Sexual assault garners more attention in Memphis after protests, high profile cases

Skyler Cochrane felt alone before she told anyone about her incident. After she came forward, people still didn't believe her.

By Ethan Middleton

Loss of innocence is what Skyler Cochrane felt after she was sexually assaulted on a Rhodes College study abroad trip in 2015.

The fear of it happening again is pervasive in her everyday life. The rush of adrenaline every time she runs to her care alone at night, or walking past strangers on the street. She knows they won’t do her harm, but she still feels scared.

Cochrane did what many would do in the situation. She reported the assault to campus authorities, but she says, other students weren’t made aware of the incident.

Years after the assault, Cochrane isn’t afraid to be public about being a survivor of sexual assault, and she’s not alone.

As more of our Hollywood stars and public figures come forward to share their stories about being assaulted by men in power positions, awareness of sexual assault has seemingly risen throughout the country in every sector of society. Since accusations against Harvey Weinstein became public, other names such as Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and former Senator Al Franken have been accused and the list goes on. It’s not just happening in Hollywood though, sexual assault happens everywhere.

The amount of celebrities coming forward may have inspired others to tell their story or raise awareness of sexual assault. Actress, Alyssa Milano, helped trend #MeToo on Twitter and many people used the hashtag to share their stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment. As of Oct. 24, the #MeToo trend had 1.7 million tweets in 85 different countries.

The trend has shown that people want to talk publicly and openly about sexual assault. More people are willing to share their story and want it handled better in a workplace and other settings.

“Women don’t have to be scared that people won’t believe them and now have this support from other people that do believe them,” Cochrane said.

Cochrane was sexually assaulted in a botanic gardens. As the path got more narrow, a man creeped closer and closer to her.

According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some of the forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as or sex or penetrating the perpetrators body, and penetration of the victim’s body, which is also known as rape.

While it’s a problem throughout the United States, Tennessee is ranked No. 32 in number of sexual assault reports. In 2015, there were 831 reports in Tennessee that involved forcible rape, forcible sodomy and sexual assault with an object. The number increased slightly in 2016 with 858 reports in the same categories.

In 2015, Rhodes College had the second highest number of sexual assaults on a campus in Tennessee with 21 reports. The following year, Rhodes College decreased to 13, but was the third highest.

Cochrane was very aware of the numbers of sexual assault reports on campus. She said she saw many campaigns to enforce the Title IX policy on campus since she was a freshman in 2014. Rhodes College later hired a new coordinator and Title IX advisory board to better address these issues.

Tiffany Cox is the Title IX Coordinator at Rhodes College. She oversees how Rhodes responds to complaints about sexual violence under Title IX.

Title IX is under the Education Amendment of 1972, which governs gender equality in education. Title IX also covers sexual violence at schools.

Rhodes College eventually formed a Title IX student advisory board, which meets bi-weekly.

“These students are invested in making sure their campus is safe,” Cox said. “They let me know what’s happening. They hear things before I or any of the faculty does.”

Rhodes also plans on adding an online training program to prevent sexual violence.

The University of Memphis community has also seen a recent push for change from students. After the Daily Helmsman published a story on Oct. 10 where an anonymous student told the Helmsman she was raped twice in 20 days, the university held a public forum to discuss the issue.

Additionally, a couple of peaceful protests on the UofM campus have been held since the story was published. Protestors demanded more transparency from the university in the handling of sexual assault cases that involve students.

Gypsee McManus is one of the protestors who was not pleased with how the campus was treating the situation.

“We went to an open conversation with the faculty and felt like nothing got accomplished”, McManus said.

The University of Memphis administration had an open conversation with the students several days after the story was published. On October 20, university president David Rudd emailed students and faculty to ensure that the university will improve campus safety. Defense classes were offered, a new position for a sexual assault prevention specialist was created, and a student lead organization to teach sexual assault awareness and protection was founded as well.

Unreported assault

Though it may seem like many people are coming forward to talk about sexual assault in the present, data shows many sexual assaults still go unreported. According RAINN, only 344 out of 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Some of the reasons why can be because of feared retaliation, believed it was a personal matter, and believed police might not do anything to help.

Criminal justice associate professor, Amaia Iratzoqui, said a report should be filed within 48 hours for any forensic evidence; however, there is a statue of limitations meaning the victim can report she or he was sexually assaulted a specific number of years prior to the report.

Amaia Iratzoqui does research on causes and consequences of victimization, particularly in intimate partner violence.

Yet, some people don’t report to the police because they think the police might not do anything. The Memphis advocacy group, People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws (PERL), exposed more than 12,000 untested rape kits from Memphis Police Department. PERL also pushed MPD to focus more on unsolved rape cases.

Paul Garner, a member of the PERL board of directors, said activism and the women movements have made an impact on what’s being talked about. He also says social media has become a new platform of a community for survivors and victims that feel safe when coming forward.

“You hear about these cases where people won’t say anything for a long time and you ask why now,” Garner said, “and it’s because they fell a base of support to speak out.”

Iratzoqui said our understanding of the topic has changed throughout the years because of media due to people sharing their stories of sexual assault.

Even though media has helped raise awareness of sexual assault and publicized accusations, people are still critical of how the topic is being handled in media portrayals.

Cochrane said attackers shouldn’t be listed with their achievements in news stories, referring to the Brock Turner story from 2015, because it doesn’t promote awareness when news stories are reported like this.

Yet there are still many ways to raise awareness of sexual assault. PERL has a general meeting once a month to discuss ways to better improve police work and reports of the sexual assault in Memphis.

There are also ways to get help professionally. PERL have peer support group meetings every other week for victims and has lists of numbers that involve with professional help. The website title Brave Miss World, lets people share their story anonymously or publicly.

Cochrane said it’s important for victims to get help and be aware that they’re not alone.

“This experience doesn’t define who you are and it doesn’t define your future,” she said.

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