Despite high-profile cases, most sexual assault victims stay silent
It happened before she knew what was going on.
On a rainy football weekend last September, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities senior Kary Askew went to a fraternity to watch the game on television and visit with friends.
As the afternoon wore on, it became one filled with cheap mixed drinks and friendly conversation. Eventually, Askew went upstairs in the fraternity to sleep. Earlier that day, Askew had struck up conversation with a brother of the fraternity.
It happened before she could protest.
Askew told him no, wincing in pain, but was met with no relief. When he left the room, she ran away as fast as she could.
Resources for sexual assault victims
Sexual Assault Crisis and Intervention Hotline
Student Services Building
556 East Circle Dr. Room 14
Women’s Resource Center
332 Union Building
East Lansing police
101 Linden Street
1120 Red Cedar Road
MSU Department of Student Life
Student Services Building, Room 101
Askew’s story is similar to the experiences of many women, including MSU students, who have experienced some kind of sexual assault. Experts say the stigma attached to many assault victims has led to the emergence of an underlying rape culture, allowing others to place blame on the victim rather than punishing the attacker.
Since Welcome Week, four on-campus sexual assaults have been reported to police, according to the MSU Police Clery Crime and Fire Log. Although numbers for sexual assaults in all of East Lansing were not available as of press time, a case regarding a string of four reported attacks on students is slated to reach Ingham County Circuit Court next week.
Some are horrifically violent, striking unexpectedly under the cover of night. Others go unnoticed until it is too late, hidden by a veil of alcohol and false consent.
Either way, few are reported. University officials estimate only one in five sexual assaults that occur on campus even reach officials, said Shari Murgittroyd, program coordinator for the Counseling Center’s Sexual Assault Program.
After the fact, Askew felt it was her fault she’d been raped.
“I was feeling that guilt that wasn’t really mine to feel,” Askew said. “I thought maybe I dressed a certain way or acted a certain way, and those were the wrong things to do.”
Growing up among a conservative Catholic family, Askew feared her mother would blame her for her own victimization. Even worse, she feared her father would lose respect for her.
“My biggest fear is that my dad would be so disappointed in me,” she said. “I would never want my dad to think any less of me.”
In the aftermath of an assault, Murgittroyd said it is normal for victims to blame themselves. She said the people victims share their experiences with also run the risk of placing blame on them for what happened if they don’t fully understand the gravity of the situation.
“We (in society) silence them, tell them not to talk about it,” Murgittroyd said. “They’re gonna get blamed anyway, so why just not say anything? The whole silencing thing is part of a larger culture of oppression.”
Over time, sexual assault has become so normalized and expected that its own subculture has emerged as a result, Women’s Resource Center Director Jayne Schuiteman said.
“We live in a rape-prone culture,” Schuiteman said. “We live in a culture where we might say sexual assault isn’t OK, but in reality we don’t do much to discourage it, and in some cases we condone or praise it.”
The blame game
In terms of blame, Murgittroyd said the notion of sexual assault plays into gender roles, which children learn from birth.
“Sexism and gender violence is so ingrained in our culture,” Murgittroyd said. “We start teaching boys and girls conceptions of gender at a young age. Boys are aggressive, assertive, entitled for what they want. Little girls are gentle, quiet and pleasing.”
Schuiteman said the confusion also has to do with the conflicting expectations young men and women are faced with.
“Women are supposed to be sexually available, but they’re supposed to be virginal at the same time,” she said. “Guys are expected to be players, and if they aren’t, they may try to talk a good talk in front of their buddies. There’s pressures on men and women for very different reasons.”
Askew said such ideas ultimately lead to blaming women’s everyday factors, such as wardrobe, for their own assault.
Because of such gender roles, Schuiteman said sexual assault can bring the same feelings of guilt and embarrassment to men as well.“We don’t often think of men and think of them as victims in the same breath,” she said. “If they are victim by another man, it’s assumed it must be a situation of being gay … Which is not necessarily the case at all. If they’re victimized by a woman, oftentimes they’re not taken seriously.”
On the docket
Recently, East Lansing has experienced its own set of incidents regarding sexual assault. MSU police are investigating an attack that allegedly occurred between 3 and 4 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Chemistry Building. The 20-year-old female student did not contact police until Wednesday.
In August, a man suspected of committing a string of four sexual assaults was arrested. Oswald Scott Wilder Jr.,a 26-year-old resident of Vernon, Mich., allegedly assaulted four MSU students while they were walking home at night. He is scheduled to face trial next week.
Last Friday, all four reported victims testified during a preliminary examination. Barely keeping her composure as she spoke, one she said she was unlocking her back door and was struck to the ground, waking up on her back with her feet in the suspect’s hands. When she screamed for help, no one came.
“Our house has motion lights, and we all have to go to the back door, which is poorly lit,” she said. “The next thing I know, I wake up on the ground next to the shed.”
Another alleged victim said her attacker dragged her behind a dumpster by her hair and hit her head against it, giving her cuts down her face. When she reached out to a stranger, her pleas went ignored.
Wilder is scheduled to appear for his trial Oct. 9 in Ingham County Circuit Court. If he is convicted, he could face life in prison.
Askew hid her secret until the following April, when she decided to report the assault to police. For the past few months, she used shopping and partying to dull her pain — but no matter what she did to run, the attack haunted her.
“I had been having these nightmares about the perpetrator calling me and … threatening me,” Askew said. “Even though I know he wouldn’t contact me, I just kept having these terrible dreams.”
East Lansing police Capt. Jeff Murphy said it is not uncommon for victims to hesitate before alerting authorities of their assault.
“There (are) a lot of victims that are unsure,” Murphy said. “They’re upset, they wanna talk to family, they’re embarrassed. They feel like they put themselves in a bad situation, and they don’t really know how to handle that.”
Askew also alerted the university’s Department of Student Life, which handles all university-related sexual assault cases involving two students, this past April. She said a report was compiled, her attacker was contacted and she has not heard back from the department since.
Although the likelihood of resolving the issue remains higher when the assault is reported immediately, Murphy said police must treat assaults reported later the same way as timely reports.
Last month, Askew said she was sexually assaulted again. This time, she reported it immediately.
“I might have said while I was drunk that I was okay with having sex with the guy, but I was in no state to be doing that,” Askew said.
East Lansing police confirmed both cases are under investigation.
Schuiteman said the university aims to make students feel comfortable reporting to authorities if they have been sexually assaulted.
“The reporting rate is very low, and we’re trying to change that,” she said. “We want to create zero tolerance for sexual assault.”