Kirsten O'Brien/The AS Review

As Western students are busily preparing for the first few days of school, whether that means acquainting themselves with Bellingham for the first time or getting right back into the groove of things, the threat of sexual assault is the last thing on their minds.

However, according to findings from the U.S. Department of Justice, perhaps it should be the first thing.
A 2006 study, which focused on sexual assaults committed at colleges across the United States, found that one quarter of all college women will experience some form of sexual assault before they graduate. It also found that women ages 16- 24 experience rape at a rate four times higher than women of other ages. Ninety percent of women who are survivors of sexual assault knew their attacker, but on average, fewer than five percent report the crime to the police.

At Western, there were four sexual assaults reported between 2006 and 2008, the last time statistics were compiled by University Police.

“Western does its best to be honest, but the numbers are only from what’s happening on campus,” said Devlin O’Donnell, Western’s Crime and Sexual Assault Support Services coordinator. She said the numbers do not always accurately reflect the number of sexual assaults committed against Western students because many incidents happen off campus or go unreported.

Devlin said there are many reasons why assault survivors do not report crimes committed against them. Survivors sometimes blame themselves for the attack, fear that people will not believe them or feel guilty calling police, she said.
Devlin added that sexual assault survivors are more likely to be attacked by people they are familiar with, such as friends, co-workers or classmates than by strangers.

Alyssa Piraino, AS Sexual Awareness Center assistant coordinator, said this can make assault survivors especially hesitant to report any incidents to the police, because people often feel guiltier about being abused by someone they know.

Devlin said the problem also stems from the lack of information about sexual assaults, and the fact that men and women have not been given a comprehensive definition of what sexual assault really is.  She said sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact, even if it’s just touching, kissing or brushing.

“We need to be putting the responsibility on those that are perpetrating,” Devlin said. “We need to be teaching what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

While victims of sexual abuse can be male or female, the DOJ study found that college women are raped at significantly higher rates than men. For this reason, Joshua O’Donnell, Men’s Violence Prevention Project coordinator and leader of Western’s Men Against Violence, said that special attention is being paid towards changing men’s  attitudes about women, and teaching men to ask their partners for consent in sexual situations.

Joshua said it is important to teach men that they need to discuss what each partner expects in sexual situations. He said that men can feel awkward asking a partner to have sex, which can lead to miscommunications about what each person expects and wants.

“If we give students a language to use, then asking for consent in sexual situations becomes easier and gets more comfortable,” Joshua said.

Although men commit the majority of sexual assaults, it is still important to educate both genders about what assault is and how to prevent it. SAC Coordinator Shawna Leader said in an e-mail that more information needs to be available to both genders, and students need to be aware that there are resources on campus to help them.

“Ultimately, young people aren’t receiving enough information about the many ways they can have healthy sexuality and self-respect,” Leader said. “Enhancing communication and information, whether it’s publicizing on-campus resources, or demanding them if they do not exist or hearing survivors speak contributes to battling assault on college campuses.”

Starting this fall, new students will be required to take part in the Social Health and Responsibility tutorial, created by the Prevention and Wellness Center in conjunction with Ohio State University. The program takes 40-60 minutes to complete, and students must finish it before they can register for winter quarter. The hope is that the tutorial will be an effective way to educate students about sexual assault and to keep lines of communication open when discussing sexual situations, Devlin said.

“We want students to get as much information as they can about assault prevention and how to help each other,” Devlin said. “And mostly, how to stay safe.”

Community and campus sexual awareness resources:

Confidential Sexual Assault Services (CASAS)
Old Main 585B
24 hour help line: (360) 650-3700

Student Health Center
(360) 650-3400

Mount Baker Planned Parenthood
1530 Ellis Street
(360) 734-9095

Evergreen AIDS Foundation, HIV Testing
(360) 671-0703

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services
(360) 715-1563

WWU Counseling Center
Old Main 550
(360) 650-3164