Into their own hands: Students vital in discussions on sexual assault

Posted on Oct 27 2016 - 10:01am by Zoe McDonald

*This article contains sensitive and explicit content 

Another in the myriad resources available to sexual assault survivors has emerged over the past year, one led by the most common victims: students.

Whereas the Violence Prevention Office is made up of Lindsey Bartlett Mosvick and one graduate assistant, and the Title IX office has one coordinator, Honey Ussery, Rebels Against Sexual Assault has drawn more than 350 students who now receive their emails, according to President Sydney Green.

RASA began as a suggestion at a recurring event on campus, the showing of the 2015 CNN documentary, “The Hunting Ground.”

International studies major Elizabeth Romary, then a sophomore, attended the event in spring 2015. There, she and other future RASA leaders planted a seed for change in the university.

This was the second time Romary had watched “The Hunting Ground.” Earlier that year, when she saw it in a crowded movie theatre, she realized for the first time that she had been sexually assaulted.

Until it happens to you

“When I really became aware of the issue was when it happened to me,” Romary said, calmly sipping her coffee as the evening bustle echoed through the atrium outside High Point Coffee during a recent interview.

“I wasn’t raped,” she said. “What happened was sexual assault, but I didn’t know it at the time because it was not rape.”

About three years ago, Romary was entering the second weekend of her freshman year. She was at her first fraternity party with a group of friends.

Romary said she was hesitant to say it happened at a fraternity party, because “It does not reflect how I view those men.”

“So, I was with a group of friends,” Romary began matter of factly. “I wasn’t really drinking, so I was like, ‘I need to be aware of what’s going on around me.’ So we were there, and we were hanging out, and all of a sudden, I kind of got separated from them.”

Someone Romary hadn’t met before approached her on the large fraternity house balcony and began flirting with her.

Romary thanked him but wasn’t interested in anything more. She was dating someone at the time and told him so.

Suddenly, his hand went for the back of her neck, gripping her hard so that Romary said she could feel his fingernails in her skin. He pulled her toward him, and Romary said, “he legitimately shoved his tongue down my throat.”  Immediately, Romary pushed back.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah. No, no, no, no. I don’t want that. I don’t want that,” Romary said as she remembered her initial reaction.

The grip on the back of her neck tightened.

“Yes you do. No one’s ever not wanted it with me,” she remembers him saying.

Romary suddenly felt his hand slide down the waistband of her shorts.

“Stop!” She said.

“Stop fighting,” he said. “You know you want it.”

He began pushing her through the doorway, to the hallway. At this point, Romary said, she began going into shock. She began to feel the situation was out of her control. A party whirled around her, and the public environment became a supplement to her fear.

“For some reason I thought in my head, ‘Maybe I’m misunderstanding what’s going on.’ I don’t know. I was scared. I was really scared at that point,” she said.

His hand remained on her neck as he pushed her toward rooms off the hallway. He shoved her against a wall, and his hand forced its way up her shorts a second time.

She kept repeating the word, “Stop,” to no avail to him or the shock that had taken over her body.

“At that point he was holding me up, or else I would have collapsed on the ground because I was so stunned at what was going on,” she said.

He pushed her toward a bedroom door. As it began to swing open, thoughts of what might happen next flashed through her mind.

Romary heard a voice approaching.

“Honestly, this was the voice of my guardian angel, and I don’t usually believe stuff like that.”

“Hey man. Stop. She said stop,” one of the two boys approaching her and the assailant said.

“No, she wants it. Mind your own business.”

Seeing the fear in Romary’s eyes, one of the guys who intervened said, “No she doesn’t. She’s petrified. Look at her.”

“I guess I was shaking and I kind of, like, flinched, and he was like, ‘I’m taking you back to your friends,’ he said, ‘I saw you with them earlier. I know where they are.’”

And she was returned to her group of friends.

“Stay safe,” he said.

And that was it. Romary was left with a vague memory of her assailant’s features, and even less about the two men who had saved her.

Elizabeth Romary had just become part of the 10 percent, according to National Institute of Justice statistics, of survivors who don’t know the perpetrator prior to the assault.

Romary was shaken, but she hid her shock. By the time she made it back to her friends, she could pretend nothing had happened.

And what followed was reflection, questioning and silence as she came to terms with that night.

“And the thing was, I didn’t know at the time that was considered sexual assault. I thought I was being harassed and coerced into something I didn’t want to do. But I equated sexual assault with rape, and in my situation it was stopped before it could get to that point.”

“And then I thought, ‘The guy was really drunk; maybe he’s not like that when he’s normal. Maybe I was drunk. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn the shorts that I wore.’ I started doing the whole victim-blaming thing on myself, because it’s like, you just think that way. I can’t help it,” Romary said.

As Elizabeth watched “The Hunting Ground” more than a year later, she thought, “Oh my god. I am like one of these girls.”

RASA’s beginning

After her second viewing of the movie, a panel discussion began with Lindsey Bartlett Mosvick and the former Title IX coordinator. That’s when Romary asked if they could start a student group focused on the issue, much to the interest of other students at the event.

“So, Lindsey opened up her big red notebook, and we wrote our names down and our emails down. She got in contact with me over the summer, and the rest is history.”

The group, including current RASA President Sydney Green, Paige Ryder and current RASA Director of Formal Affairs Corbin Smith, began emailing with Bartlett Mosvick to make the organization official with a constitution, rules and a mission to spread awareness about the issue through education.

Elizabeth Romary

Elizabeth Romary poses at a recent RASA event. Photo courtesy: Elizabeth Romary

That fall, Romary was president of the young organization through its “learning year” — its first meetings, first “It’s On Us” week and the formation of a peer education program.

Bartlett Mosvick said she was thrilled with the initial suggestion and RASA’s reception.

“I knew that getting students actively involved would be the key to making an even greater difference for our campus community,” she said. “I was hopeful it would grow, but it’s been beyond my expectations — so many students care, attend meetings and events and join our Listservs. The response has been overwhelming.”

One of the first events RASA held was “It’s On Us” week, a week-long event centered around a White House campaign launched in 2014 to help spread awareness and education on ending sexual assault.

This fall, Romary not only works to organize “It’s On Us” programming at Ole Miss but helps strengthen and spread the program nationally as part of a 28-member student advisory committee to the campaign.

In Romary’s position as a national student advisor, as well as RASA’s director of “It’s On Us” programming, she shares ideas with students from schools across the states, including military colleges. Most recently, she went to Washington, D.C., to share ideas and meet with Vice President Joe Biden, who has been a vocal advocate for ending campus sexual assault throughout his term.

“So, we’re the ones that really reach out to the schools and spread the program,” Romary said. “Because ‘It’s On Us,’ first and foremost, is a grassroots organization, so it kind of builds from the bottom up because we can’t have a national presence without having a really strong local presence all over the country.”

After RASA held “It’s On Us” week in solidarity with the University of Alabama last year, she fell in love with the program and its focus on bystander intervention, a prevention method Romary holds close to her heart.

Activating students

Bystander intervention is the evidence-based most effective way to stop sexual assaults from occurring, according to Bartlett Mosvick. It was also one of the motivators behind forming and sustaining a student group.

“That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to help start RASA,” Romary said. “It’s not only to inform people about what consent is and what the university policy of consent is but how to be a good bystander. If you see something, say something. I have always been a fan of that … Those two guys were super direct about it. They didn’t try to distract me. They didn’t try to find my friends first, because they knew something bad was going to happen. They were like ‘stop.’ And then the other guys was like, ‘You look scared; I’m taking you back to your friends.’ Like, that’s awesome.”

Last spring, any form of bystander intervention became lost to the Sigma Chi fraternity during its annual Derby Days philanthropy event, which took a turn to sexual harassment when lewd comments were made about female participants. After the reaction, which stemmed from a Facebook post made by sophomore international studies major Abby Bruce, the fraternity event was investigated and brought to the university judicial board, where it received a set of sanctions. The fraternity appealed those initial sanctions, according to Clay Wooley, Sigma Chi president and senior mechanical engineering major, to allow for more focus on education.

“The original ones were appropriate sanctions,” Wooley said. “But we thought, ‘How do we progress this? How do we make a lasting change?’”

So the fraternity, at times joined by other groups affiliated with Greek life, isolated issues that needed to be revised.

Hack Smith, a sophomore managerial finance major trained as a peer educator at the start of this fall semester, also serves as an ethics chair for the fraternity to keep events within the perimeters of university policy. Working with RASA President Sydney Green and Wooley on plans for presentations to the Sigma Chi chapter and new pledge class, the peer education application came up, and Smith applied.

“I felt, in order not only to prevent an event like (Derby Days) happening not only in Sigma Chi but on campus, we just need to get the word out,” Smith said. “Because people didn’t know when Derby Days happened that it was sexual assault until someone made it known. And so in order to keep that from happening again, people need to be informed about it. And so that’s starting conversation, which is the No. 1 thing to start doing. I thought that was a platform I could use within Sigma Chi to get the conversation started.”

Smith serving as a peer educator and ethics chair for the organization is not part of their sanctions but rather a supplement to them. As part of the sanctions, the new pledge class will attend a peer education session led by Smith, and the chapter will hold a two-day Title IX workshop with coordinator Honey Ussery and Bartlett Mosvick in November.

“At the event,” Wooley said, “We also realized that it wasn’t okay, and we just didn’t do enough to stop it. That was the second mistake. The first was that it happened in the first place, and the second wasn’t doing enough to stop it. I think the education on campus and the work that RASA did is what brought that to the forefront.”

Romary, who only became comfortable enough to share her story with those closest to her about a year ago, still thinks about the two men who intervened that night her freshman year.

I feel like if one of those guys hadn’t stepped in and the guy just carried out what he wanted to do, I don’t know if I’d be sitting in front of you right now. I just don’t know,” Romary said. “It’s different for everybody…you just don’t know how you’re going to act. So I owe them my life, and I owe them the experiences I’ve had at the university, and I really wish I knew who they were.”

Power in knowledge

The well-known one-in-five statistic appeared on screens in front of a group of new sorority members during a recent peer education program. Of the 130 new members in the room, Romary said, “That means 26 may experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by the time y’all graduate.”

Peer educators, or trained students who are equipped to educate the community on university policy on sexual misconduct, explain consent, amnesty and various forms of sexual misconduct. They discuss alcohol and the affect it has on one’s ability to consent. They explain how to tell with a simple blackout detection method if someone might be too drunk to consent.

This education, these tools, are being shared with student groups across campus by 22 peer educators who apply through a written and interview process and who promise to uphold the same principles they are sharing with other students. They are required to attend training with Bartlett Mosvick. Some of the trainings have also included the university’s Title IX coordinator and representatives from Family Crisis Services.

This Monday, Hack Smith joined Corbin Smith and Sydney Green for his first education presentation at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. “Sydney and Corbin wanted me there because I am a part of a Greek organization, and it’s just better to reach them if there’s a guy up there talking about it.”

“It’s a lot easier to reach your audience if you can relate to them, and that’s in anything, but especially with a subject like this,” he said.

Though the program is very new to Ole Miss, Bartlett Mosvick said the idea has been around for decades.

“Research shows that peer education is effective around prevention,” she said. “Students are always more receptive to other students than they are to professionals like my office, Title IX or UPD. Students also know how best to reach and communicate to each other. Working with the peer educators has undoubtedly made me a better educator as well.”

According to the university’s annual safety report, educational programming has steadily become more prevalent across campus. The Violence Prevention Office held 130 educational programs in 2015, before RASA had begun utilizing a peer education program without the presence of Bartlett Mosvick or her assistant. In 2014, the Violence Prevention Office held 84 programs; however, the 2014 programs saw more attendees — around 2,000 more — than the 2015 programs. The University Police Department also amped up programming, holding 106 more in 2015 than in 2014. The department reported a rise in attendance by more than 3,000 people in 2015.

Now that peer educators can host sessions themselves, Bartlett Mosvick said she plans to report the student-led program numbers separately in the future.

Part of students’ training workshops entails examining and answering a large list of possible questions. According to Romary and Corbin Smith, one of the of the most-raised questions during peer education sessions also happens to be one of the most difficult to answer: What if both parties are drunk when they engaged in consent or simply don’t remember?

The situation, both Corbin Smith and Romary agree, exists in a gray-area, but power rests in the individual. If someone feels at all violated or that he or she would not have given consent, that person should say something or seek resources with which he or she is comfortable.

RASA and the peer education program are still young, but its effects are palpable, especially in empowering college students, the age group most susceptible to experiencing sexual assaults. In the end, it’s simple. It’s about providing students with an awareness of what’s right and wrong. It’s about giving students the power over their bodies, minds and personal space. It’s about understanding that consent must be affirmative and can be revoked at any time. It’s about equipping people with the tools to intervene in situations that could escalate into something potentially dangerous or detrimental to one or both parties.

Now, RASA and Romary gear up to present Ole Miss’ second annual “It’s On Us” week from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4. Students can take the “It’s On Us” pledge, rally outside Fulton Chapel as RASA presents its first proposal to the Lyceum detailing requests that aim to strengthen campus resources, and view “The Hunting Ground,” the film that, in a way, started it all.