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After Experiencing Sexual Assault, Students Look to Move Forward

Danielle Pycior
Casey Smith, 22, was introduced to weightlifting through sports in high school. Since then, it's become more of an opportunity to grow emotionally and mentally and less about muscle mass. She says it helps her feel more in control.

When Casey Smith was a sophomore at the University of Missouri, she was sexually assaulted.

“We all think of a girl walking down a dark alley and getting grabbed, where mine was someone who I intimately knew as a friend,” she says in a recent episode of KBIA’s Intersection podcast.

Sexual assaults are not always the case of stranger attacks. 80 percent of assaults are committed by friends, family or acquaintances. 

Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, researches interpersonal violence and its long-term consequences. She says a huge problem is the way a survivor’s control can continue to be taken away long after they were initially violated.

After an assault, the only control a survivor has over their story is to whom it is told and how. Often, faculty, staff, family or friends may respond poorly, taking away a survivor’s agency. 

Freyd says the policy of reporting what a student discloses to a trusted professor or adviser is in reality very harmful. She says it’s much better to help connect the student with resources so they can choose to pursue on their own terms. 

“Sexual assault and harassment victims in the act of assault have their control taken away, and then if it happens a second time, that’s like taking away the one thing they had left,” Freyd says. “The control over their own story goes away.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. More than 90 percent of those survivors don’t report the assault.

Smith feels more empowered to tell her story now, but she says she never reported the crime to the police. A year after the assault, she told her friends what had happened. At the time, she considered them close friends, but didn’t receive the support she was searching for. 

Because her assailant had been in her friend group, Smith says she wasn’t taken seriously. 

“I had a lot of that victim blaming of, ‘Oh, you wanted it. You instigated it. Why didn't you say stop?’” Smith says. 

Freyd introduced the acronym DARVO, which stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” in the 90s, but it has recently become more popularized. This strategy of victim blaming creates issues of trust, self-guilt and a stronger level of disbelief. 

"By denying, attacking and reversing perpetrators into victims, reality gets even more confusing and unspeakable for the real victim. .... These perpetrator reactions increase the need for betrayal blindness. If the victim does speak out and gets this level of attack, she quickly gets the idea that silence is safer," Freyd wrote in Groomed for Silence, Groomed for Betrayal

Smith then went to her sorority sister who encouraged her to seek counseling. Though Smith doesn’t know how, Title IX found out about the assault and began calling her about what happened. She ignored all of their calls, saying she wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.

Freyd says one of the most harmful things to a survivor is when they seek out support and receive disbelief instead. She says research shows long term effects are more determined by how survivors are treated after an assault, and less determined by the actual crime.

Sarah Ullman, criminology, law and justice professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago conducted that research. She analyzed 1,871 correlations from 51 studies that looked at the social reactions of disclosing sexual violence and the psychological state of survivors after. She found negative responses led to more severe mental health problems like depression or anxiety. Ullman says positive responses to survivors are vital. It may not take away what happened, but it does aid in recovery and resilience.

“It's actually logical and rational for people to not tell anyone because they can be so harmed by that response,” Freyd says.

When a survivor is assaulted on campus and doesn’t feel supported in their community, they can experiece what Freyd calls a sense of “institutional betrayal.” They can feel that the systems once there to support them are instead undermining their ability to function.

At the time, Smith didn’t feel comfortable reporting what happened, she didn’t know what resources she could seek and she didn’t feel supported by the university community. She says MU could do a better job of getting resources to people not only for prevention, but for after the assault too. 

Smith says institutions need to be talking about these issues more. Instead of pushing the uncomfortable conversation under the rug, the community needs to understand and believe one another, and be willing to talk about sexual assaults on campus. 

Recommended practices and policies

As institutions populated primarily by young adults and laden with long-term institutional structures, universities can be particularly conducive to sexual violence. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 54 percent of of sexual assault victims are between the ages of 18 to 34, the common range of ages for college students. 

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released formal guidelines for how universities should handle cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment and reminded administrators that failure to respect survivors’ needs could be considered a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Though the policies outlined in this original notice and subsequent augmentations under the Obama Administration have been substantially revised by Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education, there are still universal standards for how schools should handle these cases.

Title IX expert Sandra E. Hodgin, Ph.D. has worked with mental health organizations, law firms, higher education administrations and with rape crisis centers to address sexual violence prevention, intervention and Title IX compliance. Hodgin is the founder and CEO of Title IX Consulting Group, and is an assistant professor at Colorado State University and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Hodgin says all university and college Title IX sexual misconduct policies should have a separate section for procedures, as well as specific definitions (including consent, sexual assault, harassment, etc.), jurisdiction information (off campus or on campus), who to contact on campus for help or to make a Title IX complaint and updated resources and information for survivors and students accused of sexual misconduct.

She says it is at the utmost importance that schools’ Title IX policies and procedures are clear and easy to understand. “The better approach is to be a lot more clear with your definitions,” Hodgin says. “So for example, should they include rape? I do believe they should include rape. I also believe they should include the word sexual assault.” This way, schools can be more attentive to what students need and how to reduce confusion.

While the University of Missouri System has made moves to reform its policies and definitions of harassment and misconduct over the past ten years, its latest policydoes not directly define sexual assault or rape, instead relying on broader categories of misconduct. 

Kelly Slatter was sexually assaulted when she was a sophomore in high school. She didn’t report the crime because she had been under the influence of alcohol. She recalled people telling her she probably just didn’t remember saying yes. 

“It's taken me years to come to this conclusion: if there was alcohol involved at all, then there is no room for consent physically, or mentally to intercourse or any type of sexual activity,” Slatter says. 

Slatter and Smith agree that people need to understand how much strength it takes to even say, ‘I was assaulted.’ Above all else, they emphasized the power of simply believing survivors. They say there’s no way for people to understand sexual assault until they experience it, and that’s okay. They just wanted people to believe them.

“Resiliency is something that I'm still working on,” Slatter says. “Just pushing forward and choosing forgiveness every single day is something that has really helped me in the long run.” 

After years of rediscovering themselves, working toward improved mental health again and bouncing forward, these women are hopeful their stories can empower others. 

“(Resiliency) is something that everyday you have to fight for and you have to choose,” Smith says. 

Working out has been a healthy way for them to find their strength again. Smith says building physical strength has helped her see growth and realize she is growing mentally as well. Slatter agreed, but added that for her, counseling has been essential. 

“Counseling has been really helpful – just talking about it with an unbiased perspective and getting everything out on the table,” she says. “Because silence has not been a good thing. Silencing yourself, not talking about it, not being open about it, that can be a real killer.”

Looking back, Smith says she wishes she had continued counseling. If she had been surrounded by others who had experienced similar situations, if she had felt more support in her community to be vocal, if she hadn’t felt so isolated, maybe her recovery would’ve been easier or quicker. 

“It just reshapes your whole life,” she says. “I was trying to be that person I was before, but you can’t, you have to completely reinvent yourself. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you know exactly who you’re looking at. After you’re sexually assaulted, it’s like someone just shattered that mirror and you have to pick up all the pieces and figure out who you are again.”

Before her assault, Smith says, she thought of herself as strong and confident. Afterward, she felt weak, like she had lost all control. In all actuality, those moments of rebuilding and redefining herself helped her become stronger and more capable. Her assault may have deeply affected her and changed her outlook on life, but it doesn’t define who she is. 

Popular narratives around sexual assual frequently focus on perpetrators. While coverage of his trial and sentencing made Brock Turner a household name and his future at Stanford a topic of popular conversation, the well-being of survivor Chanel Miller was rarely addressed head-on.

Matthew Huffman, the public affairs director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, says the way these narratives are formed frequently resembles that pattern. 

“Sexual violence is a public health and social justice issue,” he says. “So being able to really lift up and highlight the stories of survivors helps to shape (the narrative) in a different way.”

Slatter and Smith say they felt empowered to share their stories in the hope that other survivors would know that they aren’t alone, it isn’t their fault and there are resources out there to support them moving forward. 

Smith is a bioengineering student on the pre-med track and wants to help others through her career. 

“I would love to of course graduate and go into medicine,” she says. “I would love to integrate my engineering background and medicine and work in prosthetics.”

Slatter is getting her bachelor's degree in communication and hopes to work as an advocate for sexual assault survivors.

Editor’s Note:

KBIA’s operating license is held by the University of Missouri, and this story was written as part of KBIA’s role in the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

To speak with someone regarding sexual assault, contact True North or call their crisis line at 1-(800) 548 - 2480; MU's RSVP Center or call (573) 882 - 6638; or contact the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The Coalition also offers these numbers on its website: the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233; the National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-4673; and the Deaf Crisis Line videophone - call 321-800-3323 or text HAND to 839863.

To make a report with the MU Title IX Office online, click here or email/call at civilrights-titleix@missouri.edu, 573-882-3880.

To learn more about the laws regarding sexual violence and its legal definitions in Missouri, click here.