Advocating for Survivors MSU’s Sexual Assault Program inspires student activism & awareness

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In the basement of the Career Services building, there is a mural representing the four seasons, as well as the ever-changing cycle of healing. Across from there is the entrance to the Sexual Assault Program (MSU SAP) headquarters at MSU. The doors open into a quaint, blue walled room. Lamps are set to a comforting dim, markers for coloring pillows are on the reception desk, other art-minded activities are on a side table and books, tapes and videos are visible and binder resources are found on a small library bookshelf.

During the 1979-80 academic school year, MSU established one of the first university-based sexual assault programs in the country. It was created in response to increasing reports of sexual assaults on or near campus. In 1979, students, Counseling Center staff, MSU officials and other concerned citizens from the greater Lansing area began examining the need for a specialized program to serve survivors of rape and other sexual assault.
“It [was] started in 1980 by grad students. They noticed a need within the university, and then they worked with the Counseling Center to set it up,” said Bianca Stepanyan as she pointed out large, colorful puzzle pieces from 2016’s Take Back the Night event. “Last year, they did a puzzle piece event, so these are done by survivors. People could stop by and make a puzzle piece and however it represented them and what they wanted to say, and then Take Back the Night gave them to us to display.”

Stepanyan worked as the advocacy coordinator for MSU SAP until transitioning to the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) as the training and accommodation specialist.

“Sexual assault and rape is not a topic that people are comfortable talking about,” Laura Carlson said, peer educator for Sexual Assault Relationship Violence (SARV) and a self-defense workshop leader. “Before SARV, there really wasn’t much talk about it.”

She has been with MSU SAP for nearly two years and is a strong advocate for educating others.
“It’s a touchy subject to talk about,” Carlson said. “There are a lot of times where a victim self-blames, and you will get other people blaming the victim, ‘Oh my god, you were wearing that?’ or ‘but you went upstairs with him.’ We’re bringing groups of people together and we’re forcing them to sit down and say, ‘Hey, listen, this is something that needs to be talked about.’”

“Just living as a woman, I felt like I needed to do something to educate people and help out the community,” said Carlson.

According to research conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. More than 90 percent of victims on campus do not report the assault. While the survivors make the decision whether to report, Taylor Kuminski, an advocate and vice president for Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention (SACI) believes that victim blaming is a major cause of why survivors do not.

“A lot of it is victim blaming, a lot of it is slut shaming, asking what someone was wearing — almost as if that justifies it. We really try to inform people that nothing a survivor could have done would change anything: we try to push that it was the perpetrator’s fault. Victim blaming isn’t doing anything. It’s hurting people,” said Kuminski.

Carlson admitted that there are stigmas she catches herself spreading. “I try to put a lot of emphasis on educating women. [Because] we stigmatize other women by saying ‘oh my god, what is she wearing?’ and I must catch myself when I say stuff like that. It makes it okay for other people to do it.” She also commented that a couple guy friends will make similar remarks because of an assumption of acceptance from her own remarks. “[Women making the remarks] diminishes the importance of the vocabulary.”

“As a group, we bring up things that a lot of people feel uncomfortable with,” said Kuminski. “A lot of people grow up believing stigmas and myths associated with sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking and we try to challenge those and to do it in a respectful manner.”

Kuminski has been trained to handle hotline calls from survivors as well as undergoing over 40 hours of extensive, general training consisting of: discussions with guest speakers and OIE personal speakers, LGBTQ resource center advocates, people with experience with international students, people with experience with trafficking, watching films that debunk stigmas, discussions dissecting masculinity and femininity, and multiple role play scenarios.

“We’re provided with very tough scenarios and we work through them until we feel comfortable. It’s a lot of figuring out how to respond to these really hard calls, so when you get a call that isn’t as intricate, you feel very confident,” said Kuminski.

SARV’s workshops give Carlson hope about the future of the program and the direction MSU SAP is heading in.

“Every time we educate another person, I feel that it is making people more aware and puts more importance on why SARV is here and SACI.”

Kuminski has similarly noticed positive outcomes.

“In the time I’ve been here a lot more people are applying, a lot more people are hearing about it. Not everyone on campus, but people in the social sciences are more aware that SACI is a thing and a lot of people are staying with SACI,” said Kuminski. “We have a huge number of students that graduated and had degrees in economics or communications and now are working or getting full-time jobs with SACI or different services in East Lansing, Lansing or with survivors.”

Across campus, there are many resources available to students: MSU SAP in the Counseling Center, the Counseling Center itself, the OIE office in Olds Hall, Safe House — which houses sexual assault survivors — and MSU’s Police department. There are also the advocates through SACI and SARV, like Carlson and Kuminski, who are open to helping those in the community.