If you ever encounter someone who doubts the insidious existence of rape culture in America, you need only remind them of the fact that the current president has been recorded saying that he thinks it's okay to "grab [women] by the pussy" or that one of the most highly paid and frequently watched TV personalities is a man who has been the subject of many sexual harassment lawsuits (five of which have been settled to the tune of $13 million). Or you could just point them in the direction of It Happened Here, a powerful documentary that explores and exposes the realities of campus rape and serves as an important indictment against the institutions—such as universities—which perpetuate rape culture, rather than combat it and risk upsetting the status quo.
It Happened Here centers around the testimonies of five campus sexual assault survivors, all of whom have made their experiences public so that their stories could not only work toward dismantling existing and damaging power structures but also help other survivors. Advocacy work like theirs is vital when it comes to getting rid of our society's many false perceptions of campus assault; it's shocking how many people still believe that simply because a woman has consumed alcohol or knew her attacker that she is in some way complicit in her own assault.
Recently, I spoke with Kylie Angell, one of the women featured in It Happened Here. Angell was a nursing student at the University of Connecticut when she was sexually assaulted by a friend of hers in her own dorm room. When Angell reported the assault to the police, an officer told her that "if women would stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, rape wouldn’t keep happening." Though Angell's attacker was initially expelled from the university, he was eventually let back in, and "within an hour of his return, broke his no contact order, stalked and harassed [Angell], and committed more sexual assaults."
When I asked Angell why she thought this kind of behavior was tolerated and this type of system perpetuated, she says, "I think rape culture is such a problem on college campuses partially because universities allow it to be. Every little message they send shows they're complicit in it and creates a feeling on campus where it's like, 'We're okay if you do this.'"
Since her assault, Angell has become a vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors, and it's a position that has helped with her own recovery. She tells me:
Part of what was a catalyst for me to speak out, was realizing that it would help me heal, and that becoming an activist was actually a very helpful way for me to reframe the experience as something that was not just a negative in my life, but something that could be a positive action. And I wanted to be a voice for other people who might not be able to speak out, because they might be scorned or reprimanded by their partner or family, or it would have a socioeconomic impact on them.
Angell is also working through legal means to solve the problem of how institutions handle sexual assault. She explains, "By filing a lawsuit, it showed the University of Connecticut that it needed to be accountable toward survivors and victims. This showed lawmakers and citizens of Connecticut that this problem existed and that survivors and victims would no longer stay silent."
And, of course, it's not just up to sexual assault survivors to talk about the reality of rape culture. It's up to everyone to make sure that sexual assault is talked about honestly and openly, thus getting rid of the shame and stigma surrounding it. Angell says:
Starting at a very young age, people should be told statistics about rape culture and how often people are assaulted on college campuses and in general, so that when something does happen, they aren't shocked by it; I completely was, and when it happened to me, I felt weak and I felt shame and blamed myself. But if I had known about similar experiences, I think I would have been able to seek help a lot sooner.
As Angell points out, "This is a national global issue, it's not just college campuses. This documentary is a fantastic jumping-off point, it's a catalyst toward action against rape."
It Happened Here is airing April 19, in time for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and you can watch an exclusive clip below.