As members of the Auburn community light candles for a vigil, they each hold up a hand to block the chilly evening wind from extinguishing the flame.
“The light from our candles stands for our commitment to supporting victims,” said Melissa Orr of Women’s Advocacy Group. “The challenge of keeping our candles lit in the wind represents the challenge to find healing in the face of unsupportive friends and family and the commitment to take a stand when a system of justice has closed its doors.”
The candlelight vigil was part of Take Back the Night — one of many events hosted by Auburn University for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
This year’s theme is “Embrace Your Voice.” Annette Kluck, assistant provost for Women’s Initiatives, has coordinated events all month within that theme. One such event kicked off the month by having participants sign a banner on the Haley Concourse.
The banner had three prompts — “I am,” “I stand” and “I believe.” People signed their names along with a response, such as “I’m a survivor” and “I stand with love.”
The office has also worked to teach students to engage in politics and effect change through an advocacy training session held earlier this month.
“The state of Alabama has actually some fairly out-of-date laws related to sexual assault in terms of how it’s defined, who can be a victim,” Kluck said. “One of the pieces is that a person has to forcefully, physically resist, which obviously gets really complicated if someone’s incapacitated … Anyone who has an open container beverage, even if it’s unsweet iced tea, could have something inserted into their drink and not know it.”
In some states, penetration isn’t required for sexual assault to have occurred and someone of any gender can claim sexual assault. Kluck said these are examples of laws that don’t penalize the victim.
Although this advocacy training was focused on sexual assault, Kluck said the goal was also to help audience members learn how to be heard so they can advocate for other issues as well.
A documentary film, “Rape on the Night Shift,” was also recently shown on campus. This film explored how custodial workers are affected by sexual assault, especially those who work late shifts. This film was followed by a panel discussion.
“One of the things the film really points out is you don’t need a lot to create your own custodial service, like a mop, a bucket and a broom,” Kluck said. “So you have a lot of pop-up services that probably are illegal.”
The film followed companies that have had lawsuits because of a failure to respond to complaints or to provide safe working environments for workers. In the discussion that followed, Kluck said the panelists shared their experiences and discussed why someone might wait to report a sexual assault.
“Individuals respond differently to trauma,” she said. “In particular, if you’re worried about your own safety, that might lead a person to remain silent.”
There was another film screening on Monday — “It Happened Here.” This film focused on sexual assault on college campuses, and a discussion followed the film.
“A lot of the discussion was focused on the importance of not pushing the survivor to do something,” Kluck said. “Survivors have already been in a situation where their independence, their autonomy, their ability to decide what to do with their own body has been violated, and so it’s critical to not push a survivor into doing something.”
On Auburn’s campus, students, faculty and staff have the opportunity to use Safe Harbor, a 24-hour confidential advocacy service that provides immediate support to victims of dating and domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
“We know that sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes,” said Melissa McConaha, coordinator of Violence Prevention & Survivor Advocacy. “Our numbers have actually gone up quite a bit over the last two years. Sometimes that makes people nervous to hear, but that is not an indication that violence is happening at any greater rate.”
Switching to a 24-hours-a-day hotline and implementing new marketing strategies has increased awareness and perhaps thereby increased the number of reports, McConaha said.
“I still think we are underserving for a community our size,” she said. “But I’m so thankful that more survivors are reaching out for support.”
When individuals affected by sexual assault do call Safe Harbor, McConaha said representatives help discuss options with them. If they decide a visit to the hospital is best, Safe Harbor can help them understand what to expect from the experience, help confirm a forensic exam time and help them navigate the hospital check-in and triage. They also assist with follow-up services.
To use this resource, call 334-844-SAFE, drop in to the office in Student Center Room 1206 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. McConaha recommends that victims call right away if something happens and not to use email in an emergency situation.
Rape Counselors of East Alabama is a similar resource that members of Lee, Macon, Tallapoosa and Chambers counties can use. Like Safe Harbor, RCEA provides free and confidential services to those who have experienced sexual violence. You can call their 24-hour hotline at 334-705-0510 or email them at email@example.com.
Auburn Chief of Police Paul Register said that in Auburn sexual assaults usually occur between two people who are acquaintances or friends, not strangers.
“The sexual assaults we see often involve alcohol,” Register said. “We may have a situation where people would be out with acquaintances or friends and then there'd be alcohol consumption in the suspect and there'd be inappropriate sexual contact or sexual assault.”
The Uniform Crime Reporting statistics say that 11 rapes were reported in 2016, eight in 2015, 19 in 2014 and six in 2013. Register said he hasn’t seen any trends of an increase or decrease in numbers.
“We want to have all sexual assaults reported to us,” Register said. “But we understand that some people are hesitant to speak to others about a private matter like that ... We’re just happy to help. We encourage people to reach out to us and report those kind of things.”
If you are in an emergency situation, call 911. For non-emergencies, you can call Auburn Public Safety at 334-501-3110.