Assault Victim Turned Advocate

Roughly one in five women and one in 71 men will be a victim of sexual assault in their lifetime. Tragically, victims are often left ashamed or silenced. But one woman is fighting each and every day to obliterate the taboos that surround the topic of sexual assault.

Laura Dunn, a powerful voice for women, was once ashamed and silenced herself. As an 18-year-old freshman she was attacked by two trusted friends after a frat party where the Christian-raised teen encountered alcohol for only the second time in her life.

Dunn recently recounted the moment with People magazine, saying, “It was late, I wanted to be safe. I had no reason not to trust them. I thought rape was a stranger jumping out of an alley attacking you with a knife. I didn’t have any narrative where it’s someone I knew.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman kept quiet about the incident for over a year. Like many victims, she dealt with the pain, fear and shame on her own before she could work up the courage to speak out. And when she finally did, she faced 10 months of investigations that were ultimately dropped due to lack of evidence and Wisconsin laws that offered no protection.

Dunn suffered from suicidal thoughts during the heart-wrenching investigations. “I felt like no one believed me,” she says. “One time when I was driving, I had this thought of just pulling my car into the oncoming traffic, just jerk the wheel. I couldn’t shake the idea that if I killed myself people would believe me.”

Fortunately, her story does not end in defeat. The once-silenced woman worked through law school to become a D.C. attorney and an effective advocate within the Obama administration, where she fought to create change. She worked relentlessly with Joe Biden to assist sexual assault victims and to improve the process of assault investigation.

Exactly seven years after her attack, Dunn’s story came perfectly full circle. Dunn tearfully witnessed Joe Biden commit his support for victims through the use of Title IX. On that day she helped give victims something she felt she would never have: a voice that would be heard.

That same day, April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to various colleges across the country admonishing them to adhere to the requirements of Title IX. Since 1972 it has mandated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The “Dear Colleague” letter called universities to a higher standard of which Laura Dunn said, “The point of the guidance is to let schools know what the department will be looking at to determine regulations are being fully complied with, so treating them as guidance to abide by is wise.” In the years to follow, Dunn said things began to change: Campus policies were reformed, law enforcement was trained to deal with these cases and the media began to shine light on problems formerly swept under the rug.

The message caused waves across the U.S., but not all positive ones. While some applauded the efforts, others said that it removes the right to due process for the accused. That in an attempt to give voice to the potential victims, it silences the defendants, giving no option to actually defend themselves. With this concern, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is working to rescind the Obama Administration system. As reported by the Washington Post, DeVos declared, “One rape is one too many,” and “not one more survivor will be silenced. We will not abandon anyone.”

However, the words of reassurance don’t comfort everyone, including Dunn. She insists that she will continue to fight with her team at SurvJustice, the not-for-profit she founded in 2014. As the only national organization to offer legal assistance in campus hearings, they work to bring awareness, training and legal support to victims across the country.  Dunn says they will continue to do so.

The organization plans to join End Rape on Campus, the Feminist Majority Foundation, It’s On Us and several other groups in a vigil to defend Title IX on Thursday, October 19, 2017. The rally will be held outside the U.S. Department for Education.

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