Although societies are slowly disproving myths about sexual assault, such as wearing ‘provocative’ clothing means that the victim was ‘asking for it’, or that men cannot be victims of assault, a stigma nonetheless remains. A fear of being blamed, judged, or doubted can discourage victims from coming forward and reporting the perpetrator of the crime, as well as make it more challenging to take the first step to seek help.
It is undeniable that sexual assault is traumatizing; victims often experience depression, fear, anxiety, destabilizing flashbacks, feelings of guilt, and a loss of control over their lives. For this reason, it is crucial for victims to find an effective way to process the trauma, face their emotions, and eventually recover from this intimate violation.
Iva Bicanic has been an essential figure in expanding access to psychologists and recovery for victims. An alumnus of the VU, Mrs. Bicanic was first attracted to working with victims of sexual assault after taking an elective course on child abuse and sexual abuse. Her heightened interest in the subject led to a motivation to help victims. Now a clinical psychologist, she is the national coordinator of the Center for Sexual Violence and head of the National Psychotrauma Center for Children and Young People at the University Medical Center Utrecht, she still practices as a therapist for assault victims as well.
The first Center for Sexual Assault opened in 2012, and since then, 15 more centers have opened all over the Netherlands. The Center reports that there are between 4000 to 5000 victims that approach the Center every year looking for help, 90% of which are women, and the average age of those who come to the Center is 21 years old.
Iva Bicanic says that therapy is needed when victims are unable to recover alone from their experiences. She emphasizes that it is for this reason that seeking help as quickly as possible is incredibly important, as allowing flashbacks and feelings of fear or depression can easily lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By seeking care early after the assault, the likelihood of recovery is usually quicker, as the effects of the assault are less likely to begin to affect other parts of the victim’s life, such as their relationships or their academic performance.
The statistics provided by Mrs. Bicanic about the Center for Sexual Assault overlap with data about university students; with the average age of victims being 21 years old, it is clear that many who seek help are around the age of those attending university. This makes sense when looking at various sources of data on sexual assault. In fact, a survey studying campus sexual violence in the United States has shown that 1 in 4 women that study in universities have experienced sexual assault while they were students. However, only 26% of these women reported the assault (Cantor et al 2015). This raises some questions: how many victims are dealing with PTSD or other debilitating consequences of assault and are too afraid to seek help? Is there a hidden mental health epidemic on our hands?
Iva’s emphasis on the importance of therapy and its role in helping victims of sexual assault highlights the importance of students having access to psychologists through their university. At 020, we are in full agreement with Iva Bicanic on these issues, and strive to use her professional opinion to better equip the UvA with the ability and resources to adequately care for their students and staff regarding situations that occur within and outside of campus. For this reason, we believe that increasing access to university psychologists, as well as minimizing waiting times for appointments are effective ways of supporting every student at the UvA who wishes to seek help after experiencing sexual assault. Additionally, it is imperative that the UvA will conduct investigations into allegations against their students in order for victims to know that the university will take adequate measures against a proven perpetrator.
For students to thrive, they need to live and work in a safe environment, an outcome that can only be guaranteed through the university’s dedication to the creation of an academic space in which victims feel safe to come forward.
If you have been a victim of sexual assault and wish to seek help, please call the Center for Sexual Assault at 0800-0188, or go to https://www.centrumseksueelgeweld.nl/ for more information.
Candor et al (2015) “ Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” Available at: https://www.aau.edu/sites/default/files/%40%20Files/Climate%20Survey/AAU_Campus_Climate_Survey_12_14_15.pdf
Author: Sophia Yaziji
Editors: Viraj Kote, Max Berendsen