Emory Report
April 11, 2005
Volume 58, Number 26


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April 11, 2005
Awareness week brings sexual assault out from 'shadows'

BY eric rangus

At lunch on Monday, April 4, Leslie Campis, Emory’s director of sexual assault response and awareness, confessed to a dining companion, Scott Messer, ’03C, a hope about her career progression.

“I would love it when I retire if nobody has to take my place,” she said.

That would mean sexual assault on college campuses is no longer an issue. Presently, roughly 16 months after Campis’ arrival at Emory, that is not the case. Campis said reports of sexual assaults at Emory have more than quadrupled since September 2004, when she began seeing students, and overall one in four college women will experience acquaintance rape some time during her university years. “Awareness” may be the last word in Campis’ title, but it’s the first step in stopping sexual assaults.

An April 4 dinner presentation in the Carlos Museum reception hall highlighted Emory’s first Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which began Thursday, March 31, with an information and T-shirt giveaway in the Dobbs Center.

The more formal dinner event was an opportunity for several Emory students to present their own, sometimes disturbing, research on sexual assault on campus, and also hear a first-person account about unwanted sexual experience and recovery.

Messer was accompanied by his older sister, Meredith, who opened the dinner presentations. Her voice frequently breaking, Meredith Messer told in unvarnished detail the story of how she was raped as a freshman in college, what she did about it, and how her college administration reacted.

“I had to come forward; I didn’t want to be blamed,” Messer said, admitting that she had been drinking the night of her unwanted sexual experience, but adding that should never mean a person should be subjected to sex they don’t want.

The case eventually went to a three-person committee, which said it was unclear whether a sexual assault had occurred. Still, the committee recommended alcohol education for students. That wasn’t enough for Messer, who experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, but through therapy has recovered.

“It made me feel like I was to be blamed,” she said. “What message does that send to the perpetrator, ‘You can do what you want’? People who commit crimes against people who have been drinking have to be held responsible.”

That experience inspired Messer to write, produce and direct the short film “Our Stories,” which discussed the prevalence and nondiscriminatory nature of acquaintance rape. The film—not unfamiliar to some students (several FAME groups have used it as part of freshman orientation)—was screened in White Hall following the dinner. It featured not only Meredith Messer’s story, but also included comments from her younger brother.

Speaking on behalf of a newly formed student group, SAGA (Sexual Assault Greek Advocates), college juniors Leslie Gilbert and Rebecca Vallas gave some disturbing numbers resulting from a survey of 367 Emory female students earlier this year.

A total of 14.7 percent said they had had an unwanted sexual experience with a male Emory student; 14.4 percent reported an unwanted sexual experience with a male who wasn’t an Emory student; and 37.9 percent said they hadn’t had one themselves, but knew someone who did. Less than a third of those surveyed (31.9 percent) had not had an unwanted sexual experience. Perhaps most disturbing, according to Vallas, was the 1.1 percent of respondents who answered “other.”

“Answers included, ‘I got too drunk to say no,’” said Vallas, a psychology major from Fairfax, Va. “And ‘I had an unwanted sexual experience but I gave permission.’ What does that say?”

Ansley Newsom, a second-year master’s of theological studies student in the Candler School of Theology, interviewed students for her thesis on how faith influences sexual behavior. Several of her interviewees talked about acquaintance rape.

“It was extremely disturbing; I just couldn’t sit by and let this go,” said Newsom, who continued her original research but also delved deeply into sexual assault.

Another graduate student, Renata Fortenberry from the Rollins School of Public Heath, presented her research on disclosure and mental health utilization. She said a majority of women who have had an unwanted sexual experience (60 percent) tell someone about it, but two-thirds of those women go to friends rather than professional counselors.

She said there needs to be a concerted effort to reach out to women in order to normalize mental health utilization, as studies show women who seek professional help recover from assaults quicker than those who don’t.

Senior Vice President and Dean for Campus Life John Ford closed the proceedings with optimistic comments, saying that the underreporting of sexual assaults—and eventually the assaults themselves—could become a thing of the past.

“Just a few years ago there was such a stigma, so much in the shadows, that it would be difficult to talk about in a forum like this,” Ford said. “To have students doing this type of work is a major step in the right direction. We’re not talking about hearsay; we have factual information to work with.”