Voices: Sexual Violence against Women Rampant on College Campuses

By Corrie Gustafson

Corrie Gustafson is an ordained Covenant pastor and a Pacific Southwest Conference regional coordinator with the denomination’s Advocacy for Victims of Abuse ministry. She currently serves as the K-5 chaplain at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gustafson spent her first seven years in ministry working with college students on several campuses in the U.S. and Canada.

HONOLULU, HI (October 14, 2014) — It seems that this year, more than others, we don’t need a designated national awareness month to remind us that domestic violence is a pervasive issue in our country. News headlines have been evidence enough.

Domestic violence can be a misleading phrase, however, making people think that abuse only happens inside family homes. The amount of violence on college campuses is horrifying.

Higher education professionals often cite the statistic that as many as one in four female students will be the victim of rape or attempted rape during their college career. (For more statistics and their sources, see http://www.oneinfourusa.org/statistics.php.) College officials refer to the first six weeks of school as the red zone, a time when female students are at greatest risk for assault.

As with other forms of abuse, most of the perpetrators of these assaults will be men that they know and trust. In response, many schools kick off awareness and prevention campaigns as soon as students move into their residence halls.

This summer The New York Times published an in-depth article about a young woman named Anna who was raped two weeks into her sophomore year. If you read it, you will be shocked by the way college officials and law enforcement did, and in some cases, did not respond to Anna’s rape.

In September social media buzzed with a Huffington Post article about a Columbia University student who was raped in her dorm room on the first day of her sophomore year. Now a senior, Emma Sulkowicz is carrying her mattress all over campus in protest. She says she will carry it until her rapist is expelled or leaves the school. A week after Emma’s story hit the news, in a compelling expression of solidarity, her fellow students organized a large, public protest—with mattresses—in response to the school’s domestic violence policies.

Unfortunately, stories like Anna’s and Emma’s are all too common. They remind me of the stories of so many young women I’ve known personally, like Sarah and Rachel (not their real names).

[pull]Desperate to feel safe after the rape, Rachel had transferred to our school which was far away, but everyday sounds and smells continued to trigger her terrifying memories.[/pull] Sarah was a talented, athletic young woman who always wore a beautiful smile in public. Behind closed doors she was cutting her legs with a razor blade. When her roommate told me about Sarah’s cutting, I approached Sarah to see if she would accept my support. It took several weeks for her to trust me, but she eventually dropped her smile and told me that she had been date-raped her freshman year.

Two years of professional counseling hadn’t eased her feelings of shame. Cutting herself was the only way she felt some relief. Sarah attempted suicide several times that year. She eventually withdrew from college and went home to try to find a way to heal.

I met Rachel when I responded to an emergency call about a student having a seizure in her dorm room. Because she did not have a known seizure disorder, Rachel was taken to the hospital for a battery of tests. Every test came back normal. The doctors said there was nothing physically wrong with Rachel.

This cycle of events repeated for two more months. Each time Rachel was medically cleared. A consulting psychiatrist suggested that the seizures could be psychosomatic, a physical response to an unknown emotional trauma. Rachel finally divulged that during her freshman year as she was walking home from a party, she was followed, cornered, and gang raped. Desperate to feel safe after the rape, Rachel had transferred to our school which was far away, but everyday sounds and smells continued to trigger her terrifying memories.

I don’t share Anna, Emma, Sarah, and Rachel’s stories with you to shock you or to make you fearful. I need you to know that stories like these are not fiction. They are not rare. And they are not a sensationalized byproduct of a headline-chasing media.

These are the lives of real young women. Women who are intelligent and talented, full of potential but whose lives were interrupted by unjustifiable brutality. Instead of gaining confidence as they navigate their way into college and adulthood, they’ve become haunted by memories of violence.

People of God, these are our daughters, sisters, and nieces and this should not be their story! We cannot afford to continue to live in ignorance of the pervasive reality of domestic violence on our campuses, in our churches, and across our world. This evil brings a destruction that only the tender love of a tenacious God can mend.

Jesus says that we are the light of the world. We are agents of the good news, bearing the seal of the great Comforter and Advocate. Instead of following a culture that is quicker to blame the victim than prosecute the perpetrator, our identity calls us to a different way. We should follow the example our compassionate Lord, making room in our souls for stories that are difficult to hear and believing that they are true.

We should reclaim our churches as places of sanctuary for those fleeing all kinds of violence. To be sanctuary to the suffering, we must educate ourselves about abuse, its effects, and prevention.

We should be people that refuse to glorify the power or perpetuate the dominance of men; there should be no room among us for demeaning and negative images and speech about women. Both ways lead to violence against women. Instead we must shape family and congregational culture that teach our boys and young men to see and respond to the imago Dei in every girl and woman around the world.

And when the day comes that one of our sisters is harmed, we, the people of God, should be the first to show up and help carry her mattress.

For more information on what the Covenant is doing to combat domestic violence, please go to www.CovChurch.org/abuse.

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1 Comment

  1. I would like to agree that “We should reclaim our churches as places of sanctuary for those fleeing all kinds of violence. To be sanctuary to the suffering, we must educate ourselves about abuse, its effects, and prevention.” Unfortunately, sometimes churches are the places where the violence and abuse takes place. There is a lot of media attention given to the Catholic church and priests who have been abusers. But it is not just the Catholic church where it is a problem. People in leadership positions (Pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, etc.) in all denominations, including the Covenant, have been accused, charged, and found guilty of these crimes. Classmates/friends are also sometimes the ones accused, charged, and found guilty of these crimes. It is very sad and it shows the depravity of all humans. And the need for grace and forgiveness from God when the person truly repents. I shudder everytime I hear someone say that they don’t have to worry about anything happening to their kids at church. I know it can and does happen. Our church has policies in place to prevent it and I know many other churches do, too. We are working at educating people, but there are still too many who see a church or a Christian school/college as a “safe” place. I’ve been in churches all my life and went to a Christian high school and Christian college. I know of too many stories of rape and abuse that have happened at those places to think of them as sanctuaries.

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