Xavier Guerra

Rutgers Students Share Their Stories, Speak Out Against Sexual Violence On Campus

Former VP Joe Biden visited the New Jersey campus where MTV News joined in on a necessary conversation

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been an advocate for ending violence against women for decades, notably drafting the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which took aim at perpetrators charged with domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault. His devotion to that cause has been unwavering. Last Thursday (October 12), about 2,000 students gathered at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to hear Biden speak about that very topic.

Sexual assault survivors also shared their stories, reassuring those in similar situations that they’re not alone and that their voice matters. (Warning: please note some in-depth descriptions follow.)

Xavier Guerra

The event was organized in partnership with It’s On Us, a national campaign aimed at ending sexual violence across U.S. colleges and universities.

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Tracey Vitchers, 29/ Director of It’s On Us

MTV News: What’s the goal of the It’s On Us campaign?

Vitchers: It’s On Us is a national movement to combat sexual assault on college campuses. We do work to organize students on their campuses, and we particularly focus on engaging young men in the fight against campus sexual assault.

MTV: Why is it important to engage young men in the conversation?

Vitchers: We're not going to solve the problem of sexual violence on college campuses unless we engage young men in the fight against it. The majority of individuals will never commit sexual assault in their lifetime, and young men are at risk for sexual violence on their college campus. About 13% of young men will be sexually assaulted at some point during their college career, and that number is even higher for men who identify as LGBT. And so it's really critical to have their voices in the movement as allies and also as survivors themselves.

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Imani Ali, 21/ Advocate for sexual violence survivors

MTV: How did you get involved with the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers?

Imani Ali: Through SCREAM Theater, it's the improv group that we have on campus, they perform at all orientations ... around the United States. I saw them during my summer orientation. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, wow.’ Because I was assaulted during high school. It was something that they didn't talk about at my high school. They didn't talk about it at the school that I transferred from. So, immediately I signed up on stage, and I went to their first screen meeting. At the meeting Brady Root, who is the coordinator of our group, she mentioned getting involved with the Crisis Advocate Group.

MTV: Are you open to sharing what happened to you?

Ali: Yeah. It was prom weekend, and we [went] to a beach house. We just got a house during prom weekend. That was really my first time drinking. We were just all having fun drinking, and I just drank too much, and I completely passed out. I blacked out. When I woke up I was already crying. I didn't realize what happened. It was kind of like my body's response to it. I found one of my friends and I was crying to my friend, and he told me that our friend had sex with me. And then I said, 'No I didn't, no.' So, I think the response was just kind of like ... I already was educated on what assault was. I know that a lot of people wouldn't really associate having sex when you're passed out as rape.

The only thing that I didn't have access to was a counselor, or like an advocate to speak with. The only options I knew about, was going to get a rape kit, or going to the police station. And that's not something I wanted to do as a high school student.

I never reported it or anything, and I never really told anyone about it, until two years later, when I transferred to Rutgers. I told my friend that was there, and then I told someone at my job. I didn't tell my mom until just recently.

It was something that I didn't feel comfortable talking about, especially with high school kids, because it's something that would have just been dismissed kind of. But yeah, I didn't really start talking about it ... until I got to Rutgers.

Rita Portenti, 21/ Director of the sexual violence education department

MTV: Have you experienced rape culture on campus?

Portenti: What I've witnessed is particularly in party culture. It’s things like how alcohol can be used as a method of raping someone. How [at parties], the code of house is to give women drinks with high alcoholic content. Most times they don't know what's in the drink and the trick is to get them really drunk really quickly. They don’t give those drinks out to men, they’re only giving them to women.

I think it's very problematic and prevalent and it's not being addressed properly. Through research, it has been shown that we've had an increase in awareness, yet the rates of sexual violence occurring aren’t going down. I think that rape culture and specifically people's attitudes, behaviors, the way we communicate ... that's what promotes violence against women. ... It's very prevalent in our party culture, that's probably across all college campuses. The themes that they have [at parties] are very degrading, where women are supposed to show up as the office hoes and men are put in positions of power.

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Jessica Panlilio, 22/ Rutgers student

Panlilio: I was at a mixer and I tried to stop one of my friends ... because she was really drunk and a guy brought her into the room. So I tried to take her away from that and it was kind of hard to because a lot of the guys’ friends were all like, ‘Just let 'em be, they're fine.' I remember [one guy] held me back. I was like, ‘Dude I can't let this happen. Let this happen on their on time if they really want to ... she's really drunk right now. I don't want to see her go through with this.

I was kind of scared. ... I was really mad too that they were holding me back from doing this. I was just mad that this was even happening. ... I was scared, but I felt like it was just the right thing to do, and it may be hard for most people to actually take the action ... but you should do what you think is right.

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Evan Covello, 21/ Rutgers student president

MTV: What can young people do to end rape culture?

Covello: I think a lot of it is about visibility and awareness. ... Learning how to be an active bystander. When I say learning, it’s not always easy. Being in those [situations] whether it be at a party or just a conversation, or when you’re speaking with friends, family, your fellow classmates, you may sense something is off but you don’t know if it’s your place to intervene. What being an active bystander teaches you is how to do that effectively. I think the more you increase that, the more people get training on how to be an active bystander, we’ll see more positive outcomes.

Ali: The first thing that we need to do [to end rape culture] is believe survivors, and call out perpetrators. The first thing someone asked me [when I told them] was why did I get so drunk. No one will ever ask a rapist why he rapes. ... We need to shift the blame from the victim onto the perpetrator. Because it's the perpetrator that needs to be held accountable. I shouldn't have to worry about what I wear when I'm drinking, when a guy doesn't have to.

I think a lot of times when men don't want to be engaged in the conversations, it's because they feel like [women] are attacking them, and then they get defensive and they close up. But, we are listening, we want your help, we want you to be our allies … So just for men out there, just to get more involved, stand up and just say that you want to be part of this revolution, because we know that you're not all guilty of this.

You need to call your friends out on their sexist comments and their derogatory language. Call your friends out who are having parties. Just make sure that you're standing up for a woman just as much as women are standing up for women, because you are the other half of this conversation that needs to be included in.

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Sarah Abu-Shanab, 18/ Rutgers student

Abu-Shanab: We need to emphasize how trans people are way more likely to be a victim of [sexual violence ] ... gay and bisexual people ... they're a lot more likely [to be targeted] because of their identity. ... We need to be addressing why certain minorities have higher instances of this, and we need to address that and not just kind of have this blanket statement of "men rape women." And that's it. We need to talk about, men can rape men, women can rape men, straight people can rape ... you know, it's not just men and women. It's not just white men and white women. It's across all these minorities and different identities.

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Elvin Bruno Jr., 22/ It’s On Us Campus Program Director

Bruno: Taking a stand and being vocal about everyone's effort to be involved in the fight against sexual assault is crucial in changing the culture. We want to particularly get men involved in taking a stand against this issue because friends follow what their friends are doing, and I think that being leaders and beacons in the fight against sexual assault for students on college campuses will help change the culture.

Young people can take the It's On Us pledge at itsonus.org. It's the first step to getting involved with us and saying that they're committed to fight back.