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Why Apologies Are A Powerful Tool In Combating Rape Culture

I’m so angry I could cry.

Scratch that. I am so angry and full of despair that sometimes all I can do is cry.

Several Halloweens ago, during my time as a student at Tufts University, I was raped.

When my body isn’t reminding me of the weight of the trauma through panic attacks, depressive episodes, and comfort eating, my environment does the job. When you have around $100,000 in educational debt coupled with the inability to find and keep steady work, the daily panic from unpaid bills and no idea when your next paycheck will come in creates quite the dark cloud.

I’m on food stamps. I’m going to be on Medicaid (which my shrink or gyno don’t take, but I simply cannot pay $400 a month in premiums anymore). Both of my bank accounts are overdrafted. At first glance it might seem to be quite a jump to connect my campus rape and Tufts’ institutional apathy to my poverty, but low grades and poor economic health are documented consequences of sexual violence.

Meanwhile, my rapist graduated on time, went to law school, and likely will never face anything close to the financial devastation I face in my day-to-day life. It’s probably needless to say, but: The most meaningful form of justice after my rape looks like a big fat paycheck.

Yes, I reported the assault to the police. Yes, I reported it to my school. And, no, nothing came of it — except the administration kicking me out when my grades dropped in the wake of the attack due to mental health struggles.

My lack of recourse after reporting the attack is far from uncommon. The legal system’s pitiful record of holding rapists accountable made regular headlines this year — from Brock Turner’s three months served (out of a six-month sentence) to his University of Colorado counterpart serving two years of “work release,” allowing him to go to school during the day and return to the county jail at night. The resounding outrage in response to these articles was largely, “this is not enough; this is not justice.”

But the reality is that these men’s sentences are actually more severe than what an overwhelming number of rapists will ever see — and this fact seems to have been lost in the chatter. Out of the many points of injustice that serve as a target for outrage — including the fact that rape happened in the first place — the one attracting the most energy this year has been the time Turner has spent in jail. And while it’s great that our society is increasingly talking about the legal system’s shortfalls, just looking at individual failures won’t do anything until the energy and outrage spent on these injustices are used to protest rape culture as a whole.

It’s time to ask — and answer — what does justice after rape look like?

Unfortunately, this conversation about what justice would look like after rape has been largely absent in sexual assault coverage this year. This must change: The mainstream idea of “justice” after rape in our society is ridiculously limited. There’s a focus on securing it through the U.S. legal system, but not only does this fail to live up to its name of a so-called criminal justice system — especially when it comes to sexual assault, with 97% of rapists never seeing a day in prison — but it also doesn’t offer the justice that many survivors want, need, and deserve.

It’s Time To Expand Our Idea Of Justice — And Survivors Should Lead The Way

While campus sexual assault is getting more attention than ever, the reality of its continued prevalence is grim. With alarming statistics — including that 1 in 5 college women are survivors of sexual assault, and that over 200 federal investigations into academic institutions for mishandling sexual violence are ongoing — it’s time for us to go beyond the letter of the law and our focus on compliance. At the end of the day, legal recourse is only accessible for a small amount of people; the law was made to protect the interests (read: property) of old white dudes, after all.

That’s why Kamilah Willingham and I launched the #JustSaySorry campaign: As activists who have spoke with numerous other survivors on the ground, we all believe in the transformative power of a (sincere) apology. With new devastating stories like a student dying by suicide after William Paterson University didn’t investigate her rape and a University of Colorado rapist escaping jail time, a campaign like #JustSaySorry might appear to trivialize rape. After all, a demand to school administrators to apologize juxtaposed to even my personal and financial pain probably seems confusing. But our — still unanswered — demands to Tufts University, Harvard Law School, and all academic institutions to directly apologize to survivors and other members of their community for failing to properly address sexual assault does quite the opposite.

Apologies from powerful institutions can be a transformative tool that both helps survivors heal and sets the stage to prevent more sexual violence.

I will never hesitate to say an apology is not enough to undo the damage facilitated by Tufts University. But there’s really nothing else, at this juncture, that the university can do for me. I cannot sue the school in civil court (legal fees were too high for me to pursue it before the statute of limitations were up) and my Title IX complaint ended with a ruling in the school’s favor. On top of that, I already got my bachelor’s degree from another school; apologizing is the only form of justice from my former school that is available for me — and countless other survivors.

Most survivors do not report their assaults to the police, and sadly, the people who are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted — such as queer folk, trans people, and people of color — report at even lower rates. There are many reasons for this, but the limited options for justice is one of them: It’s been well-documented that pursuing justice after a sexual assault through the legal system is tough, often referred to as a “second rape.” If we all acknowledge that rape is a heinous crime, we need to work to create multiple avenues of justice for survivors that can facilitate their healing and promote accountability for assailants and their enablers.

This is where the apology comes in. In spite of increased visibility of the issue, rates of campus sexual victimization have remained largely unchanged over the past 40 years; researchers still have not found programming that shows a significant reduction in campus sexual violence. Compare this with a 74% decrease in national rates of sexual assault and rape, which is in line with a general decline in violence. Clearly the policies we have now for campus sexual violence aren’t enough to reduce rates.

It’s Time To Take The Unjust Burden Off Survivors And Put It Where It Belongs

Colleges could do something simple that could help reduce rates and give most survivors what they seek: publicly denounce rape and apologize for past wrongs committed against survivors and the community. In the 2015 edition of Trauma and Recovery, author and psychiatrist Judith Herman addresses just how powerful this could be (emphasis mine):

Demanding an apology from institutions places the post-rape focus and pressure where it belongs: on the people, procedures, and policies that allow it to happen and let rapists continue with impunity. Instead of shaming survivors to report to the police to end rape, we can demand institutions to apologize for allowing it to happen — and go inadequately punished — under their watch.

My attraction to an apology isn’t just about wanting to feel better about the injustice I endured. After years of research and activism, it’s clear that apologizing can set the stage to help everyone who ever steps on a school campus (the ones who don’t rape, anyway).

If school leaders choose to publicly acknowledge past institutional failures to address sexual violence, survivors will hear that validation and know that the burden of shame isn’t theirs to bear. That sentiment can reverberate and affect future survivors, who will remember the school’s apology, trust the institution more, and be more likely to report and/or seek needed resources for themselves.

Further, apologies can help other campus survivors who haven’t felt able to step forward feel supported and empowered to seek the resources they need. If it’s done properly, an apology can be a part of a trauma-informed approach, which means that the school has intentionally created institutional structures and practices that ensure that their sexual assault prevention and response shows that the school knows what trauma is, how it manifests, and what the best responses to trauma is. The school can educate other students through leading by example to stop victim blaming and promote empathy toward survivors.

The administrators at academic institutions cannot make a meaningful reduction in sexual violence until they proactively work to understand the dynamics of trauma and the reality of rape culture. If they don’t understand why students and advocates are so upset by their institutional failures in regards to sexual violence, they need to do the research into the reality of campus rape culture and the damage they cause when they deny its existence. When 20% of women are raped during their college career, learning the truth about rape culture is part of their job. College administrators need to stop dragging their feet in creating real change and expecting cookies for not-enough gestures like Stanford’s victim-blaming alcohol policy or Harvard’s canceling the men’s soccer season with a whopping two games left (while the team members and coach remain unpunished).

Creating safer campuses immediately is possible. And all it takes to start is an apology.