Despite the fall 2012 semester being only a month old, two attempted sexual assaults have already been reported by local police.
On the heels of these crimes, SUNY New Paltz’s 2011 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report was released on Sept. 24 and showed a 30 percent increase in total “forcible sexual offenses,” with four offenses in 2009 rising to 12 in 2011.
“There is no normal or abnormal amount [of sexual offenses], the only acceptable amount is zero in my eyes, ” Chief of University Police David Dugatkin said. “Is it fair to say that having two in such a short period of time in the beginning of a school year is rather unusual and rare? Yes, it is unusual and yes, it is rare… the only number we want to see is zero.”
In comparison to SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Oneonta’s 2011 annual report states that “forcible sexual offenses” went up from one in 2008 and 2009 to two in 2010, both on campus and in residence halls, which are a subset of on campus. There were no reported offenses off campus.
The number of offenses at SUNY Binghamton doubled, with three on campus and in residence halls in 2009 jumping to six in 2011. No offenses were reported off campus either.
According to crime alerts released by the New Paltz Police Department, the first assault took place off of Main Street on Aug. 26 at 2 a.m., while the second occurred in a residence off of North Chestnut Street on Sept. 1. Both victims are female SUNY New Paltz students.
Dugatkin said no suspect has been identified for the first assault, but the police are still conducting the investigation. Maximillian Hunte, 19, of Newburgh, was arrested for the second assault and charged with attempted rape and burglary among other charges.
New Paltz students and organizations have reacted to the assaults.
Rachel Dornheim, a co-facilitator of New Paltz Survivors Support, a community for sexual assault survivors to share their experiences, said sexual assault will not stop until the societal perception of rape changes and people become better informed.
“It sickens me that rapes and sexual assaults are happening on campus, and in New Paltz in general,” Dornheim said. “But they’re going to continue until the shame in reporting is taken away, and proper anti-rape education is put up in its place.”
When it comes to giving out tips on preventing sexual assault, Dugatkin said he is very careful in handling such a delicate matter, as advice can be misconstrued as further victimizing the survivor.
“When I tell people ‘be aware’ or ‘walk with friends’ or ‘have a cell phone,’ I don’t want people to interpret that as if they don’t walk with people and if they don’t have a cell phone and if something happens it’s your fault, because it still isn’t and it’s not true,” Dugatkin said. “I am not saying it to say ‘well you didn’t do that so look at what happened,’ I’m saying it to say maybe it just gives you a little bit extra of a chance.”
This idea of creating an even more victimizing situation for someone who has been assaulted is one that some students believe permeates society.
Petra Vega, president of Take Back the Night, which holds an event every spring semester reclaiming the right to walk through the streets wearing what you want without fear and encouraging solidarity, said victim blaming is an extremely prevalent issue which even the college is subject to and needs to be reversed.
“We live in a rape culture that thrives on shaming the survivor, unequal power relations and the presence of liquid and substance courage; an environment that can be found on any college campus,” Vega said. “Rape and sexual assault survivors are bombarded with ‘blaming the victim’ rhetoric demonstrated through the ways they’re asked, ‘why didn’t you fight back,’ ‘why did you go home with that person’ or ‘why did you drink so much?’ Not once is the blame rightfully put on the person who could not control themselves against invading another individual’s autonomy.”
Vega said she believes victim-blaming stems from an overarching disrespect for rape and rape victims. Similar to other serious issues, Vega said society views rape and sexual assault as “pathological” and “humorous,” noting that our culture is rife with rape jokes.
Recently, rape has been in the national limelight, as various political statements have caused controversy.
These statements, such as Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s reference to rape as another “method of conception” and Republican Rep. Todd Akin’s coinage of “legitimate rape” and assertion that “the female body has ways to shut down that whole thing” when it comes to possible pregnancy from rape, received backlash.
Upon hearing Akin’s words, Vega said his beliefs highlighted the corruption of the “politics of culture” and left her worried for the future.
“Here is a man who I am sure as privileged as he is, has more than enough resources to educate himself about the anatomy of bodies and the realization that many women have abortions because of rape,” Vega said. “And here is a man I’m sure some look up to that is spreading blatant and idiotic lies, only furthering the ignorance surrounding rape culture and the structures in place to support it.”
Although two sexual assaults at the beginning of the year is already high, Dornheim said she “assumes” there have been more due to a problem with underreporting. She said she used to feel the same way many victims do about reporting an attack.
“A few years ago, I had the same mentallity that many people do: There’s no point in trying to report it, because no one will believe me, I don’t have enough evidence, and I wasn’t fighting off my attacker, nor was I threatened with physical violence,” Dornheim said.
A variety of factors keep victims from reporting sexual assaults, such as having to relive the trauma when dealing with police and courts, reporting someone you know, being in a relationship with the attacker and fearing you will be doubted because you were drunk, Dornheim said.
When it comes to preventing rape and sexual assault, Vega said “education is key.” She said that the rape and sexual assault class offered by the Women’s Studies department is taken predominantly by women and would serve a greater purpose if there were more diversity in enrollment.
“Historically, men have been the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault against women and children,” Vega said. “And while not all men rape, there needs to be a more gender-variant dialogue about rape, sexual assault and abuse that can only be had when more than women are discussing the topic.”
As a result of the reality of rape and sexual assault, SUNY New Paltz has a list of resources available on their website.
The school offers professional support and advice from the Psychological Counseling Center, peer support from HAVEN, a hotline for sexual assaults, Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) classes and other services. The list also suggests habits such not walking alone, watching out for friends who have had too much to drink and carrying a cell phone with UPD’s phone number.
Dornheim, however, said she feels these types of safety tips do not do much to address and protect from the real issue at hand.
“Knowing how to punch someone in the nose to buy me time to run to a blue light on campus isn’t going to help me when I’m having sex with my partner and they don’t understand that no means no,” Dornheim said. “I’m really just tired of being told this is what I need to do to prevent myself from being raped, when I see little to none — and most of the time its none — instructions being given on how to not rape someone.”