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Rational fear: Miami’s sexual assault issue

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of incidents of sexual assault that may be upsetting to some readers.        

On June 28, the Instagram account Dear Miami U made its first post. Over the past three-and-a-half months, the account has amassed nearly 6,500 followers. According to an Instagram story post, “The goal of this page is to promote empathy and understanding for the realities that many face in our community.”

The account has attempted to combat the complacent attitude of some students and university staff by posting anonymous descriptions of discrimination and sexual assault current students and alumni have faced during their time on campus. 

The account has received so many messages that it has switched to sharing the stories through a spreadsheet in the account’s bio. As of Oct. 16, the spreadsheet contains 774 stories from current students and alumni. Behind each story, there is a person who has been made to feel unsafe on Miami’s campus. 

During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 42 total sexual assaults reported at Miami: 28 in the fall and 14 in the spring. These numbers include incidents that happened on campus and in Oxford, as well as assaults reported last year that occurred in previous semesters. 

Of the 774 submissions to Dear Miami U, more than 200 detail sexual assault or harrassment that students faced during their time at Miami. This large discrepancy between the reports from 2018-2019 and the number of submissions to Dear Miami U shows just how many sexual assaults go unreported each year.

One submission detailed an experience with assault at Brick Street in Oxford. 

“My freshman year, I was at Brick dancing with someone. Having fun. Out of nowhere he stuck his hand down my skirt. On an elevated surface, in front of everyone. I finally got out of the situation when the friend I'd come with noticed and helped me get away.” 

Another story described an instance of sexual assault in which one of the parties was too intoxicated to give consent.

“In spring of 2018, I went to a bar rental of a frat. I was underage but I drank pretty heavily. An acquaintance of mine offered to take me home and I was so relieved. We got to my apartment and he said he’d walk me in to make sure I got in safe. He raped me. I confided in a staff member I trusted and they told me I ‘shouldn’t have been drinking since [I] was underage.’”

The spreadsheet contains several stories similar to the instances quoted above.

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First-year students, who have been on campus for only a month, are likely to base their perception of life at Miami off stories they have heard, such as the ones Dear Miami U shares. Out of the 10 first-year women I spoke with, only one had not heard of the account.

Out of the same 10 first-years, all except one viewed sexual assault as a major recurring issue at Miami. For female first-year students, sexual assault is the root of immense fear at the most and slight stress at the least. 

First-year creative writing major Chelsea Hoy’s description of her fears closely aligns with those of her peers. 

“I don’t want to go anywhere unfamiliar by myself or anywhere that’s very far away,” Hoy said. “If I know that it’s far, I usually text my roommate or a friend to let them know what time to expect me back. And I pretty much won’t go anywhere alone if it’s late at night.” 

Other steps freshmen women take to protect themselves include having their phone close to quickly get a hold of friends, sharing their location on Find My Friends and carrying pepper spray.

First-year kinesiology major Natalie Weneck shared the steps she takes to protect herself. 

“I typically try to time when I have to travel around campus so that it is during the day, and if I do have to go somewhere at night, I try to have someone go with me,” Weneck said. “I carry pepper spray and a little alarm, so that if I were attacked, I can be able to put up some kind of fight.”

Some first-year women may believe their fears are more heightened than older women because they are new to campus. Junior English education major Erin Bingaman said this wasn’t necessarily the case. 

When asked if she viewed sexual assault as a major recurring issue at Miami, Bingaman responded with a resounding “Yes!”

The university has made efforts to prevent and educate students about sexual assault — from the Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates (SAPU) module all first-year students are required to take, to the emails of reports of sexual assault on campus all students receive. 

Still, some first-year women drew the conclusion that the administration could always do more. Women on campus offered suggestions including taking accountability for students’ actions, hammering home the definition of consent in the modules more and punishing perpetrators more harshly.

Despite these suggestions, some women acknowledge that the issue will not be magically solved through any amount of administrative intervention. 

“[The SAPU module] brought awareness [to sexual assault on campus], but in reality, it won’t prevent it. People do what people want to do,” said Maddie Taylor, a first-year biology major.

While sexual assault is nearly-universally accepted as a bad thing, it can be difficult to pick up on the signs and watch out for instances of assault, especially among unfamiliar people.

A sexual assault survivor herself, Bingaman describes herself as possessing “a heightened sense of awareness” of red-flag behavior. Being mindful of body language is key in spotting potentially dangerous situations, she said. 

Bingaman said, if each person took similar extra steps of checking on others while out drinking and partying, greater awareness and prevention of sexual assault could be accomplished. Several groups exist on campus with this goal in mind.

One such group is People Against Violence and Sexual Assault (PAVES).

The group’s president, senior Emma Melichar, said reaching out to first-year students is important to PAVES. 

“We partake in Mega Fair because the majority of the people there are freshmen, and so we know we will get attention from people who are looking to join new organizations and are new to campus,” she said.

Melichar shared that she was in a situation involving sexual assault that still has a tremendous effect on her. Her work with PAVES is a way to prevent others from having similar experiences and helping those who already have. 

Although it is primarily women who are affected by sexual assault, it is something that can happen to all people. It is also something all people should strive to prevent, Melichar encouraged.

One of PAVES’ main goals is raising awareness so that people understand how they can make others feel safe on campus. 

PAVES, similar groups on campus and the Dear Miami U page provide critical information in a time when it is difficult to socially connect with others. COVID-19 has turned the world on its head, but sexual assault has not disappeared.