Dozens of University of Wyoming student athletes gathered Thursday evening in the stands of the Arena-Auditorium, but it wasn’t for a sporting event. They were there to talk about sexual assault and rape.
Oregon resident Brenda Tracy is a mother and nurse. She is also the survivor of a 1998 sexual assault. Specifically, she was gang raped by four members of the Oregon State University football team.
Today, Tracy spends much of her life advocating for other sexual assault survivors, and as part of that effort, she is visiting college campuses to speak with students, staff and administrators. She doesn’t market herself but instead only speaks at the invitation of colleges. UW Athletic Director Tom Burman invited Tracy to come speak with athletes in a private session closed to the media.
For Tracy, it’s a positive sign that schools want her to come speak with students about her life and sexual assault at-large.
“It’s important because it says something about the schools being proactive,” she said.
With 13,500 students on the UW campus — 53 percent of whom are women — there were 14 cases of attempted or completed forcible sexual assault in 2015, according to crime statistics mandated by the Jeanne Clery Act.
The lives’ of victims of sexual crimes — including Tracy’s — are changed forever, she said.
“You are never the same person after an assault, and there’s no chance to go back to that other person you were before,” Tracy said.
For 16 years following the assault, Tracy said she was plagued by depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. Though she was successful in her career and as a mother of two children, Tracy said she couldn’t liberate herself from the rape.
“There was lots of self-hate and self-loathing,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be me and didn’t want to be in my body. I was suffering.”
In 2014, Tracy was 40 years old and in counseling, trying to figure out how she would spend the rest of her life in cycles of despair.
However, Tracy’s life went through an unexpected change when a journalist offered to write an article about her experience.
“I decided I was going to put my name and face on it, because I didn’t want to live in the shame and silence I’d been suffering in for so long,” she said. “I told my story out of a moment of desperation and wanting something different in my life. … The day my story went online, I walked out of my prison of shame and silence. For 16 years, I had one side where everyone thought I was a shiny, happy person, but in my personal life, I was suffering. But on that day, I became one person.”
Since the day her story went public, Tracy said she hasn’t thought about killing herself but felt happier and freer than she had since she was raped. Tracy said she was inspired to continue telling her story to help other survivors and to attempt to change the culture that fosters sexual violence. In addition to traveling throughout the country to talk with various groups, including a lot of college football teams, Tracy has successfully lobbied for five pieces of Oregonian legislation to help survivors of sexual assault. She also works with the National Collegiate Athletics Association on creating bylaws dealing with athletes and sexual assault.
“I want to end rape culture, and in order to do that, you have to hit it from a lot of different angles,” Tracy said.
During her engagements with college athletes, Tracy said she tells her story in graphic detail to humanize the act of sexual violence dealt to her by four student football players. She said she goes on to engage, educate and empower people to be part of the solution to ending rape culture.
Kalah Skates is the president of UW’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and is the Mountain West Conference’s representative to the NCAA SAAC. Skates said the engagement with Tracy put light on the reality of sexual assault on campuses.
“I think, in general, she brought more awareness to the fact this does happen,” Skates said. “We know that it happens, and there are ways we can look at situations that maybe don’t look right.”
In a culture that is infused with conflicting messages about women and sex, Tracy said part of her message to young men is to join men who have already taken the position to oppose rape culture in their private public lives.
“The voices of good men need to become louder than the voices of the so-called bad men,” Tracy said. “We need to have men start calling each other out and holding each other accountable. If a man is saying something derogatory about women, and you’re there and you don’t agree with that, but you’re not saying anything, your silence is complicit. We need to start having a movement of men pushing back against these ideas and saying, ‘No, this is not OK.’”
Sexual assault took center stage in the nation’s discourse when a 2005 recording of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump revealed him boasting about making uninvited contact with women. A New York Times article reported multiple claims of those boasts manifesting in reality. Trump denied the claims and fired back at this Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, saying she helped silence women who alleged her husband, former President Bill Clinton, exposed, groped and raped women.
Tracy said she’s opposed to any assertion that words do not matter and that men in positions of power have influence over young men and boys.
“When we engage in ‘locker room’ talk that’s degrading women, acting like they’re not human, don’t have value and that you can do whatever you want to them because they’re here for men’s gratification, you are perpetuating this idea we are just bodies here for male consumption,” she said. “It starts with words and ideas — this so-called ‘locker room’ talk.”