Sarah O'Malley

Sarah O’Malley is a fourth-year Journalism student from Boston, MA who has since moved to Orono, ME to study at the University of Maine. She is a staff writer for the Culture section and enjoys attending events, meeting new people, and learning more about UMaine and its students. In her free time she enjoys hiking, cooking, watching documentaries, and playing with dogs.

One in four college women will survive a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault in their time at college, according to anonymous reports of multi-campus surveys sampling thousands of college students nationwide. There are roughly 5,000 female students currently enrolled at UMaine.

It’s easy to say sexual assault is bad. It’s much harder to make an impact that will reduce those statistics. It’s not simply a problem with the perpetrators; it’s a problem with the culture. I’m sure you’re all too familiar with the “hookup culture” that colleges cultivate. We live in a world where men are expected to take sex from women as much as possible. Men are expected to always want sex, and women are expected to comply. This is detrimental to everyone. Men are rewarded socially for hooking up with women. The opposite isn’t necessarily true. We all know this. We see it happening. We know the survivors and the assaulters. It happens every day on this campus. And we all play a role.

I am that one in four. I lost my virginity to a man who took it from me forcefully. I let him into my bed, and the sex was consensual, until it wasn’t. I told him no. I told him stop. My words meant nothing. After he finished, he left me, bloody and sobbing, and walked out without saying a word. We never spoke again. And you want to know the part that keeps me up at night? I have no idea if he knows what he did was wrong. I know it was, but does he? I think that’s the crux of this issue. I know countless women, some of my closest friends, who have been assaulted on this campus. Every time I hear about someone who has been hurt like that, all the emotions flood back to my first-year self, sobbing in my dorm bed. I feel sadness and grief, and then anger. “How could these men hurt these women like that?” I think to myself, over and over again. The answer is — they think it’s okay. It’s time to tell them it’s not.

My situation, along with so many of my friends, is not black and white. It’s not a stranger hiding in the bushes, preying on girls passing by. These people are our friends, colleagues and classmates. These things happen behind closed doors. There is no evidence afterwards, and most assaults morph into a “he said, she said” situation. I recently learned the term “sexual coercion,” and a switch went off in my head. It’s defined by the University of Michigan as “a tactic used by perpetrators to intimidate, trick or force someone to have sex with him/her without physical force.”

I realized that was applicable to so many assaults because that’s how some men think sex is supposed to work. Again: they think it’s okay. We need to tell them it’s not.

This is not an easy subject to talk about. For me, it’s personal and emotional. I have a boyfriend of three years who I love dearly, and we have fought about this issue many times. We are both seniors in college and have friends who have accused other friends of assaulting them. It’s a very conflicting position to be put in. Do you disown one friend on the word of another? They are still most likely a good person. Good people do bad things sometimes. Everyone makes mistakes. They might not even realize they violated that person. But they did, and the hurt they caused is very real. That pain, shame and anxiety is usually the woman’s burden to bear. Most guys will walk away scot-free.

Honestly, I don’t have all the answers but I’m tired of doing nothing. I know we can’t eradicate sexual assault from this world, but I refuse to simply accept the statistic of one in four women. I don’t want my children to have to endure those odds someday.

So, what do we do? My boyfriend recently asked me this, after one of my good friends had been assaulted by one of his good friends. I told him the first step is continue having civil conversations about sexual assault. It’s a sensitive topic especially when it comes to people we love, but it’s not going away. We need to talk, and then take action.

I’m writing this piece for me, but also for him. Our fights all circulate around that crucial question. “What can we do?” Well, here’s three things we can start with.

Believe survivors. Not just the ones you like, or when they accuse people you don’t like. I know that false accusations are real, but from my experience, most women are telling the truth. It isn’t easy to speak out, and it isn’t without consequence. I know women who have lost close friends and job prospects, or suffered academically for speaking up. Ask yourself: why would they lie? What do they have to gain from lying? Some women are harassed, crucified, slut-shamed or not believed when they speak. Not pressing charges doesn’t mean something didn’t happen. Pressing charges can be emotionally exhausting for survivors, with a grim outlook. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free.

But listening isn’t a preventative measure; it will only minimize damage. We have to change the way men treat women. This requires men to talk to other men. Women have been talking for too long with too little impact. Sexual assault is typically considered a “women’s issue,” but statistically speaking, it’s men who are perpetrating this violence. Men need to step up. Talk to your friends, fraternity brothers, classmates and colleagues. Normalize consent (think FRIES; Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Sober). Call them out when they make rape jokes. They’ve never been funny. Call them out when they refer to each other’s girlfriends, sisters or female friends in sexual ways that would upset the women if they heard. You know what I’m talking about. Call them out when they post sexist memes. They might make you chuckle, but they also might confirm sexist beliefs your friends have, consciously or not.

If you know someone who has been accused of assault, talk to them about it. Not in an accusatory or demonizing way; that’s not productive. Tell them how they hurt that person. Tell them not to do it again. You don’t have to stop being their friend, but you have to let them know what they did was wrong. Intervene if you see men treating women in ways that make you uncomfortable. If you’re feeling weird in a situation, chances are the woman is feeling 10 times more uncomfortable.

Finally, we have to put the pressure on UMaine to do better. I love UMaine. I’ve spent nearly four years here and they’ve been the best four years of my life. I am so happy I came here. But as much as I love my university, I can critique it when necessary. I know women who have gone through all the appropriate channels to report their assaults, to no avail. We need to see actual consequences take place. Our school has a mandatory reporting policy that includes professors, RAs, Women’s Resource Center employees; pretty much everyone on the payroll. That’s incredibly problematic, and blatantly favors the university’s needs over student’s. The university is currently facing a civil lawsuit for failure to comply to Title IX regulations and inadequate responses to sexual assault. I think it’s far overdue. At the same time, UMaine has boasted about our high safety rating from the National Council for Home Safety and Security. We need to make our voices heard that sexual assault is happening here and now, and the University needs to take more preventative, consequential action.

You might think the advice I’ve given is too general, but I would argue that change comes down to small choices we make every day. Calling your friends out is hard. Challenging authority at UMaine is intimidating. The only way we can improve is to demand better of ourselves, our peers and our beloved school. Changing a culture happens at a glacial pace. But continuing on the way things are just isn’t good enough.