I will never forget running outside into the cold dark night. I was a freshman college student at a dance with friends. It was a wonderful party until a young man assaulted me in a crude and insulting way. I felt scared and alone. I did not know where to turn, so I kept that pain to myself for many years. Sadly, my experience was hardly unique. Each year thousands of young lives will be forever changed because of campus sexual violence.
Reporting by the Globe and other media outlets has highlighted a critical facet of this climate of sexual assault and harassment — failure to protect the privacy of survivors. At Dartmouth College, my alma mater, the community is still reeling from the toxic atmosphere fostered by three professors who allegedly preyed on their students over a period of 16 years. Last fall, seven women filed a class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth, with two more joining the suit earlier this month. In the suit, they bravely shared horrifying stories of the treatment they experienced. Three of the nine have asked to remain anonymous.
This situation presents a valuable opportunity to increase awareness about the importance of maintaining privacy for sexual assault survivors. Forcing survivors to reveal their identities publicly risks their re-traumatization in the aftermath of the pain they have already experienced. It will trigger a chilling effect on future reporting if students see that, in order to seek accountability, and closure, they have to endure the shame and potential trauma of public exposure. Thus, when privacy is denied, predators are protected and sexual violence continues to threaten the safety and security of all students.
The facts tell a story of a sexual violence epidemic on our campuses: 1 out of every 5 women and 1 out of every 16 men will be sexually assaulted during their college experience. Most by someone they know, and many by serial predators, who commit these acts again and again. In the face of ongoing stigma that seeks to blame survivors, 1 in 3 drops out of college. For far too long and in far too many cases, survivors who have come forward have been ignored, dismissed outright, or failed to get the closure and accommodation they deserve.
With these harsh realities in mind, we cannot be surprised that only 5 percent to 10 percent of young survivors will report what happened to them. This makes sexual violence the most underreported crime on college campuses. As long as these figures remain, the epidemic has no end in sight. These young people deserve better. The ability to feel safe from sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus is integral to the successful pursuit of higher education.
Our institutions of higher education, and all schools, have an obligation to foster a climate where students feel safe coming forward to report misconduct. That means assuring survivors that they will not be dragged into public view to face shame and re-traumatization as they simply seek to hold their perpetrators accountable and find some degree of normalcy on campus again. Instead they must understand that they get to decide whether to publicly identify themselves or retain their privacy. Schools must take responsibility when they discover acts of violence and harassment have occurred — holding perpetrators accountable and supporting survivors, while taking definitive steps to prevent harassment and sexual violence.
After sharing my own experiences with sexual violence publicly for the first time, in 2016, I cofounded the Congressional Bipartisan Task Force To End Sexual Violence, in 2017. The task force confronts every area of sexual violence across our society, including in K-12 education, on college and university campuses, in the military, and within Congress. With my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, I have been proud to help introduce key legislation to change the equation in our educational systems and empower survivors to speak their truth and, in so doing, make their campus community a safer place to live and learn. As a mother, a survivor, and a member of Congress, I am determined to ensure that no one will have to flee alone into the cold dark night again.
US Representative Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s Second District.