Penn State

College women plagued by aftermath of sexual assault, violence

Erin Farley is the programming coordinator for Penn State’s Center for Women Students in the Boucke Building.
Erin Farley is the programming coordinator for Penn State’s Center for Women Students in the Boucke Building.

One Penn State sophomore will be haunted by Oct. 24 for the rest of her life.

Lisa was at a party at a fraternity, talking to friends, when a young man she had never met came up behind her, stuck his hand inside the back of her jeans and violated her with his fingers. She tried to hide behind her friends, but he followed and did it again.

“I’ve thought about it at least once a day since it has happened, mostly because I am still in shock that someone would touch someone so inappropriately in that type of situation, or at all,” the 19-year-old said.

Lisa found herself confused and appalled. On that date, she became one of the large number of college women sexually assaulted and suffering psychologically as a result. Many have sought treatment; many others, like Lisa, have not.

Data from 51,171 college women who sought mental health treatment at their college counseling centers show nearly 26 percent reported someone having sexual contact with them without their consent — either they were afraid to stop it, or were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, asleep, threatened or physically forced.

Of 13,126 college women who marked on counseling center surveys which traumatic events they had experienced, 35 percent checked sexual violence, second only to childhood emotional abuse at 46 percent.

These statistics come from the 2014 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a research project based at Penn State. The report summarizes data provided by 140 participating college and university counseling centers during the 2013-14 academic year.

What the data do not show is what goes on in the mind of a victim after an assault and how these events change a person.

Lisa explained that her experience now makes her constantly question what men think about her and how they look at her, even during the day walking to class. (Lisa is not her real name. The Centre Daily Times does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.)

“Before, I used to be flattered by boys’ compliments, but now I feel as though their ‘compliments’ are coming from motives that are too shallow and disgusting to even think about,” she said. She added that she doesn’t even like it when young men, other than her boyfriend, look at her.

Lisa said she did not report the incident to the police because she could not bear looking at her attacker’s face, and she never went to Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services .

“I don’t want to go to CAPS or seek campus support because I felt like they would think I was wasting their time,” she said, “because my experience of sexual assault could have been a lot worse, even though to me it felt like a big deal.”

Erin Farley, who has facilitated programs on sexual assault and relationship violence as a graduate assistant in Penn State’s Center for Women Students, said sexual assault victims can suffer from a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse.

But victims are still hesitant to reach out to professionals for help, she said. “There is a certain stigma when it comes to sexual assault. Victims might feel like people won’t believe them or sometimes they just won’t want to talk about what happened and come to terms with it themselves,” she said.

Farley is now the programming coordinator in the Center for Women Students.

Lisa said her experience left her feeling paranoid and exposed, and it created a sense of depression.

She said she has had a number of nightmares related to her attack. In one she dreamed that a man came up behind her, threw her in a pool and forced her head under water while trying to make her succumb to sexual acts.

After that dream, she said, “It was hard for me to get out of bed and get my day started because there was some sort of fear preventing me from it.”

Danielle White, a junior at Penn State, saw the lasting effects of a sexual assault: A close friend dropped out of college after being raped during a night out with friends.

White said that after her friend was assaulted, she saw a complete change in her personality.

“She was seriously the most outgoing person. She was just so sweet. She wanted to get so involved with everything,” said White. “She was so accepting of everyone, and then after, she just shut down.”

White said her friend tried to press charges but the case had no substantial evidence — it was her word against his.

Even if assaulted women come forward with their stories, Farley said, it is difficult to get a conviction because of such problems as lack of observable evidence, the unwillingness of a victim to prosecute and issues relating to informed consent.

Farley’s observations are reflected in a recent campus climate survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct at the University of Missouri, done by the Association of American Universities.

The September 2015 report stated that nearly 39 percent of senior undergraduate women experienced some form on nonconsensual sexual contact during their time at Missouri. Nearly 79 percent of those who were victims of penetration by force did not report it to a university program. Some 61 percent of those said they didn’t believe their incident was serious enough to report and nearly 27 percent said they didn’t want the offender to get in trouble.

“It is something so personally demeaning that I can feel myself wanting to protect other girls from the same experience,” Lisa said of her assault. “It is something so confusing and so hard to wrap your head around, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. “

Jennifer Meyers is a Penn State journalism student.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a six-part series on mental health on campus. The series was produced by students in Penn State’s College of Communications.