Is WashU really a safe space? Why narratives of campus safety must include sexual violence

| Managing Forum Editor

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence and contains sensitive language regarding unwanted sexual contact. See the editor’s note below the article for resources.

Maybe you did a quick Google search of “WashU safety” before committing to this university. Maybe you’ve overheard a Washington University parent ask about student safety on a campus tour. Maybe you’ve even seen the Reddit threads of WashU applicants asking how safe the campus is. 

In each of these instances, the violence in question is often portrayed as something coming from outside of the WashU bubble, perpetuated by strangers — never students. Narratives of St. Louis as an “unsafe” city that circulate campus influence our perceptions of violence: both how we define it, as well as where we think it comes from. 

Is WashU safe? If we reframe our understanding of what “violence” is and what forms it can take, the answer to that question becomes much more complicated. 

When considering campus safety, we often exclude sexual assault from our definitions of violence, despite its prevalence on our campus. According to WashU’s 2019 campus climate survey, 13% of WashU students — and 27% of WashU undergraduate women — responded that they had experienced “penetration or sexual touching involving physical force, inability to consent or stop what was happening, or attempted penetration by force.” An even larger percentage of undergraduate women — 42.5% — experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact using physical force, inability to consent, or coercion without voluntary agreement” during their four years at WashU. And these numbers are likely lower than the reality due to how survivors often do not identify their experiences as sexual violence, even if their experiences fit a survey’s definition. 

Violence is more likely to come from someone you know — especially on college campuses, where the survivor knows their perpetrator in 90% of reported cases. Survivors who know their perpetrator may not tell anyone or may wait months or years to disclose assault for a variety of factors, such as fearing their own safety in future interactions with that person as well as the reality that a relationship with a once-trusted individual does not necessarily disappear  overnight. 

Narratives of violence as solely coming from strangers fail to account for the complexities that may arise in instances of violence from someone you know. These misconceptions further perpetuate victim-blaming rhetoric that only increase the feelings of guilt and shame that further discourage survivors from reporting sexual violence. We therefore have to challenge our very definitions of violence itself. If we imagine violence as strictly physical or forceful in nature, for example, we omit the various ways violence can manifest, especially in the realm of gender-based violence, through dynamics of coercion or emotional abuse.

Two years ago, during my first year at WashU, I wrote an article reflecting on the 2,505 purple pinwheels lining Mudd Field to represent survivors of sexual violence on our campus. I concluded with my hope that, despite the need for larger, systemic change, individual action can have significant impacts in approaching campus violence.

Purple flags are lined up next to a path by Mudd Field. A student walks on the path in the left of the image. Elle Su | Student Life

2,505 purple flags line Mudd Field as a representation of students who have experienced nonconsensual sexual activity at WashU.

Now, as a junior, part of me still holds onto that hope, and another part of me feels a bit more pessimistic, due to both factors on our campus and narratives within media. Last year saw one of the most open outpourings of victim-blaming comments, misogynistic hate, and rape culture narratives — such as harmful expectations of the so-called “perfect victim” — through the internet’s collective dogpiling onto Amber Heard. 

Within the WashU community, WashU Graduate Workers Union recently protested the University’s failures to address and combat sexual harassment at the medical campus. This year, when I see the purple flags surrounding Mudd Field, I am confronted with what I reflected on in my article two years ago, of the prevalence of sexual violence on our campus and the amount of survivors it has impacted. But I am also confronted with the reality that the people often perpetrating that violence are part of — and remain a part of — our student body.

It’s easier for us to label violence as coming from elsewhere — anywhere but within our WashU bubble — because then we don’t have to think about the reality of violence for many on our campus, and we don’t have to recognize that the people perpetrating that violence can also be students. It’s an unsettling feeling.

It’s easy for the takeaway to be that there is no safe space at WashU — that we simply can’t trust anyone, and that’s that. But I find hope through developing better understandings of the dynamics of sexual violence to challenge the perpetuation of violence, rape culture, and victim-blaming narratives. Violence is happening on our campus. It’s something we should be uncomfortable with; the purple flags around Mudd Field allow us to dwell on these realities, confronting the fact that violence isn’t something that only lurks in the shadows off-campus, coming from the outside. 

Editor’s Note: The Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H) provides confidential and anonymous support regarding sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner and sexual violence, relationships, and mental and sexual health. It can be reached at 314-935-8080 24/7 during the fall and spring academic semesters.

There are counselors at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center, located in Seigle Hall, Suite 435, available confidentially to any University student. The office can be reached at 314-935-3445 or by email at [email protected].

The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673 or via online chat here 24/7.

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