By Maddison Cervantes
Justine Hernandez cannot recall the topic of sexual assault ever being discussed during her college career at the University of Nevada, Reno. By the time she graduated in 2009, she had never overheard any conversations on the subject, and had never been informed of any events focused on sexual assault.
Now, as the first-ever victim advocate for the university, Hernandez works to create the dialogue she never experienced through her efforts to further combat sexual assault on campus.
Students can now reach out to Hernandez about sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, bullying or harassment. Her door is open to anyone who has been traumatically affected by any of these occurrences.
Hernandez has been a victim advocate for approximately five years, mostly focused on sexual assault. She also worked in the university’s Crisis Call Center, and as an advocate with the Reno Police Department, which is focused on domestic violence.
Over the years, Hernandez has held presentations on campus addressing sexual assault, and has informally met with students who have been victimized.
Hernandez is also involved in I STAND and is an instructor for Green Dot, organizations that emphasize the significance of discussing safe sexual conduct and precautions that can be taken.
Sometimes, Hernandez stated, victims of sexual assault are not ready to go forward with an investigation; they just need someone to talk to about their situation. In this case, Hernandez can be that person.
“There’s a lot of embarrassment, guilt and shame that’s associated with [sexual assault],” Hernandez said. “Every other felony will be talked about and justified, but this one is such a silent crime and there is a lot of self-blame and self-doubt that goes along with it.”
Hernandez further explained that it is common for victims of sexual assault to convince themselves that they are at fault. She claims that these views are the factors that have led our society to adopt rape myths and rape culture.
In the state of Nevada, sexual assault is equivalent to rape; it involves some form of penetration. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is considered to be on the outside of the body, such as groping.
Hernandez claims that sexual harassment has been ingrained in our culture.
“I feel like most women have been sexually harassed in their life,” Hernandez said. “It’s demeaning, objectifying and terrifying, but you are always put at fault if it happens to you.”
According to Hernandez, sexual harassment is often made into a joke. Because it can be taken lightly, those who respond to such jokes defensively can be accused of “overreacting.”
Hernandez wants students to realize that sexual harassment is no laughing matter. She attributes this misconception of harassment to a lack of education on the true meaning of consent, but she wants to make others understand it.
“I don’t blame anyone for not having the education,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes [students] will discover that they have actually done some of these things that we talk about. I have no ill will towards them; how do you blame someone if they were never taught?”
While sexual assault remains a pressing issue on campus, current data suggests that UNR is progressing in reducing sexual assault.
UNR Police Services Commander Todd Renwick stated that in 2014, there was a total of six reported sexual assaults. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been zero reported sexual assaults.
Hernandez believes that with an open dialogue and a better understanding of sexual assault as a whole, more victims will report their situations and in turn, there will be fewer victims in the first place.
Vice President for Student Services Shannon Ellis views Hernandez’s position as assisting in both men and women on campus who are victims of sexual assault.
“A confidential advocate such as [Hernandez] will be immediately responsive and can discuss options at a very emotional time in the victim’s life,” Ellis said. “She will offer everything from information and emotional support to help finding resources and deciding on the next steps, including filing a report.”
Ellis added that with the position being strictly confidential, victims will be offered comfort during their distressing time.
Hernandez explained that while she knows she can help, there are still multiple factors that keep an individual silent: the shame, the guilt or the strain. Hernandez stated that often, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows.
“It might be someone they love, trust, are in a relationship with or is their boss and if they tell, the victim’s life could potentially be ruined and no one is ready for that,” Hernandez said. “If all of those barriers are there, then I understand why someone might not want to report, but they can still talk to me.”
In a press release sent out by the university, Prevention Coordinator Jo Harvey stated that there are multiple events that will be held to continue the sexual assault outreach on campus.
“The goal is to continuously educate people about what they can do to stop sexual assault before it happens,” Harvey said.
As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, many of these events will be taking place in the upcoming weeks.
Along with the university’s determination to reach out to students about the issue, Hernandez stated that it will be beneficial for students to be able to talk to someone about their distresses.
Hernandez is looking forward to continuing with her efforts in combating sexual assault on campus, beginning with the education on the topic.
“We are constantly telling women not to get raped,” Hernandez said. “However, we are never saying, ‘Don’t rape women.’ That’s how we end sexual assault.”
Maddison Cervantes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @madcervantes.