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Op-Ed: Data is just one point in the real story of sexual assault

Sometimes epiphanies happen when you least expect it. For me, it came in the form of a question from a middle-aged father as he approached the microphone in front of our panel at SXSW 2019 about how to take action in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Looking me in the eye, he told me his daughter had been assaulted in college. There, with the whole room watching, I froze.

I had stayed up late the night before going over my research on the true impact that #MeToo had within the entertainment industry in preparation to organize and speak on this panel. I had completed my research as a Haas Center Community-Based Research Fellow last summer with the Geena Davis Institute. I was determined to stick to my data as it was the only thing that I felt could legitimize my presence on that stage. I thought I had planned for everything, everything except this.

The father standing at the mic asked me what he could do to help his daughter. Thoughts racing, I wondered how could I — a college student myself — possibly respond to his distress. I am no expert and no adult had ever thought to ask me for advice on this before. I am simply a student committed to this cause who is learning alongside everyone else. Still, as he stood there in front of me so brave and sincere, I knew I had to say something. I did the best I could pointing to resources available to survivors, their families and their communities. I thanked him for his vulnerability in that moment.

At about the same time as our panel, Provost Persis Drell asked the Stanford student body to respond to a new Campus Climate Survey with an expanded definition of sexual assault. The goal of the survey is to gather data from the student body. As I learned from my research, the wonderful thing about data is that, when it is done correctly, it is indisputable and can make people see and believe things they never want to. Think of the survey like voting. There are very few opportunities where your voice can affect, even in the smallest of ways, future outcomes. Your voice is essential to understanding and responding effectively to sexual violence on our campus.

As we reflect on this survey, also remember that the data you provide is just one part of the story.

The dad I am referencing is only one of many people in the audience that day who reminded me how personal this issue truly is. In fact, the heartfelt outpouring from the audience at SXSW was so strong, the panelists and I threw out our carefully prepared outline to make time for people to share and ask questions. Again and again, our panel tried to offer solace when we did not have answers, and I began to realize that this forum was not about us or my research. It was about all the people who filled the theater who came because their voices needed to be heard. Somehow, we had opened the space for them to feel comfortable enough to share even if I felt I did not have enough to give them in return.

These people were more than data. Numbers can show us breadth of the issue and help us discover more about the problem. However, the true depth of the impact of sexual assault, violence and harassment comes from individual stories. A climate survey is just a portal to the stories behind the responses. I hope you think about what those questions mean to real people and try to find space in your everyday life to be open to those conversations. Not everyone feels safe standing in front of an audience, but there are ways to share this kind of depth that doesn’t require a stage, a microphone or a room of strangers. Perhaps it’s as simple as remembering that the numbers in this Campus Climate Survey represent your friends, classmates, fellow athletes, artists, roommates, entrepreneurs, teachers and advisers. The father who asked for my help gave voice publicly to what I learned through the dozens of private interviews for my research. We all have to remember that numbers represent real people who we interact with every single day without ever knowing their stories.

The audience at SXSW taught me the continual power of this issue. #MeToo is more than a hashtag; it is, at its core, the huge scale of human experiences existing behind the words “sexual assault” which will always carry emotional pain. That’s the weight this trauma can hold and the kind of wounds it can cut, and that cannot be forgotten behind the statistics. Yes, I hope you filled out the Campus Climate Survey, but when the numbers are published, remember the people behind them.

— Lauren Clark ’20

Contact Lauren Clark at lauren16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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