BY SYDNEY CANO, STAFF WRITER
Approximately one in five women and one in 16 men are victims of sexual assault while in college. Out of those victims, less than 10 percent of them actually report their cases. Sexual assault has become the most under-reported crime on and off college campuses. It has become the elephant in the room. We all know it’s a problem, yet most choose to not talk or do anything about it. Why is that?
Critically acclaimed documentary “The Hunting Ground” set out to discuss and bring awareness to the rape culture that has infiltrated college campuses. The documentary shows the journey of two victims filing Title IX claims against their universities, which have treated their cases as if they were frivolous. The documentary received many awards, including a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for the song “Til It Happens to You” and a Bergen International Film Festival Human Rights Award. The song “Til It Happens to You” was also nominated for an Academy Award. Lady Gaga performed the song at the 88th Academy Awards, with 50 sexual assault survivors appearing onstage alongside her.
Featured in this documentary as well as at the Academy Awards was Mason alumnus and sexual assault survivor Robbie Woodsum. Recently, we were able to catch up with the Maine native and ask him a few questions about his time at Mason, his postgraduate life and being featured in “The Hunting Ground”:
IV Estate: What did you major in and when did you attend Mason? What activities/clubs were you involved with while at Mason?
Robbie Woodsum: I attended Mason 2007–2011. I graduated with a BS in Marketing. I was a member of Stand Out, an LGBT student organization. I also taught indoor cycling classes on campus.
IVE: What were the services that helped you on campus?
RW: GMU Sexual Assault Services [now the Student Support and Advocacy Center] was the center that helped me on campus. Connie Kirkland, the former director, was my champion. I don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for her support. I came to see her the day after my assault. I had also just miserably failed a test as a result. From the very onset she took action. She scheduled an appointment at the health center, she got me in touch with Mental Health Services [now Counseling and Psychological Services] and she reached out to my professor to allow me to retake the test. It didn’t end there. We met weekly to talk about… anything. When Mental Health Services told me the help I needed was beyond their capabilities, she found a private practice therapist to take me on, at no cost to me. I would have failed every class that semester if it hadn’t been for her reaching out to professors to explain why I was doing so poorly. And on nights when I thought I wanted to end it all, I could call her at anytime for help. I owe her my life.
IVE: As a sexual assault survivor, what is your message to other sexual assault survivors?
RW: My message to others is to find support in whatever way you can. It’s not something you can survive on your own.
IVE: In what ways can friends, family, and even strangers respectfully help and support a sexual assault survivor?
RW: Ways to support survivors: first and foremost, believe them. Don’t ask stupid questions like “How much had you been drinking?”, “What were you wearing?” and other bullshit things like that. Second, don’t push for details or answers. Let them tell you what they want, when they want it and how they want it. Just be ready to listen. Third, reassure them that help and support is always available if they need it. It’s difficult asking for help, especially in this nature. I’ve felt guilty for how many times I’ve asked for support, but I’ve always been reassured it’s okay. Fourth, empathize, don’t sympathize.
IVE: Can you talk a little on your involvement in sexual assault activism?
RW: As for other activism, I’ve done public speaking on campus, years ago. I’ve also done speeches at the D.C. slutwalk. Here in Maine, I’ve emceed Portland’s Take Back the Night and served on its steering committee. I’ve also been on the planning committee for gala fundraisers supporting domestic violence women’s shelters. It was actually Connie that reached out to me about the documentary and got me in touch with the production team.
IVE: Has your role in the activism changed since you were featured in “The Hunting Ground”?
RW: Since “The Hunting Ground,” I haven’t done as much vocal/public activism. It’s too painful for me.
IVE: What did you major in and when did you attend Mason? What activities/clubs were you involved with while at Mason?
RW: I attended Mason 2007–2011. I graduated with a BS in Marketing. I was a member of Stand Out, an LGBT student organization. I also taught indoor cycling classes on campus.
IVE: What do you hope that people take from “The Hunting Ground” after watching it?
RW: After watching the documentary, I hope people realize that sexual assault is a nationwide epidemic. I want people to disprove rape culture and take the side of the survivor. It’s not a feminism, race or sexuality issue, but a human rights issue.
IVE: How was it being able to meet Lady Gaga and to be part of something as powerful as her Academy Awards performance?
RW: My experience with Lady Gaga, Vice President Biden and the Oscars was interesting…. It was an honor to meet them both, and all of the other survivors who participated. It was one of the most challenging moments of my life. To share that with millions all over the world made me feel incredibly vulnerable, but proud to put a face to the issue. I hated the attention afterwards, and I almost regret doing it. People thought it was awesome or cool. Some even suggested how lucky I was to get to do this. Those people don’t understand the real price I paid to have that experience.
IVE: What is your message to the Mason community regarding sexual assault?
RW: My message to the Mason community is one of action. Take action if you see a potential assault occurring, take action by supporting survivors and take action by striving for a campus free of sexual violence.
Woodsum’s story hits close to home for all of us as he’s a Mason alumnus. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last student to be sexually assaulted. In September, two sexual assault cases were reported during the first week of school here on campus. Although the student body has not heard any follow up from these cases since they were first reported, we can only hope that the university has taken them seriously and took future precautions. Robbie’s story is one of millions and unfortunately millions more will be told. It’s on us to do the right thing.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, contact Mason’s Student Support and Advocacy Center at 703-993-3686.