Penn State

Penn State working to reduce stigma around sexual assault reporting

Jennifer Pencek, a programming coordinator at Penn State’s Center for Women Students, says not understanding the definitions of consent and sexual assault can lead to longer time lags between an incident and its reporting
Jennifer Pencek, a programming coordinator at Penn State’s Center for Women Students, says not understanding the definitions of consent and sexual assault can lead to longer time lags between an incident and its reporting

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on Penn State’s sexual assault reporting.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes — and when it is reported it’s often done weeks, months or sometimes years after the incident.

Of 138 reports of sexual assaults at University Park since 2012, just 49 were made to Penn State police on the day of the assault.

Thirteen were reported the day after, but reporting quickly slows after that, a university police database shows. The 100th report, for example, was made nearly six months after the assault.

Other reports show some victims wait much longer, including a forcible rape that allegedly occurred in an unknown residence hall on Sept. 2, 2013, but was not reported until Nov. 10, 2014.

“The fact that these incidents involve really very private, intimate moments is a huge barrier,” said Title IX Coordinator Paul Apicella, who oversees Penn State’s Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. “There’s a lot of humiliation and embarrassment.”

Far more assaults are not reported at all. Apicella estimates that about 7,000 female and 2,000 male students will experience completed or attempted acts of nonconsensual penetration during their undergraduate careers — on or off campus.

His estimate is based on figures from the 2015 Penn State Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey, which helped gauge the perceptions and prevalence of sexual misconduct.

“A lot of people assume that if they were sexually assaulted they would be calling police right away, or they would be telling Penn State right away,” said Jennifer Pencek, a programming coordinator at Penn State’s Center for Women Students. “We don’t know how we would act unless we were in that situation.”

Andrea Falzone, a sexual assault and relationship violence specialist at Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, said the high reporting rate within the first 24 hours can be attributed to officers responding to rape victims at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

In her experience, Falzone said, the norm is for victims to not report what happened. This is true of roughly 90 percent of counseling center clients who have been sexually assaulted, including those assaulted in high school, she said.

Therapy may help survivors feel more empowered to report, but Falzone emphasized that they are still “strong and brave and courageous even when they don’t.”

“The path to healing is different than the path to holding the perpetrator accountable,” she said.

The justice system, Falzone added, is tough on survivors as they struggle to provide necessary evidence.

“With sexual assault, there’s immediate suspicion from a lot of people,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

Apicella said it’s not for him to decide if victims have a personal responsibility to inform police, but he acknowledged that faster reporting can put more resources into play, assuming students are aware of them ahead of time.

If an undergraduate woman is assaulted in September and immediately tells others, for example, the range of help can include a rape kit exam, counseling and academic support, he said.

But if it is reported in December when that same student is no longer emotionally functional and is on the verge of failing her classes, Apicella said, his office is now limited to assisting with academic withdrawals.

“A lot of people don’t know that the help and the resources are there,” he said. “If they knew there was a safe and supportive place they could go and get help, I’d think we’d see more students coming forward.”

Not understanding the definitions of consent and sexual assault also can lead to lengthier time lags between an incident and its reporting.

“You’re never going to forget that something happened,” Pencek said. “But some people might chalk it up to, ‘This stinks, but this is what happens in college.’ ”

Pencek said the actions taken in each situation are different, especially when it comes down to how victims process information emotionally.

If a survivor is ready to tell a friend, a reaction from that friend that is filled with support — or the lack of it — can influence the reporting timeframe.

“If somebody feels like they’re getting a negative response or that they have to answer 5,000 questions, they might really shut down,” Pencek said.

Cultural dynamics, particularly for male and LGBT sexual assault victims, also can lead to more hesitancy, Falzone said.

For others, self-blame makes it difficult to grasp that the perpetrator’s behavior was criminal, she said. This can be intensified when the perpetrator is a friend or acquaintance, as is the case with most sexual assaults.

“Some incorrectly believe if they were to proceed with charges against this person, they would feel guilt that they, quote-unquote, ruined this person’s life,” Falzone said.

Apicella said an increase in reporting remains a short-term focus of his office and the university.

“It tells me the stigma is getting lower and the barriers to reporting are getting lower,” he said.

But as sexual assault education and prevention efforts take root in the student population, Apicella said, he hopes to see the need for reporting level out and eventually decline.

Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.