Editor’s note: This story references sexual assault and violence. If you or a loved one is seeking resources in response to sexual violence, the organizations listed here are available.
Sexual assault of University of Oklahoma students isn’t limited to campus, but ambiguities in the reporting process obscure the full scope of the problem in Norman.
University of Oklahoma police, Norman police and other university authorities reported 66 sex crimes involving the OU community on campus and in Norman in 2019, the most current year with data available. That number is six incidents more than those reported in 2018, and nearly double the number of incidents in 2017, according to the 2020 Sooner Safety and Fire Report.
The number of reported on-campus sex crimes was five times higher than the number off campus in 2019, the report states.
Norman police respond to all sexual assault reports in the city outside of OU. This includes reports at fraternity or sorority houses, although they haven’t received reports from those locations in recent years, Norman police spokesperson Sarah Jensen said.
Still, the true number of student sexual assaults is unknown, since Norman police don’t ask the reported victim if they are a student. While students sometimes self-identify in the investigation, it doesn’t make a difference in how police investigate, said police spokesperson Sarah Jensen.
“From our position, sexual assault is sexual assault,” Jensen said. “We investigate those cases the same.”
Precursors to assault, like perpetrators disrespecting boundaries in dating or night life situations, are common in reports from students and non-students alike, Jensen said.
Erica Menchaca, domestic violence and sexual assault response advocate for the Women’s Resource Center in Norman, confirmed sexual assaults are greatly underreported.
The red zone
While the full number of student sexual assaults is unknown, OU gives special attention on campus to the first eight weeks of school.
This timeframe, called the “red zone” by some researchers and activists, usually sees an increase in sexual violence, because first-year students “are more likely to experience gender-based violence than any other students” in the first semester, said Erin Simpson, director of the OU Gender + Equality Center.
Beta Theta Pi’s OU chapter went under investigation in August when reports surfaced that the fraternity required potential members to complete a “rape initiation,” according to The OU Daily.
OUPD referred The Transcript to OU’s Gender + Equality Center when emailed questions about sexual assault on campus.
Menchaca said said many of the students who come to the center “are very ashamed” of what happened to them, though they have no reason for shame.
Menchaca said the Women’s Resource Center regularly works with the Gender + Equality Center to help students distance themselves from their reported assailants. Creating that distance may mean a victim changing classes so they don’t have to see an assailant, or speaking to their professors about the situation, she said.
“You know, some of those things that a client didn’t have to think about before a rape, and then after a rape, now they’re having to adjust their whole life,” she said.
The university does require students to complete Consent Conversation during Camp Crimson, the university’s orientation program, before the fall semester. The university also offers violence prevention curriculum (sic) to students prior to their arrival, Simpson said.
Menchaca said the university should foster a culture that empowers victims, where “if you share your story, people are going to care.” She also said perception of sexual assault needs to change overall.
“The question should always be, ‘Why do perpetrators hurt people? Why do they do what they do?’ We need to shift our questions quite a bit,” she said.
Jensen recommended students who have been assaulted reach out to law enforcement following the incident. When asked about students dealing with shame or distrust in law enforcement, Jensen suggested reaching out to community partners like the Women’s Resource Center. Menchaca said the center also serves men who have been sexually assaulted.
Jensen said she understands reporting can be difficult for victims.
“We would just encourage people to take advantage of those opportunities with advocates, counseling services,” she said.