Campus sexual assault cases shoot new books into the scene

“The Last Good Girl” looks at the issue of campus sexual assault. (Leah Morse)

Recent events surrounding sexual assault cases have put BYU in the media spotlight — and not in a good way.

The university has come under fire for the way the campus Title IX and Honor Code offices handle sexual assault cases. The issue came to light when sophomore Madi Barney questioned the involvement of the Honor Code office in her rape case at an on-campus sexual assault awareness event.

In response to the criticism, BYU announced the formation of the Campus Response to Sexual Assault Advisory Council, a council put together to help find solutions to sexual assault problems. 

BYU nursing professor and council member Julie Valentine said although sexual assaults have become a major headline, it isn’t something only happening on the BYU campus. 

“This is a national issue,” Valentine said. “BYU’s (situation) is a little bit different because we have the Honor Code issue tied up in it, but a lot of these same things are happening nationally across universities and campuses, and because of that, there are guidelines about how to improve campus response to sexual assault.”

Indiana University similarly created a survey about sexual assault in late 2014 to help the university prevent sexual assault from happening on campus, but the university is still in hot water after allegedly mishandling several sexual assault cases. Six women sued the University of Tennessee in February, claiming the university allows student athletes to get away with sexual assault.

Cases like these inspired Maryland author Allison Leotta’s newest novel, “The Last Good Girl,” which explores sexual assault on college campuses and the problems that come along with it. The book follows prosecutor Anna Curtis as she investigates the disappearance of a college woman who had been raped earlier in the school year and uncovers secrets about the college and the young woman’s family.

Leotta, a former federal sex crimes prosecutor, said she found inspiration for her story in the real world.

“The main issue is campus sexual assault and the difficulty of making a report within a campus, so there are many inspirations around the country,” Leotta said. “I wanted to illustrate what that’s like, taking details that happened to other people and kind of weaving it together to what I hope is a compelling story.”

It has become more difficult for sexual assault victims to report their assaults because of the culture of victim-blaming, according to Leotta. In her book, she takes a critical look at colleges and how they often seem to sweep these crimes under the rug in order to keep application rates and alumni donations up.

“Even though one in five girls are assaulted, very often you will see a college reporting zero rapes on their campus, and we know statistically there is no campus that has zero sexual assaults on it,” Leotta said. “They definitely have an incentive to not (let others) hear about these crimes.”

Leotta is not the only activist to see this as an issue. Annie Clark, Andrea Pino and Sofie Karasek, graduates of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of California, Berkeley, cofounded End Rape on Campus, a national advocacy organization that provides direct support for sexual assault survivors. The women cofounded the organization after they discovered the issue while trying to report their own sexual assaults.

Karasek, the director of education for the organization, said issues of campus sexual violence have garnered widespread attention since the organization was founded in 2013, thanks to the survivors who are holding their institutions accountable for mishandling reports of campus sexual assault.

Contributors to “We Believe You” pose with the book on the red carpet before joining Lady Gaga on stage at the 2016 Academy Awards. (Andrea Pino)

“I think that there has been a lot of progress that’s been made over the past couple of years,” Karasek said. “That’s largely due to the survivors who have been breaking the silence about these systemic issues.”

Clark and Pino are also co-authors of “We Believe You,” a collection of 36 real stories from sexual assault survivors.

“The narrative of campus sexual violence is largely focused on white heterosexual women who attend elite institutions,” Karasek said of the book, which features her own story of survival. “Annie and Andrea thought that to really broaden the array of narratives that are being presented to people by amplifying the voices of survivors who didn’t have that typical narrative that we’ve been hearing about … to make sure that the stories of different survivors were being told.”

Karasek, Clark and Pino are also featured in the campus sexual assault documentary “The Hunting Ground” and stood on stage with Lady Gaga during her performance of “Til it Happens to You” at the 2016 Academy Awards.

“When more people are talking about it, then that makes more people in the public realize that it’s an issue at all,” Karasek said. “That really helps show how this is a national problem that deserves an immediate national response, as opposed to something that is isolated or only going on on one particular campus.”

Co-founders Taylor Jarman and Taylor Rippy Monson receive an award from Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (Facebook/Honey)
Co-founders Taylor Jarman and Taylor Rippy Monson receive an award from Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (Facebook/Honey)

Similar to Karasek, Clark and Pino, local activists Taylor Rippy Monson and Taylor Jarman have also joined the fight to bring sexual assault out of the shadows with their organization. Honey, their organization, isn’t specifically focused on sexual assaults on campuses like the other group is, but did speak at BYU’s Rape Awareness Event where Madi Barney came forward.

“Honey is an organization dedicated to stopping the silence on the subject of sexual assault,” according to the website. “We seek to change the public attitude through victim advocacy, education, media campaigns, community activism and truth telling.”

The organization is working to change the stigma of sexual assault and create a comforting place for survivors to come and talk about their experiences.

“A lot of what we are doing is unseen but it’s exactly what me and Taylor wanted,” Jarman said. “By no means are we therapists, and we make it very clear that we are just friends with open arms and are here to offer compassion and empathy and if you want professional help we can guide you to it.”

The groups and Leotta have the same goal in mind: to support survivors and help them cope and to add to the national conversation about sexual assaults, both on and off campuses.

“This is a crime that has thrived in silence and shadows for so long, and talking about it is the first step before we can solve it,” Leotta said. “My first job as a novelist is to entertain, to keep the pages turning, to make a great story that you love, but I also hope that after people read it they will say, ‘Wow, that was fascinating, and I want to talk about the issues in it.'”

Valentine said she believes keeping the conversation alive at BYU will help to find a solution to the problem.

“The only way we make changes is for people to talk about the issue, and for people to be aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and also the consequences that happen to survivors,” Valentine said. “A big part of this is that we need to have these discussion.”

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