is about drinking responsibly. This is about using good judgment, and that makes you powerful."

Campis, who earned her bachelor's in psychology from the University of South Carolina and master's and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the University of Alabama, first became interested in studying sexual assault and counseling sexual assault victims during her graduate years in the mid-1980s. At the time, many children being seen by mental health professionals also had histories of sexual and physical trauma. Campis said she long has had an interest in treating anxiety disorders, and anxiety is just one challenge faced by people who have been sexually assaulted.

Much of Campis' clinical work has been with minors, but the idea of moving to a university setting appealed to her because of the possibilities for teaching, research and advocacy.

And Campis intends to utilize every resource open to her; she has not spent her first seven weeks on campus arranging her office. Campis has met with faculty, staff and students from across campus and worked to learn Emory's cultures, attitudes and beliefs.

She did an unscientific audit of Emory's current sexual assault services and found they existed but were uncoordinated. Helpline and peer counseling are two underutilized resources staffed by trained people who can help. The DeKalb Rape Crisis Center offers free service to sexual assault victims but is not well known on campus. There are no mandatory sexual assault education groups; current offerings are elective. Campis would like to change that, possibly through the health courses already required for Emory students or through freshman orientation.

Already Campis has established ties to the Office of Residence Life; she's contacted the Office of Greek Life about putting together a program for fraternity and sorority members; and she has started compiling a sexual assault resource library. Plans also are in the works for her to teach a course through the violence studies program sometime next year.

"Now that people have a resource person, I think getting my name and face out there as a resource to faculty and staff is very important--and also to the students," Campis said.

Rape counseling is a delicate area, not only for the victim but also for the counselor. "There is a lot that happens with women's interpretation of their experience," Campis said. "They try to minimize and deny it. You see them struggling with the process of telling, acknowledging the full extent of their experience. You have to be very patient.

"Many women and men in these situations will blame themselves. You have to understand the underpinnings of that blame. It's because it enhances a feeling of control: 'If I had done these things differently, this wouldn't have happened to me,' It can be a very self-harming strategy if it becomes character assassination. Something along the lines of, 'I'm an idiot for having been there. I should have known better.'"

Most people, Campis, said, understand the issue of consent. But it hasn't always been that way. Even in her own experience.

When Campis was an undergraduate, a member of her sorority was gang raped. So was another woman who lived down the hall. Campis's suitemate revealed she had been date raped.

The case of the sorority sister, Campis said, was not even identified as an assault. "We didn't call it rape," she said. "That would say there was a perpetrator–someone who had done something wrong. We treated it simply as an event.

"I look back on that and realize how little we did to help those women and how much we blamed them." Campis continued. "I have a lot of shame about being part of a sorority that was questioning that women's reputation because she was drunk and unable to take care of herself."

"Shame" is a powerful word in the discussion of sexual assault. It is a primary reason why so many assaults go unreported. It is that feeling of shame that Campis wants to eliminate.

"I want to create an environment that is safe and healing--one that promotes disclosure," said Campis, adding that some students already have spoken to her about being assaulted. "One group I think we should be providing services for is friends. These are the people who are hearing about sexual assaults. Often they don't have the permission of the victim to report assault through legal channels, but if this person could get some guidance for themselves as a friend, I think we would be providing an invaluable service. And that also might be an opening for a victim to come in and talk."

Campis uses terms like "victim" and "survivor," but she doesn't like them. They are limiting and reactive.

"I want to reframe this issue," Campis said. "We want to reframe the issue in terms of empowerment. If women feel more empowered and see disclosure more as an avenue to healing and support, rather than see repercussions from the community that could increase shame or stigma, then I think we'd make great headway."