When Angie Epifano, a former student at Amherst College, was raped at the end of her freshman year of college, she didn’t want to remember it.
She didn’t want to become one of the “one in four women” who the U.S. Department of Justice reports having had experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives, she said. She didn’t want to become a statistic.
So she tried to forget about it. But when she returned to Amherst in the fall, she realized it would be impossible to forget about it. She began seeing her attacker around campus. She began fearing who else might be a future attacker. She began having panic attacks and stopped attending some of her classes.
She approached her school’s counseling and guidance program, where she said she was told to “forgive and forget” and move on with her life. The man who raped her was about a week away from graduation anyway, she said. She said they told her it wouldn’t be fair to strip him of his degree. When she came back again, she said she was deemed possibly suicidal and was sent to a psychiatric ward. Her attacker graduated with honors and is now in medical school.
After being released from the psychiatric ward and returning to Amherst, Epifano shared a first person account of her attack and the university’s response in the Amherst student newspaper, sparking a nationwide movement of survivors coming forth to share their stories and national media scrutinizing the issue of how sexual assault is handled on college campuses.
Epifano since dropped out of Amherst and has been traveling the country, speaking at universities and sharing her story. On Tuesday, she came to USF’s research symposium on military sexual trauma and participated in a roundtable discussion that explored the overlap between the rising problems of addressing sexual assault in the military and on college campuses.
Nanci Newton, director for the Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, said several parallels exist in how the issue is being addressed.
“In both cases you have large bureaucratic systems trying to deal with the issue and then not dealing with it well because of the consequences of owning up to it and dealing with it on a systemic level,” she said. “In some cases it’s willful ignorance of those that want to pretend it’s not a problem, but in some cases you have a lot of individuals trying to do the right thing and not knowing how to deal with problems of this magnitude in an effective way.”
But Newton, who said she has worked with more than 10,000 survivors of sexual violence from both military and civilian backgrounds since the 1970s Vietnam War era, said the parallels have continued to grow in her experience. She said she has seen the frequency of rape between comrades-in-arm increase since the Gulf War.
Kelly Addington, a fulltime employee of USF’s Women in Leadership and Philanthropy and founder of onestudent.org, a website designed to help college victims of sexual assault navigate their campus systems to seek help and report it, said much of the problem, both in the military and civilian life, stems from unclear definitions of rape and consent.
One university she worked with, she said, had a 2.5 page definition of consent.
“If you give a student or an Air Force general a two and a half page definition, they’re not going to remember it,” Addington said.
Instead, she encouraged teaching the concept of consent to middle and high schoolers – phases of education that both college students and every rank of military personnel go through.
Jodie Sweezey, a Ph.D. student in anthropology and a Marine Corps veteran currently in active reserves, said during her time in the military, she often received days of meaningful, intense training.
But at times they were “knee-jerk” reactions, she said. On the whole, she said the military could do a better job of talking about consent and what it means – for example, she said, many people she spoke to did not know that if a woman has one drink, she cannot give consent according to military guidelines.
The issue is similar on college campuses, Newton said.
“Every university has a culture,” she said. “On a lot of college campuses, certainly this one, the context of sexual violence is the context of drinking and having fun and partying and those things. That culture is part of what has to be broken through, where the perception of gender roles still exist.”
But Addington said she doesn’t think that culture could be broken.
“I’d be a hypocrite if I told people not to drink,” she said. “Alcohol is often involved with sexual assault. But alcohol doesn’t rape people. People rape people.”
But consistency among universities’ definitions of what consent means, she said, would be helpful in establishing consistency.
“We need to teach what consent is and what enthusiastic consent is,” she said. “We need to teach people to wait for ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.'”
Newton said while some things have progressed, culture is still in need of changing.
Police no longer ask victims if they had an orgasm when rape is reported, she said. Women no longer have to prove they were unconscious in order for it to count as rape.
But victims’ social circles still blame them and people still side with the offenders, she said.
Jose Hernandez, a Title IX Coordinator for USF and Chief Diversity Officer who attended the session, said he hoped to see campaigns to change specific behaviors that could lead to cultural change.
“Even if you don’t have the legal standing as a crime, we need to see it’s harmful. There’s got to be a realization that it has to stop,” he said. “To win a case, they look for if there is enough evidence, are there enough witnesses. It doesn’t matter to me. Someone was harmed. Someone’s life was changed.”