Recurring Damage from Sexual Assault and Harassment

I work at Michigan State University, have seen how the Title IX reporting process works from the inside, and have watched the Larry Nassar case unfold from close up. I am not sure most people understand how traumatic simply reading or watching the news can be for those of us who have experienced sexual assault and harassment. The Nassar case brought up my own history of sexual violence, and I found myself struggling to do even the most mundane tasks. I laid on the couch for a weekend, trying to escape into books or television to avoid the internal trauma I was experiencing. The trauma of assault is ever present, even after years of therapy.

The Nassar case was an assault that went far beyond his victims. The whirlwind of emotions this case triggered can relate to both the initial violation and the pain associated with reporting the misconduct and the bureaucracy of the Title IX system. I have spoken with several students who were so triggered by the Nassar case that they were unable to do simple tasks.  For some, the act of getting out of bed was difficult, let alone going to class. Some victims of sexual assault or harassment are able to seek out counseling to address the effects of their assaults. Seeking help takes energy and effort (and money), and the depression that can set in after a triggering event can often get in the way of seeking help. Sexual assault is a vicious, recurring event that revisits us in our minds and bodies. I know my own health and well-being were and continue to be affected.

For over two years I have been tracking academic sexual misconduct. The documenting of these events can in itself be triggering, and I recently had to take a two week break to preserve my own sanity. This is necessary labor, but it can be more draining than I initially realized. I have resources, privilege attendant to my position, and a supportive network of friends, family, and pets (unconditional love is amazing!). I can only imagine how difficult triggering events must be for student, many of whom have fewer resources than I do.

What can faculty do? I strongly encourage faculty to recognize that students can be negatively affected by all sorts of events, from national news about sexual assault to school shootings. We all have personal histories, and those histories affect us differently. Try to put yourself in your students’ shoes, and imagine what you would need from your professors. You can reach out to students without invading anyone’s privacy – there is no need to ask for details. Instead, look into the resources offered by your university and create a short list of the best resources. I created two sheets of institutional resources (MSUresources) to post on my door and upload to course websites – perhaps you can create something similar for your own spaces.