Survivor’s Plea: How to Prevent Sexual Assault

In January, President Obama created a high-level task force to help prevent and deal with sexual assaults on college and university campuses. Its recommendations are expected this April; in the meantime, Questioning Authority asked sexual assault survivor, activist, and rape crisis counselor Ali Safran ’14 for her take on what’s needed. 

Questioning Authority: The Obama administration notes that sexual assault is most common on college campuses, with one in every five students—mostly women—having been assaulted. How can we reduce that?

Ali Safran: It starts with prevention education long before college; both boys and girls are taught to accept that “boys will be boys” and that violence isn’t a real problem. Schools perpetuate those ideas by not punishing perpetrators, ignoring survivors’ complaints, and calling violence “sexual misconduct.” Starting in elementary school, and in conversations at home, discussion about consent, as well as healthy behavior vs. violent behavior, is needed across the board.

QA: Three years after you were assaulted in high school, you spoke out about the trauma and then formed Surviving in Numbers [] to help other survivors. What does it provide that government programs might adopt?

AS: Surviving in Numbers shows what’s lacking in the responses people often give survivors. Government offices, such as police departments and other players within the legal system, can best serve victims by believing and supporting them. Government programs could do more preventative education and outreach within communities.

QA:  The task force includes very high-level members—the attorney general and three cabinet secretaries—what do they need to know from a survivor’s perspective?

AS: Most schools, and the judicial system, are failing survivors. The president should ask students at all colleges—not just ones that have complaints pending against them—how to prevent and to handle sexual assault on campus. This should be one longer-term outcome from the task force: consistently reviewing schools on their practices and treatment of survivors.

QA: The task force will suggest ways to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. What would you recommend?

AS: The task force needs to reach out to survivors. This will help ensure the task force is informed of what survivors want done differently by people who’ve actually experienced violence and administrative failures. And the task force could recommend mandatory bystander intervention and consent-education programs for all college students.

QA: Many rape prevention programs focus on how women can protect themselves, but Vice President Joseph Biden called on men to help stop sexual assault. What’s the best way men can help?

AS: Men are often left out of the conversation about sexual violence, but it’s important to remember that men are also often victims of this violence! As allies, men can take a stand against violence by being active bystanders and identifying themselves as supportive people. (Active bystanders witness something, ranging from harassment to assault, and say something to intervene. This takes the pressure off the victim.) Calling someone out on his/her bad behavior is an important piece of dismantling cultural acceptance of violence.

QA: Surviving in Numbers encourages survivors to tell others about their experience. Why is this so important?

AS: Survivors often feel isolated by their experiences—being disbelieved by family members, having police dismiss their legal complaints, or having friends turn on them. Surviving in Numbers tells survivors that, no matter what their experience, someone else has gone through something similar. No survivor needs to struggle alone.

QA: It’s estimated that only about 12 percent of sexual assaults are reported. What do victims need to feel safe reporting an assault?

AS: Victims need to know they will be believed and supported, no matter what the legal outcome.

—Interview conducted by Emily Harrison Weir