On a Friday night in the winter of 2011, Sumana Palle, a then sophomore at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI was where she usually was: out at a house party, dancing with her female friends as their heels stuck to the floors covered in alcohol with sounds of ricocheting ping pong balls slicing through the ambiance of music, inebriated college youth, and cracking beer cans. Having lost track of a friend who left with a romantic interest, Palle followed a mutual male friend home after the party under the pretense that she would be reunited with her. Upon arrival, Palle’s friend was nowhere to be found, but she was met with the grubbing hands that failed to heed her resistant signals, Palle ran from the house, scattered with thoughts of confusion, anger, and regret.
While Palle has told the story to friends, colleagues, and others in her own personal fight for the rights and voices for sexual assault survivors since, she still has not told those who mean the most to her– her parents. “It’s a cultural thing,” Palle said. “I’m not ready to tell my parents I was assaulted. I don’t want to relive that and don’t want to have to prove that it happened.” While there has been a 50% increase in the number of reported sexual assaults on college campuses between 2001 and 2011 according to the Department of Education, the Justice Department reports that fewer than 5% of assaults are actually reported. For Palle and many other survivors, their cultural backgrounds and the lack of sensitivity for this from institutions remain a barrier in their willingness to report their cases. However, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI; the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center has been tackling the issue from within these communities with the Men’s Activism Program, potentially allowing for Palle and other survivors the means and support to report their cases and seek further aid.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center grew out of initial unrest from students for the lack of university support for sexual assault survivors 30 years ago and employs students as peer facilitators to educate and provide resources for the diverse student body. “The biggest complaint I get here is that we don’t do enough,” Holly Rider-Milkovich, Director of the Center, said. “I’m right at the precipice of government vigor and student activism bubbling to the surface and becoming a national movement.” While an initial challenge of combating the issue from the perspective of men was a focus with the founding of the men’s activism program as a subprogram of the Center in 2005, it has recently shifted to combat the issue from a multicultural perspective. “One size doesn’t fit all in terms of our services or programs,” Rider-Milkovich said. “Depending on your background, how you experience sexual violence in a community is radically different.”
As the dialogue around the issue progresses, some institutions have been forced to reassess who they provide resources to while others remain stagnant. “If you’re having a conversation about sexual assault on campus, it’s in white womanhood and not intersection,” Christine Slaughter, Senior at Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia said. “It marginalizes people of color and their experiences.” Spellman College is a historically black college with a small all-female student body closely linked with neighboring Morehouse College, a historically all-male black college. The schools have faced criticism from students in recent years as female survivors of assault have faced all-male panels from Morehouse College for the sake of cultural preservation. “There aren’t a lot of black males in college,” Slaughter said. “You start to place that self doubt in yourself in terms of thinking about the larger system. How am I going to report a sexual assault when he could be gunned down in the street? By addressing the intersectionality, we can address the larger societal issue at hand instead of letting this be a roadblock.”
For Sarah Hong and Don Lyons, juniors at the University of Michigan and co-leaders of the Men’s Activism Program, a multicultural take on this issue has been the main goal and challenge this academic year. “It’s often times people’s first opportunities to hash out those problems with people from their own communities in unique and safe spaces,” Lyons said of the program. Through outreach to various multicultural student groups on campus as well as the greater Ann Arbor area, Hong and Lyons have hosted dialogues, workshops, and community outreach events in hopes of building a multicultural perspective on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
“I felt like it was liberating being able to talk about how this type of violence affects our community,” Meagan Shokar, Junior at the University of Michigan and President of the Sikh Student Association, said. Shokar worked with Lyons and Hong this past semester, co-hosting a workshop and a dialogue with members of the all-Sikh student organization, providing terms and statistics that directly applied to the Sikh students. While workshop and dialogue attendees and their facilitators were pleased with the dialogue generated around the issue within the Sikh Student Association, only 12 members of approximately 130 attended the event. “It’s a difficult topic to talk about because we’re raised to not talk about it and I think that’s an issue that comes up for a lot of communities of color,” Shokar said. “Some people were enthusiastic and others were not ready for it yet. There’s obviously still room to improve.”
For Shokar, raised in a minority religion that does not talk about the issue of sexual assault, she has found strength and courage to engage her parents in dialogue for the first time in her life. “Two to three years ago, I would have definitely never talked about this with my family,” Shokar said. “From my experiences on campus and working with [the Men’s Activism Program,] I’ve just learned so much about how to start a conversation and how to approach people of different backgrounds and mentalities, so now I’m able to talk to them about this.”