The stigma around rape and sexual assault persists on college campuses across the nation — but change can happen on a community level.
The emotional and physical repercussions for rape and sexual assault survivors are high, and while there is no one cure-all resource, there are people around Athens who have have come together to create a community that survivors can turn to for healing.
Sally Sheppard is the executive director of The Cottage, Sexual Assault Center & Children’s Advocacy Center. She has a masters in social work from the University of Georgia and has worked with victims of sexual assault and abuse for over 15 years.
The Cottage was in danger of closing in 2007 when she took over as executive director.
“When I took this position, this agency was failing because it had a lot of different executive directors in a short amount of time, which created inconsistent leadership, which created bad service,” Sheppard says.
During her time in this position, she has created a lot of change at The Cottage.
“I took on this job and helped rebuild this agency and rebuild our services and our staff so that, I believe, we’re one of the best sexual assault centers and children's advocacy centers in Georgia,” Sheppard says.
The Cottage offers many services for survivors for the many avenues they could take with their journey. Survivors are offered individual and group therapy, in-house medical exams and advocates to help them navigate the system of law enforcement. The center is also a hub of resources for parents or caretakers of a child who has survived abuse.
Each component is important depending on the needs of the individual, but Sheppard sees therapy as one of the most productive resources for survivors of all kinds.
“The job [of therapy] is to help them process [their experience] in a way that is healthy and give them a space to express themselves — no matter how uncomfortable or upsetting it might be — and then not put judgement on that as well,” Sheppard says.
Graphic by Clarke Modlin
Individual therapy is only one service The Cottage offers that survivors can turn to for support. Mary Dulong, groups coordinator at the center, organizes support groups for child and teen survivors.
“Individual therapy is awesome, but with [groups therapy], especially for kids, to get in a room with other kids who have been sexually abused and know that you’re not crazy or alone — that’s amazing to help rebuild their self-esteem as well,” Sheppard says.
Dulong also coordinates an 11-week program called HEROES to support children between the ages of 5-11, which ends with a graduation ceremony to celebrate all the progress the children made.
“When the kids start, a lot of them are very shy and nervous, and it’s completely understandable,” Dulong says. “And then as you see throughout the weeks that they progress, they just open up and they bond with each other and their adult volunteer. Then by the end of it on graduation night, they’re smiling, they’re happy, they feel like they’ve accomplished something and have really started the healing process.”
The Cottage also has a teen support group that offers teens a positive place to talk and learn skills like self-esteem building, Dulong says.
The Cottage doesn’t only support survivors. The center has several programs focused on educating caregivers and other adults on how to recognize and respond to sexual assault and sexual assault survivors.
Dulong also facilitates an outreach program called Safe Dates designed to teach 6th to 12th graders about healthy relationships and the signs of dating abuse. She recently brought the program to Clarke Middle School.
“I think it’s important for us to educate kids in that age range because it’s their reality,” Dulong says. “It’s what they’re going through right now — they are forming relationships and are going to potentially start dating.”
This isn’t the only way the center reaches out to the community. Interns from The Cottage visited some sorority houses at UGA to talk to the members about resources available at the center. Dulong says the center received calls from girls who got The Cottage’s information this way.
“You never know who you’re going to impact or who’s going to actually hear or benefit from the small information we provide,” Dulong says.
UGA students and rape culture
Dulong wants to start conversations around rape and sexual assault because she feels these tough subjects are rarely tackled. People carry that ignorance with them through their life, and they can overlook, enable or even cultivate rape culture.
“I think it’s so important to talk about these things with the younger kids now, so that when they do get into college, they might be more prepared or they might have a better understanding of what rape culture is and what a healthy relationship looks like,” Dulong says.
We asked dozens of UGA students across campus what rape culture meant to them, and a few students didn’t know the term nor knew how to talk about rape.
“For [UGA students’] response to be that they may not know what rape culture is or may not have the information -- it’s understandable, because we as a society tend not to talk about the fact of the matter that rape culture does happen, and it’s real,” Dulong says.
“I’m actually not sure what rape culture means,” says Destiny McClain, a junior marketing major from Michigan. “I feel like, maybe it’s this thing about rape on campus and how it’s a problem at universities and on college campuses, but I’ve never heard the term ‘rape culture.’”
Graphic by Clarke Modlin
Despite being unfamiliar with that particular term, McClain agrees with Dulong as to why some college-aged students don’t know the specifics of what’s being said in the dialogue around rape and sexual assault.
“I think that basically [rape] is something that we just don’t talk about,” McClain says. “It’s more like a taboo topic. We don’t really talk about it as much as we should.”
Not only was McClain aware of why UGA students may be uninformed about rape culture, she went on to outline some of its symptoms such as blaming survivors of rape instead of holding the offender accountable.
“It’s a touchy subject and I feel like sometimes we blame -- usually it’s a female who is raped -- and sometimes we blame the victim,” McClain says. “And so, we don’t really sympathize with them. We don’t really take their emotions into consideration.”
Not understanding rape can lead to dangerous consequences, as other UGA students noted.
“[Rape culture includes] complacency and a lack of being informed,” says Marshall Reed, a sophomore English major from Watkinsville. “I feel like that describes the defining characteristics that I see — people not being informed, and so thinking that the little things they do aren’t impactful or aren’t indicative of rape culture.”
Even actions that seem inconsequential, such as jokes, have wide-reaching effect, as one student observes.
“I would define rape culture as living in a society where some men hurt girls and do not take into account what they are doing,” says Abby Moeller, a freshman early childhood education major from Snellville. “They don't see it as a big deal or as harmful, like how people sometimes make jokes about genocide, which lessens the seriousness of its offense.”
Graphic by Clarke Modlin
In McClain’s case, she was aware of rape culture, but not the terminology around rape. This is another reason why Dulong sees the value in teaching young people about unhealthy relationships and behaviors.
“Because we don’t talk about [rape,] and it’s more of a hush-hush topic, people in middle school, high school and then going into college, they see it, but they just don’t know the word to attach to it,” Dulong says.
As for how to combat unawareness, Dulong suggested honest communication.
“The best approach would be to just be honest, and try to have an open conversation about the realities of sexual abuse and the prevalence of it —especially how prevalent it can be on college campuses,” Dulong says.
One student can already see the effects of open dialogue such as on Facebook and among his friends.
“There’s just been a lot of pushback against [the way rape is treated as] secret [and] shady. No one talks about it, but it happens all the time, and people think it’s okay,” says Zach Chatham, a junior history and public relations major from Commerce.
Chatham hopes the conversations will break barriers around the subject and pave the way for a new approach.
“We’re trying to sort of shift this narrative and make [rape] something that we can talk about, and something that we address and something that we change,” he says.
Reporting and waiting
Allegations of child abuse must be reported, but adults seeking support for current or past sexaul assault do not have to go through law enforcement to access services at the center.
In fact, the stigma surrounding rape and sexual assault can discourage many survivors from reporting what happened to them. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63 percent of sexaul assaults go unreported.
In Athens-Clarke County, the data for 2015 says that 58 cases of rape were reported. When compared to other reported crimes such as 117 robberies, 334 aggravated assaults and 933 burglaries, the number of unreported cases can suddenly fall into perspective.
The social stigma is only part of what survivors face when reporting. Reporting a sexual assault to the police involves a medical exam and a dive into the criminal justice system, which can be intimidating and overwhelming for someone who is unfamiliar with these processes.
However, for those that choose to report, The Cottage seeks to make that process as easy as possible. Sheppard added an in-house medical examiner to the services at the center, so survivors can go through The Cottage for this process.
Graphic by Clarke Modlin
Sheppard feels that the law enforcement in Athens cooperates with their own services to offer each survivor the support they are looking for.
“I think that [the ACCPD] respects the victim's right not to report to law enforcement…” Sheppard says. “If they hear that the adult does not want to report to law enforcement, then they politely step away. If they do hear [the survivor] does want to report to law enforcement, then they call us, and we are able to assist with that.”
To assist survivors during the legal process, The Cottage also offers legal advocacy, which means providing “emotional support throughout prosecution of the offender and may also include attending and supporting survivors through court hearings,” according to the center’s website.
Still, the law enforcement and justice system process can often be a long road and sometimes it may never end. Many cases don’t even result in arrests. In 2016, the UGA Police Department had reports of 17 rapes with no arrests.
Athens as whole, like many communities, still has room for growth, but the resources and sentiments of The Cottage are just one outlet of support.
Students, residents and community members can continue pushing for progress. Open conversation is an essential cornerstone toward creating a society that actively pushes back against rape and rape culture.
“Don’t be scared about talking about things that aren’t normally talked about,” Dulong says.