UNCA documentarian pushes for sexual assault education

By Karrigan Monk

Arts & features editor

kmonk@unca.edu

Within her first semester at UNC Asheville, Allie Plepler was raped.

Allie Plepler, a UNCA senior, is working on a documentary for sexual assault education.
Photo provided by Allie Plepler.

She is not alone in this. According to a January 2017 PerryUndem report, half of adult women in the U.S. have been touched inappropriately without their consent, pointing to a disturbing trend of rising sexual assault across the country.

Since a video surfaced of President Trump urging men to grab women “by the pussy” in October 2016, several victims came forward about their alleged sexual assaults at the hands of Trump, as well as many other high profile figures — most recently Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

Plepler said she found herself surprised Trump was elected president, even after his comments and the accusations made against him.

“When I heard that Trump actually became the president, the first thing that came to my mind was those women who accused him of sexual assault and honestly, he probably did it. He’s a disgusting person and I have no doubt that he’s capable of doing something like that and they were the first thing that came to my mind,” Plepler said. “I’m just very disappointed in this country for electing someone who is capable of doing that and getting away with it.”

While Trump moved forward to become president, others lost decades of honors and accolades and in the case of Weinstein, his own production company.

The dozens of allegations against Weinstein inspired actress Alyssa Milano to urge her Twitter followers to post “me too” if they had ever experienced sexual assault or harassment. Over the course of the week, hundreds of thousands of “me too” posts appeared on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

Senior ecology and evolutionary biology student Kasidy Martin made her “me too” post on Oct. 16.

“I feel as though the ‘me too’ campaign sheds light on the magnitude of rape culture in today’s society,” Martin said. “It allows women and other victims to have a platform for consideration.”

The allegations against Weinstein surfaced a year after Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment, which PerryUndem reports 91 percent of American adults said was unacceptable.

Ashley Moraguez, assistant professor of political science at UNCA, said Trump’s comments about women led directly to citizen protests, which she said are an essential element of democracy.

“I think citizen protests, such as the Women’s March on Washington, are certainly warranted,” Moraguez said. “Peaceful protest is an important part of our political process and Trump has made comments about women that were problematic.”

While Moraguez argues for peaceful protest as a means for increased awareness on political issues, Plepler said education is the most important resource in working to reduce societal issues such as sexual assault.

To do her part of increasing education, Plepler, a senior mass communication student, is working on a documentary on sexual assault, an extension of a project she began in Anne Slatton’s documentary workshop course.

Though Slatton, a lecturer of mass communication at UNCA, only gave students a 20-minute time limit on their documentaries in class, Plepler felt as if it was not enough time to give the subject the attention it needed. Plepler is continuing work on the film throughout this semester.

The full-length documentary will tell the stories of nine women at UNCA — including Plepler herself — as they navigate their lives after being sexually assaulted. Plepler said Title IX Administrator Jill Moffitt contacted her about using the finished film as an educational tool for incoming freshman.

“That needs to be done at every university. It should be done in high school, really. It needs to be talked about,” Plepler said. “People need to be aware that there are various kinds of assault and it might seem like catcalling or saying very inappropriate things. I think a lot of people think that’s OK but it’s not. We learn about rape and see rape on TV as this thing that happens in a dark alley from a stranger who holds you at gunpoint because we’re just not educated enough to know otherwise.”

In searching for subjects for her documentary, Plepler said she only found three women who were willing to share their stories when she made a Facebook post asking for people to come forward for her original film. As she was working on expanding it, she got nearly double the responses.

Plepler said the increase in women willing to come forward may be tied to an increase in awareness of sexual violence as a result of prominent public figures being vilified for their actions.

The PerryUndem report backs this up as 32 percent of respondents reported feeling less tolerant of sexism in their own lives as a result of Trump winning the election.

Lt. Joe Silberman of the Asheville Police Department said he agrees more people are coming forward with their stories and it may have an impact on statistics concerning sexual assault.

“There’s been a disproportionately large increase over the past 30 years in sexual assault cases but that doesn’t mean that there are more women getting sexually assaulted,” Silberman said. “I actually think as a trend in our country we’re very, very, very slightly trending downward. Very slightly. But how much sexual assault was reported pre-prohibition? Before women’s suffrage? Probably not a ton.”

Both Plepler and Silberman agree education changes society’s view of sexual assault.

“Especially domestic assault. It’s almost like a staple,” Silberman said. “Over time society decided it wasn’t OK. Men were given better tools on how to communicate in a relationship and women were given better tools on how to deal with mistreatment and we started to recognize it more and more.”

Silberman said he does not think Trump’s rhetoric had an effect on the increase in sexual assault cases reported to the police department. Instead, the increase can be tied to an increase in population.

Still, the PerryUndem report states 43 percent of adults are teaching their children about consent or sexual assault issues as a result of Trump winning the election.

This statistic points to the increase of education Plepler hopes to see, but PerryUndem reports 41 percent of American adults say women often misinterpret innocent remarks as being sexist.

“I think there’s this dated mentality that women are overly emotional and hormonal and hundreds of years ago women were basically told they were crazy,” Plepler said. “I think it stems from that deep-rooted stereotype of women’s emotions, but also, who are those people to say? If I’m offended by something, how could someone else tell me how to feel about that comment? If you’re offended by something, you have a reason to be offended. That’s sort of how I think about it.”

After Plepler was raped, she said one of the recurring comments she heard from men was, “Oh, I didn’t know that happened here at a small liberal arts school.” She said she found this sentiment shocking, but thinks it is a nationwide problem rather than a local issue. Plepler said people often get defensive and do not want to take responsibility or say they are part of the problem.

Plepler said the “me too” social media campaign served as a way to bring more awareness to the problem of sexual assault, especially for the type of men who she said often deny responsibility as being part of the problem.

“I’m a total supporter of being open and honest about these kinds of things in that there’s something therapeutic about it too, so it really brought me a lot of joy and I felt proud seeing all of these posts of people just standing up,” Plepler said. “I think it helped make people aware, seeing that many. Scrolling through your Facebook and seeing that many ‘me toos,’ I think a lot of people were able to put a number to the issue or put a face to the issue.”

According to PerryUndem, 44 percent of American adults are speaking up when they otherwise may not have as a result of Trump winning the election. Although this is a rising number, Plepler said she still hopes to see more education.

Plepler said she wants more discussion on sexual assault and sexual education in general in high school and moving into college.

Based on her own experiences, Plepler said she also wants to see a change in the way colleges treat sexual assaults when they happen. She said athletics brings a lot of money to universities and she tends to see the schools protecting those students and money more than anything else. Plepler said she wants to see a switch from the focus being on finances when an athlete is accused of sexual assault to making sure the student is OK.

“I’m hoping there’s a turn away from instantly wanting to doubt whoever’s making these accusations, especially from universities,” Plepler said. “I would like to see a switch from being so money-oriented to just protecting your students and having that be the first priority and I don’t really see why that’s not the first priority, but I think that needs to change immediately.”

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