Among the many extracurricular activities with which I fill my time, I am member of the Student Council of the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women. What do we do? Well, not much. Or at least not enough for my ambitious and action oriented mind, but I do not wish to belittle the commission’s contributions. It does make an impact on campus, and the associated frustrations seem endemic to committees in general.
Today that impact, or its potential, was brought home to me in a new way. We held our first open student council session, inviting anyone to attend and speak to us about issues affecting women at UNL. Eating disorders, maternity leave, and health insurance were all discussed, but the most moving was the story of a strong young woman who spoke very candidly and bravely about a sexual assault and the ensuing aftermath. The most damning portion of the entire incident was her subsequent harassment by the police entrusted to protect her and the utter failure of all the mechanisms in place here at the university to help bring her any measure of justice or closure.
I am thankful for my fellow council members, all people of great insight and compassion, educated in sociology, gender studies, anthropology and other human sciences. As the woman in question began relating her tale, it became quickly evident that my pointed questions (“Did you file a complaint with the police? What do you mean they wouldn’t let you?”) were not the appropriate way to approach the problem. This was something my ‘fixing’ nature could not so easily rectify. I took my cue from my colleagues and instead listened.
At first I was confused that no one spoke out, calling for action, but soon I realized that by allowing space and continuing to listen, the young woman would fill the silence and we would all learn her story. It was a tragic and horrifying experience and it made me contemplate what it must be like to feel truly helpless.
I remember how helpless I felt a few years ago when I received a callous letter from the University saying they were about to cut off my financial aid. I remember crying and raging against unfair rules and feeling like I could do nothing. Nothing at all. How much worse must it be to feel helpless when confronted not with a threat to your financial security, but with physical violence to your person. To be afraid of retribution for forced complicity in banned activities (fraternization in the dorms), harassed by the people who should be protecting you, threatened with assault charges for fighting the person who hurt you, shunted from department to department, and finally told by women’s advocates and female lawyers that they simply would not help you.
I have never met anyone in person who had undergone such an ordeal. Worry still naws at me, a need to do something, but what can be done when the young woman herself has already lost all faith in the systems supposed to protect her? It has been two years and when asked if she would be willing to revisit the issue, she could only shake her head in sadness, feeling that she had already exhausted all the avenues. She wished, she told us, that the police uniforms were more than just nice clothes.
I have never in my life had so little faith in my police force or my institution. Though I know it happens, it disturbs me greatly that anyone could have gone through such experiences that would cause them to question human nature itself. I have always felt that I had options, choices, actions available to me, even should such violence happen to me.
To know that it could happen and I could do nothing, is a very frightening thing indeed.