Written by Rebekah Edwards.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2016 “Narrative” Issue.
Slut shaming, victim blaming, and blatant dismissal have created a culture of silence and shame regarding sexual violence on college campuses. Recently, schools across the country have been called out on rampant sexual violence, including UT where a reported 18.5% of female undergraduates experience sexual assault.
The rising awareness around sexual violence has prompted several initiatives on UT’s campus in particular that are finally challenging the status quo in favor of survivors’ stories.
Caitlin Sulley is a Research Project Director for the on-campus Institute for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a research organization housed at the School of Social Work partnered with the School of Law, the School of Nursing, and the Bureau for Business Research. After attending UT for her graduate work, she dedicated her career to supporting and empowering survivors of sexual violence as they navigate the criminal justice system.
In an interview, Sulley said that UT’s expansive resources and nationwide connections provide her the chance “to build knowledge around interpersonal violence” and, as she added with a sly chuckle, “to use what starts here to change the world.”
With this goal in mind, Sulley co-created the Blueprint for Campus Police over a two-year period, which was published at the end of February. The near-200 page document details a plan to revamp how campus law enforcement interacts with students who have been sexually assaulted.
“Historically, law enforcement have somewhat universal responses to crimes,” Sulley observed, noting that they are primarily interested in the hard facts.
This approach, however, does not account for the memory fragmentation that often accompanies trauma. Blueprint remedies this by posing questions that focus on sensory details, allowing the survivor to tell their own version of the instance without the pressure to recall memories that are unclear, distressing, or simply nonexistent.
This restores “choice and control” to the survivor, a crucial step in ensuring that their voice is heard, starting “the path to healing.”
Through her years of working directly with survivors, Sulley became aware of how challenging it is to report traumatic experiences, due not only to the complicated legal process that follows but also to the cultural reception of those now-public stories. Blueprint is an effort to “dispel the myths” and “educate about the realities” surrounding campus sexual assault so that “survivors are believed.”
As an academic institution, UT has “particular responsibilities” for student survivors, who “come with the goal to learn, to thrive, and to grow.” A campus community that can “rally around and support those survivors who have made that difficult decision” to speak out is imperative to their success.
From Blueprint and other UT organizations, such as Voices Against Violence, to high-profile cases like those of Bill Cosby and Ke$ha, visibility and awareness of survivors’ experiences is rapidly increasing. Every restorative response and act of prevention is “a sign of a culture shift,” Sulley says, toward a more accepting and receptive society. Each shared story is a survivor reclaiming their agency, “saying ‘I have the right to hold others accountable for what they did.’”