My university mishandled my case, and the experience turned me into an activist.
by Maya Weinstein
When I was raped during my first semester at the George Washington University (GWU), I did not know how many women and men shared my experience. I bottled up what happened to me, not quite ready to accept my nightmare as real.
Six months went by before I finally felt ready to report what happened to me. When I reported the assault to my university, I was unaware that I was about to be victimized a second time--this time by the system.
It’s possible that if GWU had handled my case properly, I would not be sharing my story today. While I worked every day to move on from that night, I constantly tumbled back into my trauma because of how my institution responded.
I knew that reporting and triggering a university investigation would be difficult, but I did anticipate more integrity. My subsequent research in the field has solidified my core belief: if the process is perceived as fair, then the outcome--favorable or not--will be perceived as fair. Nothing about my process, from investigation to hearing to outcome, was fair.
The mishandling reached its peak when the perpetrator was granted an exception to the sanctions imposed on him so that he could attend a fraternity party. A university administrator told me that my rapist “deserves to be a student too” and I needed to understand “how difficult this has been for him.”
Imagine, being told to put yourself in the shoes of a rapist and feel pity.
I was not about to walk away from my experience knowing that I was leaving a broken system that others would face, so I chose to turn my trauma into activism. I proposed policy changes to my university and was ultimately appointed to the inaugural Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. While I was doing work on my campus, there were rumblings of change at campuses all over the nation. Women and men were fed up. They had been forced out of their universities after reporting assaults or were stonewalled until they or their perpetrators graduated. They were lied to, mistreated, and, above all, not believed. A survivors’ rights movement was beginning.
My involvement with the film The Hunting Ground gave me the opportunity to connect with fellow survivors, to compare notes and war stories, and to gain a support system that now spans the world. Our stories are eerily similar, but perhaps the most significant aspect that we share is that we did not, have not, and will not back down. The power of a voice is limitless. When our individual voice joins with thousands of others, we drown out those trying to break us down. It does not matter what our faces look like, how we express ourselves, or how we identify. We are significant, we have our strength, and we have each other.
The most disheartening thing I have experienced is women who victim blame and slut shame other women. That behavior is counterproductive to our cause. It is especially important for women to become active in this movement because we are affected disproportionately by sex crimes, and we are perpetually put down because of our gender. We have to empower each other to move forward, even in the face of adversity.
When I was assaulted, I did not know the scale or complexity of this issue. I had not been educated on the types of assaults that can happen on campus, where to report these crimes, what reporting entailed, or how abysmally common the experience is. The road to creating stronger, survivor-friendly communities and to ultimately end sexual assault on college campuses begins with educational programs, like JWI’s Safe Smart Dating.
It will take years, generations, and large-scale cultural shifts to completely eradicate the epidemic of sexual assault on campuses. But, as long as it is still happening, there are a few things we need to teach young people to do. First, they must learn how to identify situations in which they can intervene and prevent an assault. Second, it’s important to recognize that something they experienced may have been an assault. Whether it happened last semester or last night, students need to know where to go and what their options are if they do experience an assault. Finally, they need to know that they are not alone and to in turn support friends or family who confide in them.
We need to overcome the reluctance to talk about sex and talk openly about healthy relationships and consent. Through age-appropriate education, we need to ensure our children know what is okay and what is not, and that it is up to them to explore and determine what is best for them in their relationships. They must know that they can ask questions without being judged. Our current environment does not allow for that openness and slut shaming and victim blaming impede our ability to have healthy conversations.
I know that the culture is changing. My generation is publicly talking about these topics. We are questioning the system and pressuring society to reevaluate stances on women’s issues. We will educate our children differently, without shying away from these difficult topics. We will raise our boys and girls as equals who expect nothing but respect from each other. My hope is that with each generation, accountability will increase until the only reason we talk about the campus sexual assault epidemic is to remind each other that we cannot allow it to happen again.
History is being made, now, by the thousands of women and men who have turned from victims to survivors to advocates and activists. I am honored to have opportunities to share my story, but I am but one piece of a greater narrative. Each experience and voice of activism is a contribution. If we each only reach one person, then it is worth it. That is my motivation to keep speaking up, speaking out, and advocating for change.