The Power of Belief

by Luvina Cooley

Teal is one of the colors associated with sexual assault survivors. In order to show solidarity with victims, Ohio University has given these teal buttons seen here to students, Photo by Luvina Cooley

College move-in is an exciting time for new freshmen. For many, this is their first time away from home, their first time being exposed to new situations and a time for them to discover themselves. However, the first six to eight weeks of the fall semester are also defined by, “The Red Zone.” This is the time that students, especially freshmen, are most likely to be sexually assaulted. This is due to the increase in welcome back parties paired with a general unfamiliarity with the campus and how to avoid dangerous situations. Many colleges, including Ohio University, have recognized this problem and are pushing back against it. Furthermore, the Ohio University Police Department (OUPD) has recently started using science to increase the likelihood of catching the perpetrators.

Traumatic situations, such as an assault, affect the way the brain processes and stores information.  During a traumatic event, two key parts of the brain, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, become hypoactive, or shut down. These parts of the brain are both responsible for memory consolidation. Thus, parts of the brain that aren’t usually responsible for memory have to pick up the slack. This leads to a different process of memory recollection, one that is more dependent on experiential and sensory information, and creates a situation where the typical who, what, when, where, why, and how questions are simply ineffective. These questions can result in no information being provided or conflicting statements, which harms the survivors credibility. As a result, the way police departments interview victims of trauma has to change in order to gain the most accurate information. However, using the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, FETI for short, uses more open-ended questions, such as, “What are you able to tell me about your experience?” and “What are you able to tell me about… the six senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, body sensations)?”

OUPD has taken the initiative to train all of its officers in FETI. This is especially important on a college campus during the Red Zone, and this training has been used by multiple organizations to provide more accurate information, including the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice and the United States Military Police School. OUPD is also working closely with various campus organizations and national campaigns, such as the Start by Believing campaign. This campaign is all about trust, specifically creating a dialogue of immediate belief, not suspicion. By starting with belief, police officers and medical professionals communicating with victims gain everything – trust, relationships and the ability to have open communication. Without this trust, progress cannot be made in finding justice for the victims. 

At Ohio University, the Start by Believing campaign began in 2018 through the joint efforts of OUPD and the Survivor Advocacy Program. They began with a single event, a survivor sharing her story, and it has since grown, encouraging other survivors to share their stories during more events.  It can be easy to only focus on the worst-case scenario, but Start by Believing acknowledges that every survivor’s story is valid. Many people who have shared their stories have felt a sense of empowerment by being able to not only reclaim their experiences but also help validate other people’s experiences.

However, there are also many different avenues for people who want to become better allies for survivors of sexual assault. The most direct way, for people who know survivors, is to simply be a good friend. Just be there for the survivors, in whatever way they need you. It could be letting them talk about how they’re feeling or it could be taking them out and getting their mind off their trauma.

Brie Sivy, an Ohio University spokesperson for Start by Believing and a survivor of sexual assault, described how, “Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just sit in the same room as them, without responding. There isn’t anything you can say that will lessen their pain, but being with them in whatever way they need is important.”

There are also on-campus organizations for those interested in prevention work, such as Better Bystanders. Some of the activities that Better Bystanders are involved in include public health programming on bystander intervention, consent, sexual assault awareness and prevention. There is an application, interview and training process required in order to join this organization, and anyone interested can visit the Better Bystanders page on Bobcat Connect.

However, change is also enacted on a smaller scale. This can be done by attending events such as Start by Believing and Better Bystander sponsored events. Spreading the word about these events is just as important. Perhaps the most direct way to get involved, however, is by combatting any harmful language that you may hear in smaller groups. By changing individual opinions and perceptions, we can start to change our culture and end sexual assault.

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