Speaking Up About Sexual Assaults at PSU

Supporting the voices for change

Tessara Dudley | 4/30/2015, 2:26 p.m.
The discussion about sexual assault during Portland State University’s recent student body election may be an exception to the ever-present ...
Tessara Dudley

The discussion about sexual assault during Portland State University’s recent student body election may be an exception to the ever-present concern of student apathy. As a survivor of sexual assault, I have been watching the debate with concern and frustration.

The Portland Observer reported on the issue after a group of students showed up to protest the candidacy of a convicted sex offender who was running for student body president. The Vanguard, PSU’s student-run newspaper, interviewed the student who insinuated that the protests were an attempt to derail the good work he wants to do.

True, he was a current leader in several black advocacy organizations, but the problem was his criminal record and the need to support candidates who uphold student values.

According to Black Women’s Blueprint, 60 percent of black girls are sexually assaulted by the age of 18. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network states that survivors of sexual assault are six times more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than the general population. And the National Institute of Justice reports that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were twice as likely to be re-victimized as adults. These are girls and women in our community and they’re vulnerable.

In all the coverage of police abuse and violence against black men, we rarely hear the same uproar for the abuse and violation of black women. At this moment, a former Oklahoma City police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw is under house arrest pending his trial on charges that he sexually abused 12 black women over the course of two years, and yet the community is silent.

It is in this climate that students at Portland State chose to protest. During a tumultuous week at PSU, a Take Back the Night event made space for the voices for change by including a speech from Jackie Sandmeyer of the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force; hosting a performance from Sister Outsider, an award-winning spoken word duo; holding a march; and hosting a survivor Speak Out, providing a safer space for survivors to share their experiences and feelings.

In her speech, Sandmeyer said it was obvious that the value we place on some women is not equal; that certain forms of violence are tolerated; and that the wrong message is then passed on to survivors. Statistics show this is a reality for black girls and women in America today.

Both the PSU community and the larger community of Portland are left grappling with some hard issues: How do we protect our children? How do we shift our culture to respect women? How do we move beyond an incarceration model to a prevention model? How do we end the cycle of violence?

None of us has the answers, but one thing is certain: the PSU student elections came to stand for something more this year, deeply affecting a significant portion of the students in a way that was more personal than ever before.

One group of students is keeping the discussion going by creating a Facebook page called Change the Narrative. (A statement about my own history as a survivor of sexual assault can be found there.)

The students plan to keep speaking up about sexual assaults at PSU, and in the black community, and it’s long overdue. Our community must uplift the voices of our most vulnerable populations; not just for one month, but all year. Sexual Assault Awareness Month ended in April, but that doesn’t mean we should let the awareness end. We can’t afford to.

Tessara Dudley is a poet and educator living in east Portland.