There is a downside to the fall. As wonderful as the anticipation of fall colors, cooler weather, football and school starting may be, the anticipated increase in sexual assaults in our community is a painful reality check. Here at Centre Safe, we experience it every fall – the increased number of calls to our hotline from sexual assault survivors; more middle of the night summons to the emergency room as the Sexual Assault Response Team works with victims; counselors whose schedules fill too quickly.
This past weekend, from Friday morning to Monday night, there were seven sexual assaults called in to Mount Nittany Medical Center that had a response by local police, a Centre Safe Advocate and a forensic nurse. And we don’t know how many more there may have been that were not reported.
Every fall brings a new group of students to State College and Penn State. They are excited to be here, excited to be on their own for the first time, eager to try new experiences and meet new friends and eager to stake their claim as adults. And who can blame them? When we send our kids to college, we want them to make new friends, have new experiences, try new things. On the other hand, we know that nearly everything in excess will hurt rather than help them, that the world is sometimes a dangerous place and that occasionally the people who seem the nicest are the ones we should trust the least.
Often we categorize sexual assault as either “stranger” rape or “acquaintance or date” rape. And while the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, it is critical, however, to be clear. The assailants in most sexual assaults are not acquaintances and they are certainly not dates. They are simply “non-strangers.” They are the people we meet casually, at a party or in a class. They are people whose last names we might not even know because it didn’t seem necessary to find out at the time. They are often quite friendly and helpful at first meeting, offering to assist in some way – by providing a place to “sleep it off” or a ride home or another drink. And the young women and men of our community, looking to make new friends, trusting their own judgment and lured by the friendly smiles and offers of help, are too often victimized.
It is challenging to maintain the balance between trust and caution, between openness and suspicion. But to help the young women and men in our community stay safe and develop healthy relationships, we must help them figure it out. We need to help them develop safe strategies to use as they explore their new communities and meet new people. And we need to be there for them if, in spite of their caution, they are assaulted. They need to hear from everyone they find the courage to tell, “I’m sorry this happened to you” and “This was not your fault.” They need to hear, “No matter where you were or what you were doing, no matter how much you had to drink, if someone had sex with you without your consent it was sexual assault – it was not your fault.” Help is available, healing is possible. I am here for you. You are not alone. Help is available 24 hours a day at 1-877-234-5050.