Whitmer calls for culture change around sexual assault, rolls out texting option for victims

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says we need to make major societal changes to end sexual assault on college campuses. 

“It takes every one of us to change a culture. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with a sustained, focused and thoughtful energy, we will change this,” Whitmer said during the keynote address at the fifth annual “Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault” summit at Eastern Michigan University on Tuesday.

Sue Snyder | Wikimedia Commons

The summit was started  in 2015 by former first lady Sue Snyder, who is married to former Gov. Rick Snyder. She was the first spouse to make sexual assault prevention on college campuses her main initiative. 

During the event, Whitmer announced the rollout of a texting option for the state’s sexual assault hotline, 855-VOICES-4, which provides confidential counseling and resources for sexual assault survivors. Victims of sexual assault can now text 866-238-1454 to get immediate help from counselors and trained professionals.  

Michigan is only one of two states with a dedicated and confidential health hotline for survivors of sexual violence, Whitmer said. The hotline launched in 2018 under Rick Snyder. 

“This texting feature is an important way to make sure every survivor in Michigan has direct access to the support and resources they deserve,” Whitmer said in a press release Tuesday. “I want every survivor in our state to know that your voice and your story matter, and when you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen.”

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Over the last five years, the state of Michigan has administered a campus sexual assault grant program that gives colleges and universities resources to encourage prevention programs.

The state of Michigan has allocated over $4.5 billion to the grant program since it started in 2015, and the state increased the allocation to $2 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, Whitmer said. 

“Michigan, in many ways, is a leader in addressing sexual assault on our college campuses and beyond,” Whitmer said. “We are also an example of failure, and that’s why it’s so important that we take this moment and we continue to move forward.”

Whitmer shared her own personal story of sexual assault as a college student to the summit audience. 

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As many of you know I am a survivor myself. I still carry the weight of what happened to me almost 30 years ago,” Whitmer said. “This was my freshman year on Michigan State’s campus, and I never would have imagined I would be standing here before all of you as the 49th governor of the great state of Michigan amplifying the message that you are promoting, but also sharing mine in hopes that we continue to move forward.”

This wasn’t the first time Whitmer shared this emotional story. In 2013, as state Senate minority leader, Whitmer shared it on the Senate floor in hopes of stopping legislation that limited insurance coverage for abortions, even in the case of rape survivors who were impregnated by their attackers. 

“It didn’t change a single vote. We had a partisan vote and the bill was passed.  And I went home feeling incredibly demoralized,” Whitmer said. “I told my story in hopes that my colleagues would have said that they might think about what they were doing. They may see a person in the story. But in the end, as I told you, it didn’t change a single vote. I woke up the next morning feeling about as blue as I have ever felt.”

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But the morning after the vote, Whitmer’s staff received emails and phone calls from people all across the country thanking her for sharing her story. 

“When we speak up and we share our truth, people listen. And we can make the change that we want , the change that we need and the change that we deserve,” Whitmer said. “And the more voices of survivors and activists and frontline providers and law enforcement officers that are added to that chorus, the better our odds are helping survivors and preventing future sexual assaults.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues, LGBTQ issues and immigration. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.