By Karen Rosenberg and Lisi Burciaga, Print Editors-in-Chief
// Dear Readers,
Before you read this story, we warn you that it is a very dark, heavy hitting, and sometimes stomach-turning piece. If matters of great sensitivity, such as sexual assault, will offend you or spur emotional trauma, we strongly urge you not to continue reading.
This is a continuation of the Blueprint series on sexual assault. We advise that you read part one, published in our Feb. 1 issue, before continuing.
Blueprint spoke to 14 local sexual assault survivors all of whom are or were Acalanes students,, and has been permitted to quote the accounts of 5 of them. For purposes of preserving anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue those who are quoted have been renamed as Survivor 1 through 5.
Long and Short Term Effects of Sexual Assault
The tragic continuum that follows youth throughout their academic careers, a sinister form of gender bias, and the perpetuation of victim blaming are all building blocks of the painstaking epidemic that is sexual assault. But the issue does not stop there.
The harsh public response that often comes with publicizing an account of sexual assault renders survivors with lasting effects on their daily dynamics.
“People were like ‘why did you get with him?’ The entire school knew, so I didn’t want to just be like ‘oh yeah, it was rape.’ I didn’t know how to talk about it. Everyone was asking me about it and then I kind of lost my mind. I couldn’t be in class anymore. I couldn’t look at anyone because I felt deeply ashamed, so then I spent a lot of time in counseling,” Survivor 2 said.
Survivor 1 faced similar scrutiny from peers in the wake of their attack as well, which eventually prompted them to transfer schools.
“It’s kind of insane how much a rumor can take hold and run wild, but I really did screw up with getting in front of it. I probably could have prevented that ‘slut’ reputation that followed me to high school and made me change schools, but that’s the only aspect of this I’ll accept blame for on account of how naive I was,” Survivor 1 said.
This theme transcends generations as the effects are not limited to today’s youth. Human and Social Development (HSD) teacher Jada Paniagua recounts how the sexual harassment culture present during her childhood impacted her similarly.
“I remember in junior high having boys run up to me, put their hand up the back of my shirt, and undo my bra. It was a game,” Paniagua said. “You don’t go back in class and learn history or math after that. How do you feel if your recess is trying to prevent boys from touching you under your shirt? It never even crossed my mind to tell the teacher.”
Psychologically, the scarring acts serve as memories that resonate with the survivors long after their occurrence.
“What it really takes to walk out the door every morning not feeling like the person you once were. Not knowing what will trigger a breakdown or if you will even have enough energy to last the day,” Survivor 5 said.
According to Acalanes High School Psychologist Emily Reichardt, after such intrusive, even horrific trauma, it is common for survivors to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and only have the capacity to think solely about their well being.
“I think there is some biological reaction of it once you are no longer in harm’s way. You’re kind of in self-preservation mode, and your first thought may not be to report to someone else,” Reichardt said. “It may be to make sure that you are okay and to not necessarily reach out to anyone else.”
The violation that comes with being sexually assaulted often renders the survivor feeling dehumanized.
“When you get raped, or something nonconsensual is done to you, you become a body. You become hollow,” Survivor 2 said. “When people try and blame you for what has happened, you’re like ‘I wasn’t even there.’ Someone looked at my body and said I want to go inside that. No matter what you’re wearing or how you acted, it wasn’t you that was there really because it wasn’t about you, it was about your body.”
Whether it be a natural disaster or a mass shooting, the public tends to move on from events that don’t hold personal effects. However, for those involved in such traumatic events, the experience is not so easily forgotten.
“It’s just that this is such an important thing to me, it’s had a huge impact on me, and it feels like everyone else can simply forget about it after five minutes. What I wouldn’t give to be able to just forget about it,” Survivor 1 said.
In an attempt to understand the injustice they endured, Survivor 1 turned to research the inner workings of sexual assailants as a coping mechanism.
“I spent, and still spend, a lot of time reading and hearing about what makes these people, pedophiles or rapists or sex offenders tick,” Survivor 1 said. “Obviously, I’m never going to be able to understand what could drive a person to this, but it has helped me accept that this is simply a thing that happens. It is a horrible, disgusting, and devastating thing that happens to so many more people than we often realize.”
Paniagua identifies the disregard for just how traumatic sexual assault can be as one of the factors that perpetuates the manifestation of one’s internal struggles.
“I think one of the challenges that we’re facing is a lack of understanding of just how traumatic assault can be. Some people think you should just brush it off,” Paniagua said. “How traumatic is it when you’re 12, and a boy sticks his hand up your shirt and then undoes your bra? Pretty traumatic, actually.”
While the effects of sexual assault can be observed on an emotional level, physical consequences of such violations pan out a harsh reality often overlooked. Just as mental damages are long-lasting, the physical trauma can be just as scarring.
“Physically, I have seen students get diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STI) after an assault and then know that they have to live with that now for the rest of their life. I’ve gone through with them the process of needing to inform every future sexual partner that they have an STI of some sort,” Acalanes High School Guidance Counselor Susan Martin said.
The aftermath upshots a ripple of consequences for survivors, with the assault often leaving daily reminders in its wake.
“On a daily basis, you are forced to overcompensate in order to bury the real you. At times I contemplated why. Why me? Why now? Why him? Why was I still here? Why not just end it? These questions still nestle their way into my mind to this day,” Survivor 5 said.
Mandated Reporting – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
A typical outlet for victims is voicing their trauma to a loved one or someone they trust. Often times, district staff and faculty fall under this category. While most encourage students to confide in them, the line becomes blurry when students reveal possible or previous incidents of harm or abuse to themselves or others.
When students reveal such situations to a staff member, state-mandated reporting laws come into play.
These laws mean that the staff or faculty members at a school whom an incident is reported to, by the victim or another, is required to notify the proper authorities whether it be Child Protective Services (CPS) or law enforcement. CPS deals with all reports of child abuse or neglect and operates to find appropriate resources and services implemented to enhance child welfare.
According to the California Department of Education (CDE), “All persons who are mandated reporters are required, by law, to report all known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. It is not the job of the mandated reporter to determine whether the allegations are valid.”
School districts may make additions to the mandated reporting obligations of their staff, so long as they do not replace or infringe on pre-existing state requirements. Failure to report is considered a misdemeanor and can result in up to six months of jail time and/or up to a $1,000 fine, according to the California Penal Code Section 11166[c].
“Staff and administration get trained annually on sexual harassment as well as mandated reporting, like the times when they are obligated to contact CPS and law enforcement, and awareness of a minor being sexually assaulted definitely would fall in that category, whether they’re aware of the perpetrator or the victim,” Acalanes Union High School District Superintendent John Nickerson said.
Assembly Bill 1432, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, requires “all local educational agencies (LEAs) to train all employees each year” on the details of their mandatory reporting requirements.
AUHSD staff members undergo 32-minute training sessions with Keenan Schools, an online mandated reporting program, before every school year. According to Nickerson, this required training was implemented roughly five years ago.
In recognition of these guidelines, Paniagua makes sure to vocalize to her students the course of action that will follow if they chose to comment on their own or someone else’s forms of abuse, self-harm, or potential harm.
“In my time as a teacher, because of my experiences, I’ve learned to be more explicit and make sure that students know what my role is, while at the same time in no way trying to discourage them from speaking to me. I think it’s really important that they understand what my legal and ethical responsibilities are,” Paniagua said. “I’ve found that being incredibly explicit with them repeatedly when we get to a topic that I know might trigger things that are likely or could lead to a student sharing things with me, I remind them of my role.”
Since the addition of mandatory yearly training, the administration has taken notice of overall greater adherence to the rules and regulations of mandated reporting.
“It seemed like mandated reporting was a secondary thought and something that I remember encouraging people to do, whereas now it seems that it is more first thought when people have reason to believe that a student’s at risk,” Nickerson said. “So I’ve seen a big change with the annual training for all employees. Ever since that, I’ve seen a difference where it’s more on the forefront of people’s minds rather than an afterthought.”
For the 84 percent of sexual assault survivors who responded “No” to ever reporting their incident(s) in a survey conducted by Blueprint survey (see part one of this story for survey details), Reichardt strongly encourages reporting.
“I think that it is a very good thing to have mandated reporting. Even though someone who is a minor may think that they can deal with the situation themselves, there’s a reason why the laws exist the way they do, and there’s a reason that services and police forces exist,” Reichardt said. “They are in existence to protect people.”
Paniagua shares similar beliefs.
“As teachers, our primary role isn’t that of a confidante, necessarily. Sometimes it is, and for some students, we are the only source of that that they have,” Paniagua said. “But, the law’s in place for a reason, and I think there is value to having somebody be a mandated reporter.”
Contra Costa County Office of Education Chief of Communications Terry Koehne reiterates the importance of prioritizing a student’s safety.
“I believe that all young people need to have trusted adults in their lives that they can confide in, but I also believe that the laws in place for good reason. As a person who comes in contact with minors, by nature of your job or profession, you should understand your role in protecting kids,” Koehne said.
While state law requires legal reports to be made, it does not require that school employees report to campus administration when they undergo the mandatory reporting process. Some see this as a flaw, in that administration could hold an underdeveloped understanding of how prevalent sexual assault is on their campus(s), while others see value in having the option to leave administration out of mandated reports.
“In my situation administration has always sat by my side while I reported, dialed the number, and talked to me afterward,” Paniagua said. “I think in most cases we do involve administration, but I think rather than the concept that we’re not required to report it to administration, I think what’s really important is understanding that reporting it to administration doesn’t fulfill our requirement. I’m glad that it’s not a requirement to report to the administration as it’s not always appropriate.”
Part of the struggles that teachers face is repairing their relationship with their student after infringing on their trust, presenting an apparent double-edged sword.
“It’s hard because what often happens is that they’re telling you in confidence and you have to tell them, quite frankly, that you cannot keep something in confidence,” English teacher Cathy Challacombe said.
Mandated reporting in many ways forces staff to intrude on the previously “safe” environment and platform they enabled their students.
“Unfortunately, sometimes that’s the way it goes, where some repairs need to be done afterward because a student may feel betrayed or embarrassed because this information is now somewhere else,” AUHSD Director of Wellness Adriana Martinez said. “So we try to really support teachers to have that conversation so that they can continue to have a relationship with a student beyond the reporting of information and the consequences that come with that.”
Just as mandated reporting makes it difficult for teachers to preserve confident relationships with students, students who are aware of the system may be discouraged by the prospect of taking legal action against their will, and so, remain silent even longer.
“Of course students are less inclined to confide in educators when they know that their teacher or professor has to involve others,” Occidental College Associate Professor of Politics Caroline Heldman, who spoke on the issue of campus sexual assaults in the award-winning film “The Hunting Ground,” said.
Reichardt echoed this notion.
“Does it impact what students will tell us? Absolutely. And I then feel like it’s part of my role in helping students realize that these organizations exist to help and that it’s not meant to be a punitive thing.” Reichardt said.
A Greater Good That Can Have Unintended Consequences
Despite the potential for mandated reports to be seen by the victim as a breach of trust, many teachers find that the system as it currently operates is necessary for the greater good of students.
“My first responsibility is the well-being of my students. As a parent, I think I’m able to understand it from that perspective,” Paniagua said. “More important than being support for them, is being their protector. And sometimes, as in all relationships between adults and children, taking care of youth involves doing things that they don’t want.”
English teacher Erik Honda expressed a similar outlook on mandated reporting.
“The whole purpose is that we’re not allowed to sweep things under the rug and ignore them. If you know that this 15-year-old in your class has a 21-year-old boyfriend, that’s statutory rape, you need to tell somebody. You can’t just have a gossip relationship about that. That’s not alright,” Honda said.
Voicing a dissenting viewpoint, Heldman sees potential value in excluding teachers as mandated reporters.
“We are often the front line of support and guidance for students, so if we are well-trained, we can provide students options for reporting, but not make it mandatory,” Heldman said.
In taking on the emotional burden of carrying a student’s abuse, second-hand trauma often arises for teachers.
“Teachers hold this information and do a really good job at supporting students in the moment, but I think it’s also really hard when you’re coming in to teach and might not feel equipped to know what to do with those emotions and how to connect with a student,” Martinez said. “Even after you connect with them, you’re still holding onto that burden. So how do you self care around that?”
Paniagua spoke to her firsthand experience with the aftermath of being a confidant for survivors.
“I believe that there should be second-hand trauma for teachers. This is in no way a criticism of my administration; I think it’s a systemic and national problem. I know that my job has an impact on my mental health and I don’t always have support for that, and it’s difficult,” Paniagua said “I know that most of my colleagues experience either just the emotional burden or actual second-hand trauma involved with the way in which we support our students and the conversations that we have.”
Just as the newly implemented campus Wellness Center provides support for students, it is available as a resource for staff as well, including while they deal with second-hand trauma. Having taught at Acalanes for 21 years, Honda bears his share of trauma from student accounts of assault, citing the new Wellness Center as a helpful on-campus space.
“I think the Wellness Center is offering that kind of stuff for us, which I think is really nice and appropriate,” Honda said. “I know I’ve been traumatized some years. I remember one year I had four senior girls who had confessed to me about their rape stories. I felt like crying for the entire year. But that’s what we do. We deal with kids emotions, and we try to get through that to something positive for them. That can be hard for sure.”
There is an apparent lack of privacy between teachers and students when it comes to such sensitive issues, posing the other side to the double-edged sword nature of mandated reporting. It is no surprise that the Blueprint survey yielded that only 16 percent of sexual assault victims reported the incident.
“The skeptics do not truly understand the grasp that sexual assault has on its victims. Something so strong that the memories associated with the event lurk in the shadows for up to a lifetime. For me, I always saw the legal route as an option, but because my perpetrator was related to me, I refused to be the reason to break up my already fractured family,” Survivor 5 said.
Similarly, for Survivor 1, the thought of law enforcement was seemingly out of the question.
“I knew I didn’t want to talk to any law enforcement,” Survivor 1 said. “For a while, I was planning on not telling anyone at all until the statute of limitations passed so that no one could force me to deal with it legally, but I guess I figured out that wasn’t really helping me.”
Because Survivor 3’s assault took place in a foreign country, they viewed law enforcement as an unnecessary disruption that would not yield positive results.
“At this point in my life almost two years later and halfway across the globe, I don’t feel like I can really do anything about it, even with the help of adults or law enforcement,” Survivor 3 said. “I would much rather get on with my life than consistently shame myself for what happened. People need to look at their mistakes and learn from them instead of dreading them forever.”
As Survivor 5 continued to dwell in secrecy, the pressure bottled up to the point where mandated reporting seemed to be the most beneficial course of action.
“The bond between my counselor and I eventually became strong enough for me to have faith that someone would stick by me and that my story was valid. While the legal route was not what I wanted at the time, I was willing to go through it if it meant having a confidant by my side,” Survivor 5 said.
Despite going through the process, nothing was accomplished legally as Survivor 5 held onto the idea that people would take the perpetrators side over hers.
Reichardt supports these claims as a common reason survivors bypass the legal route.
“I think it’s very clear that people don’t report because it’s very hard to prove and there is a level of public shaming that comes with that. Many people feel, and it can be at times difficult to distinguish between a perfectly appropriate advance,” Reichardt said. “I think that there is a very clear difference between an appropriate advance and sexual harassment or abuse of some sort. But the perception is that there can be a gray area.”
Head of the Family Violence Unit at the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office Chris Walpole spoke on cases in which survivors initially came forward, but later retracted their statements or ceased pursuit of legal action.
“There have been many occasions where a victim comes forward and tells the police they were sexually assaulted, then later tells the police it never happened, or that they no longer want prosecution,” Walpole said. “Sometimes this happens because of a pre-existing relationship between the victim and the assailant, where the assailant convinces the victim to try and ‘drop the charges.’ It is important to remember that most sexual assaults are not committed by strangers.”
Society also plays a large role in how survivors chose to act on their assaults. With doubters often relaying comments mirroring “how come you are just coming out about it now?” or “you’re lying or else you would’ve said something sooner.”
“There are short term victims of a singular rate, but then there are also people who have been victims over a lengthy period. Then people ask these questions like oh, ‘why didn’t you do anything?’” Reichardt said.
Walpole sees firsthand the effects that outside forces can have on survivors as they contemplate speaking out.
“Many things can keep victims silent. Sometimes the victim fears what their assailant may do to them if they speak up. Sometimes the victim fears how others will perceive them if people find out. And, sometimes the victim is so distraught they do not want to relive the incident by telling anyone what happened. On occasion, the victim blames themselves,” Walpole. “This is, of course, not true. No victim deserves to be sexually assaulted.”
Parental Roles and Law Enforcement in the Aftermath
Parents often hold a heavy influence on whether or not their children take legal action following a report. AUHSD Associate Superintendent Amy Mcnamara referenced two cases in which a parent of a student survivor requested that the school cease their interference in the matter, citing a desire to shield their child from the trauma that often comes with police questioning and testifying.
“It’s hard when the parents have a lot of influence over their children. I know that these parents pretty effectively squashed their child from talking about it,” Mcnamara said.
Mcnamara noted that although parents are legally allowed to step in in this way if a student seeks out mental health services from the district, such as a counselor or psychologist, parental consent is not required.
“I think seeking counseling is one thing. It’s having law enforcement step in and dealing with consequences for the offender that it gets really tricky because the burden of proof can be really high. People don’t believe victims,” Mcnamara said.
In alignment with these beliefs, Honda acknowledges that this difficulty in achieving results in a legal route may impose more misery for the survivor.
The reality holds that achieving legal justice with sexual assault cases is a difficult feat to attain.
“The prosecution’s you get in cases like this are minimal because it becomes a ‘he said, she said’ issue and when people ask ‘were there any witnesses,’ nobody will say anything,” Mcnamara said.
Walpole confirmed the difficulty in achieving justice for sexual assault cases, and how this often deters survivors from coming forward.
“A straight ‘he said-she said’ case can be very difficult, which is why my office looks for additional evidence to help us prove the case, such as a second witness, text messages, electronic communication, or physical evidence,” Walpole said.
Despite the hardships that accompany mandated reporting, Honda highlights a past student who abused the lack of a set mandated reporting laws at the time and allegedly raped many of his peers. Rumors of the assaults reached Honda and administration, but due to the victims’ refusal to come forward formally, nothing came of the accusations.
This student was eventually incarcerated for domestic sexual abuse years after instilling the same horrors at Acalanes with no repercussions.
“If people aren’t willing to come forward and testify and run through the whole horrible process, then the person is going to continue to assault. It’s a small percentage of men doing 90 percent of the assaults,” Honda said. “But those people continue to get away with it because they’re not getting called out.”
Walpole echoes encouragement for survivors to speak out, citing the fact that reporting an assault decreases the likelihood of an assailant becoming a repeat offender.
“A victim who speaks out can help prevent sexual assault from happening to someone else in the future. If the victim never speaks out, law enforcement typically cannot do anything to help,” Walpole said. “Although speaking out can be scary and hard to do, it can also be empowering in that a victim who chooses to speak out can feel that they have some say or control in what happens next.”
A Holey Database
When reports are made, the information is stored in a district database. However, legal and personal limits on accessing the database are in place.
“We do have a student database that keeps a record of any type of intervention, discipline, or counseling-based check in with the student. What it won’t reflect are things that are held confidentially,” Bell said.
According to Bell, accessing and handling reports is made easier when the assailant is a student, and disciplinary action on the part of the school needs to take place.
The balance between fighting the problem and ensuring student privacy creates differing viewpoints on whether or not the database is necessary to maintain. As long as these conflicting views remain, the partial monitoring system will continue to be flawed and almost certainly under report.
“I don’t know that I can say with confidence that we need to know our exact numbers. I think we just need to know it happens,” Bell said. “We need to keep our eyes and ears open for where we need to step in as a school and be prepared to respond appropriately when students do come forward.”
Bell believes that what is important is not the numbers, but how the school acts on the knowledge that sexual assault is an issue at Acalanes.
Access to reports on student survivors of sexual assault is limited to officials like counselors and medical health professionals, depending on the specific case. This is done to ensure that these campus officials have adequate information should the student need further trauma treatment in the future.
If the assault or harassment takes place on school grounds, involves a student perpetrator, and results in disciplinary action taken on the part of the school, the incident is reported to the state and published via the California Department of Education (CDE).
However, the reporting of such cases is quite rare. Since 2016, Acalanes reported only two accounts of sexual harassment that underwent this process, one of which took place this past school year.
Miramonte High School reported one incident of sexual assault during the 2015-16 school year, the only school in the district to have cataloged one since 2015.
Campolindo and Las Lomas High School logged only general harassment incidents since 2015, not specifically of a sexual nature. Campolindo experienced one during the 2015-16 school year, while Las Lomas had two that same year, two the following year, and three this past school year.
Bell was torn between acknowledging that reporting such data in a broader, public way may portray the school negatively in the public eye while still recognizing the potential importance of tackling the problem in a transparent manner.
“We do have a lot of good here at Acalanes, but we also have things that we need to continue to work on. In that sense, I would say it’s okay to have those things be public and to be known as hard as that can be,” Bell said.
A paradoxical element of enforcing confidentiality when it comes to comprehensively and more accurately documenting student sexual assault cases is the resulting lack of dialogue and awareness about the prevalence of the issue.
“The need for privacy also sometimes creates this atmosphere of silence, or what students may perceive as silence, around these issues,” Mcnamara said. “Sometimes in our efforts to ‘keep the name out’ or ‘make sure it’s really private,’ the unintended consequences is that we don’t talk about it.”
The Current Battle Plan
Working against the presence of sexual assault at Acalanes, the community has attempted to take steps in a progressive direction. These steps are mirrored on a national level as awareness has manifested even in means of entertainment.
After working on a film exploring sexual assault in the military, Academy Award-nominated, and two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary film director Kirby Dick received many responses from viewers expressing the need for an exposé on the same issue among college students.
“People would come up and say, ‘this happens here too, and it happens a lot.’ Then the producer and I started getting letters and emails of people pleading with us to do this film,” Dick said in an interview with Blueprint.
The ideas later sparked the production of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which delves into a chilling exploration of sexual assault on college campuses.
While many may see college campuses as primary “hunting grounds” for sexual assault, as explored in part one of this Blueprint story, Acalanes evidently endures the same culture, with much to be done to in the realm of change.
As Acalanes addresses sexual assault on campus, it works to prepare students for the presence of this culture beyond the walls of high school, as is portrayed in Dick’s film.
“We embed discussions through our senior symposium, where we have people come in and talk about sexual assault. The former chief of police talks about his experience and what you see on a college campus and how to make sure that you keep yourself safe,” Acalanes High School Principal Travis Bell said.
Acalanes has taken additional steps to combat this issue through curriculum and on-campus resources.
The Counseling Office’s recently implemented Wellness Center has great promise to become a real safe haven for sexual assault victims. While survivors can seek help from trusted teachers, the Counseling and Wellness offices provide a more comfortable, focused, and deeply responsive place to report.
“Every adult that you talk to on campus has a sense of who to connect you with if you’ve dealt with this issue to get the help that you need. The thing about Wellness is we’re really centrally located, and someone is always in here. I think that that’s a big benefit,” Wellness Coordinator Casey Sasner said. “I like to think that we’re establishing among the student body that it’s a really safe place where you are going to encounter compassion for whatever it is you’re dealing with.”
The Wellness Center operates Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
One of how the Wellness Center promotes sexual education is through its efforts to teach consent. The center offers condoms, often with messages attached defining and encouraging consent, according to Mcnamara.
In combination with the Wellness Center, the recently implemented HSD classes work to educate sophomores about consent as well as other issues surrounding sexual assault and sexual safety. The HSD classes visit the Wellness Center so that students are aware of the resources available on campus, as well receive a presentation by the District Attorney regarding local sexual assault cases and consent.
HSD students also work with the nonprofit organization One Love, which educates on intimate partner violence, preaching the idea that sexual assault can even be present in committed relationships.
“We talk about ways to consent. We talked about the value of consent. I know that in my classroom I make an effort to frame the conversation around the understanding that sex isn’t something to be gotten. You don’t get it from somebody. It’s something that’s to be engaged in mutually by two people,” Paniagua said.
Consent vs. Assault
A widely accepted definition of consent entails an “enthusiastic, verbal ‘yes’” uninfringed by the influence of drugs or alcohol. When consent does not exist, and unwanted, uninvited, unpermitted physical, sexual touching or activities follow, the situation becomes the crime of assault.
Paniagua offered insights into how the mass media has blurred the line of when students cross the line from consent into assault and help shape sexual assault culture and blurred the lines when it comes to consent.
“Kids get exposed to pornography pretty early these days, and if that’s their first exposure to sexual relationships, that’s giving them an idea that is very much not based in consent,” Paniagua said.
The harmful role of pornography as Paniagua has identified it is also observed by Harvard Law Professor Diane Rosenfeld.
“We need an honest critique of the current hookup culture and the role of pornography in mediating, reinforcing, or even creating that culture,” Rosenfeld said.
The lack of clarity surrounding the definition of consent often spurs difficulty when survivors seek legal help.
“Many times a person accused of a sex crime will admit the sex act, but will claim it was ‘consensual,’” Walpole said.
Touching on this, many students are unfamiliar with the proper guidelines of consent.
“I didn’t really understand the dynamic of a rapist and a victim and a lack of consent, I was just relatively certain that that was not the way sex is supposed to go,” Survivor 1 said. “Because of this, I didn’t really know to assign blame at all. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that it was immensely wrong on his part.”
The topic of consent on a broader level involves the controversy between the mantra “no means no” versus “yes means yes.” In Paniagua’s eyes, people should adhere to the latter phrase.
“Consent isn’t the absence of a ‘no,’ consent is the presence of a ‘yes.’ A sober ‘yes,’” Paniagua said.
Throughout upbringing, students are often taught the importance of persistence and not giving up after consent is initially or repeatedly denied. However, Paniagua strongly discourages applying the ‘dont’ take no for an answer’ outlook when it comes to pushing to obtain consent.
“I think that sometimes some of the conversations that we have are surprising to some of our kids. This concept that you should continue to push, push, push for consent,” Paniagua said. “There’s this misunderstanding that you should keep going. ‘Don’t give up. Don’t be a quitter. If they say no, ask again.’ No, don’t ask again. Don’t pressure. Sex isn’t something that you’re trying to get from somebody, sex is something that two people engage in willingly.”
A Lasting Effort to Combat the Problem
Despite efforts such as the #MeToo Movement that sparked an uptick in sexual assault awareness, and a documentary that unveiled a grim reality on college campuses, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done, especially on the local level.
The first step in combating this issue is acknowledging that it reaches all communities, even those as privileged as Acalanes.
“People want to think, ‘oh, we’re a little island, and we’re different.’ Not True. We’re part of it,” Honda said. We know children are being victimized and we’re not doing anything to change our culture to make it happen less. I think we should all be ashamed.”
Rosenfeld calls upon schools to tackle the problem head-on.
“We have to be having the right conversations and what schools can do is provide the spaces and the facilitators for these conversations. Schools don’t have to have the conversations themselves, but they have to open space for students to really talk about how they set and participate in their own sexual culture,” Rosenfeld said. “I think that schools can play a big positive role in creating cultures of sexual respect on campus.”
In an attempt to achieve this open dialogue at Harvard, Rosenfeld begins within her own classroom by “creating an atmosphere of mutual respect that also allows for a really wide discourse on critical issues.”
Openly conversing about sexual assault works to eliminate the “hush hush” nature of the issue that perpetuates a culture that intimidates survivors into silence.
“It’s not okay that it happens, but the more that we can talk about it, I think the more that we’re actually going to get rid of the stigma,” Bell said. “Then people can feel comfortable coming forward and get the support they deserve.”
The mainstream classroom can only do so much, and Bell states it’s not enough. Conversations surroundings sexual assault are not facilitated naturally in the everyday academic setting, creating the need for a space designated for such difficult discussions.
Although the implementation of HSD is a step towards progress, Bell expressed his desire to expand the curriculum to more of the Acalanes student body, as it is currently only offered to sophomores.
Additionally, Honda would like to see programs in place without prompting by state law, as was the case with HSD. Honda believes that the school should go beyond limiting the conversation to spaces like HSD classrooms and bring more robust discussions into the existing core curriculum.
The culture of victim blaming is in part a root of the problem. Honda attributes the presence of this particular tactic of scapegoating on centuries of gender inequality, as the majority of sexual assailants are men.
“I blame the patriarchy and 5,000 years of sexism, oppression, and rape culture. People get away with it because we’ve constructed this system to let them,” Honda said.
A subsection of this problem is the societal message that preaches “don’t drink, dress, or behave that way” rather than the more progressive view of simply “don’t rape.”
“A problem for years has been that we look at rape and sexual assault as this passive problem where we focused only on the survivor, and we ask questions like, ‘what was she doing there?’ and ‘what was she wearing and what did she say?’” Rosenfeld said. “ By doing that, we’re letting off the perpetrator.”
In congruence with placing blame on victims, society consequently removes the blame from the accused.
“There’s no excuse for sexual assault. There is no such thing as ‘boys will be boys,’” Bell said. “I do believe that as a society we have done a disservice in how we have portrayed both male and female archetypes with the over-sexualization of women and on the opposite side, the over-sexualization of men being the ‘power source.’”
To overcome this age-old societal cultivation of sexual assault, Honda proposes extending the bounds of women’s role in society as a foundation for battling the problem.
“Hire more women directors, elect more congresswomen, elect a female president, and put more women on corporate boards,” Honda said. “If we had a really equal society, you wouldn’t have this belief system among some men that they can do whatever the heck they want and get away with it.”
Honda identifies an overarching flaw in the current handling of sexual assault in today’s world and urges survivors to know that the issue is not going untouched.
“Just know that there are some who are really trying hard to go against the nature of our culture and our systems to try to change things,” Honda said. “It’s hard because it’s deeply ingrained and it’s not going to be an easy fight. We’re all going to have to work together to move things forward.”
Trying to Shine the Light to Reach the End of the Tunnel
For some survivors, sharing their story was a key early step on the path to recovery. In speaking out, many gain a feeling of power over their abusers, taking back the power that they were robbed of at the time of their assault.
“Many think that we ought to keep our mouths shut about our common stories, or have the courage to open them based on someone else’s whim of timing. Many believe if we or I don’t open my mouth right away amid personal torment and turmoil, then my story becomes suspect just like the rest of the brave souls that chose to speak out,” Survivor 5 said. “I have chosen to defy this odd in divulging my truth–our truth–and resolve to deny anyone’s power to hobble me.”
Survivor 2 shares a similar sentiment in reclaiming her sense of self following her assault.
“Some people act like I’m fragile and made of glass. Other people regarded me as being much stronger because of it. Most people treat me with respect because I have a voice about it and I respect myself when I talk about it,” Survivor 2 said.
Looking back, a commonality between many survivors is their resilience and advocacy in moving forward towards a future less marred by the ravages of sexual assault and those who do not grasp its severity.
“I don’t dwell on regret. I learned a lot from the way I reacted. I learned a lot from the way that I handled everything. I could have done a million different things that would not have led to that, but I didn’t, and because of that I am here now, so I don’t regret things, I just flow and grow,” Survivor 2 said.
In navigating through and combating her pain of personal trauma, Survivor 2 appeals to those who relate to her experience to empower themselves through human connection.
“Talk about it. Share your burden. I could not be as healthy and strong as I am now if I didn’t tell as many people as I did, because every single person you talk to about it, they help you share your burden. They are another hand holding it up above you. That is huge. Being human is about sharing burdens with each other and that way you can carry them. You are not alone.”
Reference the inside back cover of Blueprint’s Feb. 1 issue for an extensive list of resources for sexual assault survivors.