During the 2015-16 academic year, Ferris’ Title IX program conducted a climate survey in which 131 of 632 student respondents reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while attending Ferris State University.
131 of 632 is 20.7 percent. If that ratio is extrapolated to the 10,016 students on Big Rapids’ campus, it could be assumed that roughly 2,073 students have experienced unwanted sexual contact while attending Ferris.
To contrast the results of this anonymous survey, in Ferris’ 2015 Fire and Safety Report, a total of six reports were filed for forcible rape, and since 2013, there have only been 13 reported sexual assaults.
According to Ferris’ Title IX Coordinator and Associate Dean of Student Life Kevin Carmody, this is not unusual.
“Nationally, sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes,” Carmody said. “Where it is estimated that only about five percent will report to law enforcement and perhaps seven percent will report to University officials.”
Until recently, Ferris students and Big Rapids residents alike have been faced with another hurtle in the reporting process: a lack of ability to perform rape kits in Big Rapids.
“They could present at the emergency room here and be told, ‘well, we don’t have the people or the stuff to complete this forensic collection, but you can go down to Grand Rapids and do it there because they do,’” said Whitney Buffa, an associate with the Women’s Information Service, Inc. (WISE) in Big Rapids. “There are a lot of people that we’ve transported that would not have gone if we had not taken them there.”
According to Barbara Cook, another WISE associate specializing in sexual assault matters, oftentimes when these things happen victims are already feeling vulnerable.
“You’re telling someone that’s just gone through trauma that they need to go somewhere else,” Cook said. “And a lot of times it’s nighttime going down to a big city to have an exam done.”
Spectrum Health Center in Big Rapids is pioneering the effort to make health care following sexual trauma more accessible. This is through the implementation of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs).
SANEs receive special training regarding the collection of evidence from rape victims. These exams can be performed up until 120 hours after the assault and can take up to three hours to complete. This includes both an interview process portion, and a physical examination involving everything from the collection of pelvic swabs to nail clippings.
“If they want somebody to just hold their hand and talk them through it, we can be there,” Buffa said. “We give them all the resources and all the things that they need to know about the process so that the nurse can focus on what she’s doing and get the samples that she needs and be thorough in her job.”
Carmody, Buffa and Cook all agree that one of the steps toward preventing these incidents lies in education. This means educating students on issues of consent as well as what resources are at their disposal on and around campus.
“I’ve heard often that the process seems daunting, and that if they knew more about how this process would run, that would increase their comfort,” Carmody said.
Carmody’s statement seemed to ring true as several students responded negatively when asked if they knew the process of reporting a sexual assault at Ferris, following the Five Star event Sex Signals in October.
Ferris pre-optometry freshman Cole Barnhart said: “No, I’m not completely sure.”
Ferris marketing and sales junior Emily Gleason said: “I don’t. My best guess is the police?”
However, Gleason knows secondhand through several friends how harrowing the process of reporting sexual assault can be following an incident that occurred at a party near campus.
“She was at a party at her own house and there was a group of guys there,” Gleason said. “The guys took both of them (her and her roommate) upstairs, and they both were raped that night, in her own house. She wasn’t taken seriously, and when she reported it, it was one of those things where they told her it was going to be like nine to 12 months for them to even get results back from the DNA testing, so it kind of was brushed off.”
According to both Carmody and Cook, oftentimes the hardest part of talking about sexual assault and filing a report is simple: making people believe the victim and fixing the theme of systemic victim-blaming.
“I think that the primary barriers that keep survivors of sexual assault from coming forward are societal,” Carmody said. “There is a powerful and unfortunately warranted fear that these individuals will be judged, disbelieved or otherwise discounted.”
Buffa pointed out that these issues are already arising with the women coming forward following the recent release of the Trump tapes.
“The women that came out in the New York Times saying, ‘yeah, Trump sexually assaulted us…’ You already have people trying to discredit them,” Buffa said. “Why can we as a culture not just believe survivors?”
Buffa thinks that in large part, the solution to this problem lies in giving a voice to the people being oppressed rather than those trying to discredit them.
“I think we give too much of a voice to people who hold factually wrong opinions or beliefs about sexual assault,” Buffa said. “I think that you allow people on TV who label what Bill Cosby did as a ‘sex scandal’ rather than a sexual assault. I think that you have people out there that are making the Trump thing about the fact that he said ‘pussy’ rather than the fact that he talked about assaulting somebody.”
“We will help people if they want to make a report, but we’re never going to push anybody,” Cook said. “Our support for survivors is unconditional, and if they need somebody to lean on, we can just be there for them.”
For more details on the process of reporting sexual assault at Ferris, as well as information on opportunities for student advocates to get involved, see the next issue of the Torch Wednesday, Nov. 2.
To contact WISE call (231) 796-6600 and to report any crime contact Ferris’ Department of Public Safety at (231) 591-5000.