July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Sexual assault survivors from Rutgers share their stories during 'It's On Us' rally

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez and Dimitri Rodriguez |
Imani Ali, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, shares shares her story prior to Vice President Joe Biden taking the stage at the College Avenue Gymnasium.

In the final hour before former Vice President Joe Biden’s highly anticipated appearance at Rutgers, a series of sexual assault survivors stepped up to the podium to share their stories.

The speakers were comprised of both current and former Rutgers students, many of whom had sought help from the University’s Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA).

One survivor, whose last name has been omitted, began her speech by recounting her first day on campus at Rutgers.

“When my mom said goodbye to me during move-in day two years ago, she told me ‘no matter what, make sure you surround yourself with people you trust and people who keep you safe’. I’m sure she was just being motherly in saying this,” Summer said. “I’m sure she didn’t know that on that same night, I would be raped.”

After that day, Summer said she found herself fighting — through an invasive medical examination, friends questioning the validity of her story, police interrogations and a school investigation where she was forced to come face to face with her attacker — only to be told that there was not enough evidence behind her claim.

“I fought to appeal that decision and then, just when I had done all of the fighting I thought I could do. After months of being blamed, being called a liar and being beat down over and over again, I was gang-raped at a fraternity party. This time by three or four men whose faces I never saw,” she said.

It takes an immense amount of courage to speak about these types of incidents, whether to a friend, a police officer or to the world, Summer said. Nothing about the process is easy, but it is incredibly important.

Summer's experiences prompted her to help other survivors. During her time at Rutgers, she helped create a chapter of No More, an organization that works to reduce stigma and spark dialogue around sexual violence, while encouraging funding, advocacy and prevention.

“What we need to talk about is, not just what happens to assailants and attackers, but what happens to victims,” said Cassandra Grod, a Rutgers alumna. “We need to talk about the grueling aftermath of fighting our demons every day just to get out of bed and perform life’s daily functions.”

After being sexually assaulted during her first year at Rutgers, Grod told the crowd that she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the aftermath of the abuse, she said she had a difficult time reclaiming herself and her body. She found herself facing a legal system and a culture where the brunt of the blame was placed squarely on her. But in certain pockets of the University, she also found vital sources of support.

“It is people like us in this room — survivors, advocates and allies — it is programs like the VPVA and people in positions of great authority like Joe Biden that scream to the Donald Trumps ... that they cannot sweep this under the rug,” Grod said, to roaring applause.

VPVA created and organized the “Turn the Campus Purple” campaign to show solidarity with victims of sexual violence. The week of events culminated to a candlelight vigil on the steps of Brower Commons on Tuesday as well as tonight’s “It’s On Us Rally.” The office provides a wide range of counseling, advice and legal help for survivors.

The University has worked to enhance the VPVA over the last few decades, while also putting money, time and effort into researching the impact of sexual assault and violence on campus. According to a press release, The White House recently used Rutgers as a model for how other institutions should handle sexual assault.

In his speech, Biden praised the University for the extensive work it has done, but also noted the importance of keeping the conversation moving.

“All of the men and women who have come forward as victims, thank you. Thank you for speaking out because every time you do it takes courage,” Biden told the crowd. “Every time these young women come out of the shadows and seek help and the more we know about these acts, the more we can do to prevent them.”

During his time as a senator, Biden famously introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which revolutionized the ways sexual assault and dating violence were spoken about and handled on college campuses. 

He also encouraged women to come forward and share their experiences to a national audience, which created a dialogue in the 1990s that was unprecedented.

“I was convinced that if I could rip the band-aid off the scab and force others to look at it, they would be forced to act. So I went to some very brave women that I knew and I warned them that, if they spoke of these things in front of millions of Americans, they would be judged,” Biden said. “It wasn’t easy for these women to come forward and testify but they did because they wanted to stop what was happening so it wouldn't happen to someone else.”

At Rutgers, every single student has the capability to change the culture that surrounds sexual assault, Biden said, whether by helping a friend find the resources she needs, dissuading others from speaking about women in degrading ways or simply listening to survivors when they share their stories.

“We will succeed in this fight when not a single woman who is abused or raped ever asks herself ‘what did I do,'" Biden said.

Kira Herzog is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. She is the news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @kiraherzog1 for more.

Kira Herzog

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