Student reflects on coping with rape experience

By Perry Stein

Most students on this campus are shocked to learn that one in four of their female peers are the victims of rape or attempted rape. But this is the reality that exists at Washington University and on college campuses across the nation. This week is Sexual Assault Awareness Week, and Student Life is taking a deeper look into sexual assault on campus and why so many rapes and rapists go undetected. In the hopes of debunking the myth that rape can only be defined as a violent crime between strangers, one student has shared her story of rape. Please note that the names of the rape survivor and her roommate have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Rachel was not brutally attacked, gagged or assaulted by a stranger. She did not go out alone, walk home late at night, or get lost in an unfamiliar part of town. But Rachel is a rape survivor.

The staggering yet silent reality is that Rachel is just one of an estimated 750 undergraduate female students currently at Washington University that have been the victims of rape or attempted rate.

These are not the violent rapes that are plastered on newspaper headlines, but the unspoken acquaintance rapes that pervade this campus. These rapes have gone largely unnoticed with the rapists rarely being confronted or facing consequence for their crimes.

According to Kim Webb, assistant director for community health and sexual assault services, nearly all sexual assaults on campus are assaults that occur between students, with the victim typically knowing the perpetrator.

A national survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that one in four college-aged women encounter an experience that meets the legal definition of rape or attempted rape during their college years. A survey conducted at the University in 2004 confirms that the occurrence of rape at Washington University is consistent with the national rate.

The issue of sexual assault on campus catapulted to the forefront of the Washington University community nearly four years ago in the aftermath of the violent rape of a female student in Myers House on the South 40.

The case—which came to be known as “the Myers incident”—is the only case of stranger rape on campus grounds in recent memory. It occurred when a man tailgated into Myers House, forced his way into the room of a female student and raped her.

In April 2010, a female student was raped and robbed in the DeMun neighborhood as she walked home from campus in the early hours of the morning.

Despite the high-profile nature of these two rapes, these cases stand apart from almost every other sexual assault on campus in terms of their brutality, publicity and the involvement of non-student perpetrators.

“Before it happened to me, I thought it was something that happened to other people,” said Rachel, a senior. “It’s happening here. Not with some lacrosse team at some other school, but here.”

One student’s story

During the fall semester of her sophomore year, Rachel went out with some friends to Morgan Street Brewery, a bar in downtown St. Louis that is popular among Washington University students on Thursday nights.

She doesn’t remember consuming enough alcohol to blackout, but she has few memories of the night and and doesn’t know how she became seperated from her friends.

The next day, she woke up naked in a man’s bed—a man whose advances she had rejected the weekend prior.

She has a hazy recollection of being on her back in his bed and feeling pain in her vaginal region.

The male student—who was a senior at the University at the time—acted as if everything was normal. He was polite and drove her back to her dorm on the South 40.

Two days later, Rachel was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection (UTI), which erased any of her doubts of whether she had had sex.

“I blamed myself for getting too drunk,” Rachel said. “I told myself that my UTI was my punishment.”

Coming to terms with the rape

Like most rape survivors, Rachel didn’t think to classify her assault until a month later when she told her best friend from home what had happened. Her friend responded by saying that her encounter was an instance of rape.

“I said ‘no, I had drunk sex,’” Rachel said.

Rachel subsequently researched date rape and discovered that her story was more than just a case of regretful, drunk sex.

Still, Rachel did not label her experience as rape and struggled to reconcile the violent images she typically associated with rape with her own assault.

“I didn’t feel like I had a right to be upset,” she said. “I didn’t remember it—why should I be mad at something I don’t remember?”

According to Webb, this reaction is common. She says that rape on this campus is so underreported because students often don’t label their assaults as rape.

“People don’t label it for what it is. People oftentimes don’t label acquaintance rape as rape,” Webb said. “Their vision rape is somebody jumping out of the bushes—it’s always violent, and it’s always a stranger. But that’s not what we see on this campus.”

Rachel said the nonviolent nature of her assault coupled with the fact that her rapist was a Washington University student further complicated her ability to grapple with her assault.

“He was one of us. How could he be this bad person?” Rachel said. “If he was a big scary rapist, then I’d be the victim of a big scary rape.”

She tried to repress her tangled emotions about the rape she couldn’t remember, but seemingly innocuous signs triggered thoughts of the night and consistently left her in tears.

There were days when she struggled to go to class and wished she could tell her professors what happened so that they would understand why she wasn’t fully invested in school.

The stress of school, personal issues and the assault eventually took their toll, and Rachel was forced to confront the rape.

A year after the rape, she confided about her experience to her roommate, her best friend from home and her boyfriend at the time.

But still, Rachel didn’t fully understand her emotions, and while she was relieved that they knew of her assault, she tried to hide her pain and was frustrated when they didn’t recognize the extent of what she was going through.

“I was finally in a bad enough place where I couldn’t deal with it emotionally anymore,” she said. “I was hiding it, but angry that people didn’t see how hurt I was.”

Her roommate Katie said she initially did not know how to help her. She eventually found that the most effective way to help was to listen, to always watch out for her and to make sure she felt safe when she went out.

“She didn’t know it was okay to be upset,” Katie said. “All I can do is be there. There are times that she has to cry for seemingly no reason, and I am there.”

When Rachel came to Katie about possibly going to therapy at Student Health Services, Katie said she actively encouraged her to do so.

Therapy helped Rachel to realize that her emotions were justified, and that the fact that she wasn’t violently raped by a stranger didn’t mean that she wasn’t raped.

“My reaction wasn’t as extreme as some reactions you read about, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t going through the same emotions,” she said.

Reporting rape on campus

Like most rape victims on Washington University’s campus, Rachel opted not to report her rape to the police or the campus’ judicial system.

She said that by the time she contemplated reporting her rape, it was a year after the fact, and her assailant had already graduated.

Had she woken up naked in a stranger’s bed that morning, she said her immediate reaction would have been to call the police.

Although national and Washington University-wide surveys indicate that one in four undergraduate female students will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, only a minute fraction of these rapes are actually reported to the authorities.

According to the latest statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, of all the rapes thought to occur on Washington University’s campus in housing facilities in 2009, only five were reported to campus authorities.

The five incidents of reported forcible rape in 2009 represent a decrease from the six reported offenses in 2008.

This small number of reported rapes suggest that a larger problem exists within the campus culture, compounded by a lack of open discussion about assaults between students.

Both Webb and Washington University Chief of Police Don Strom said that many factors contribute to a person’s decision not to report a rape. These can include victims blaming themselves, a fear of not being taken seriously by authorities, and a lack of awareness of what constitutes as rape.

“[The numbers] misrepresent the problems and unfortunately that results in an ambivalence about the issue and the seriousness of it,” Strom said. “Sometimes people have this sense that we don’t really have a problem because the numbers are so small or even nonexistent.”

Strom added that sexual assaults reported on campus are rarely reported to law enforcement but rather to administrators or other programs on campus.

The often-ambiguous nature of acquaintance rape makes the cases difficult to process in court, according to senior Laura Jensen, president of the student group S.A.R.A.H. (Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Hotline). Jensen said S.A.R.A.H. has never heard of an acquaintance rape case in St. Louis County that has gone through the courts.

Rape is not only limited to females. According to Webb, one in six males experience some form of sexual assault by the time they are 16. Many of these males come to terms with, and address these assaults, in college.

As discussion and education on sexual assault increases, Webb said that she hopes there will be an increase in the number of reported assaults as students learn what constitutes rape and feel more comfortable reporting their experiences.

“We need to work hard not to perpetuate the image of violent rape because that’s not what our students are experiencing,” Webb said. “I really think this campus is ready to address this issue.”

Defining rape

The University Student Judicial Code defines unacceptable sexual behavior as “sexual contact with any member of the University community or visitor to the University without that person’s consent, including but not limited to rape and other forms of sexual assault.”

Both the University judicial code and Missouri law clearly stipulate that a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. Given the nature of alcohol on college campuses, this provision complicates many on-campus sexual encounters.

“My steadfast rule is that if you are drinking or having any drugs, you should not take or give consent because it is a hard line to define,” Webb said. “If alcohol is involved, typically consent is not, so it is rape.

While the relationship between alcohol and sex is not likely to fade away from college campuses in the near future, Jensen said the campus needs to focus on discussing what consent actually entails.

“I think we have got to be willing to talk about healthy sexual relationships on campus, and we have to be willing to talk about asking for consent and what consent means,” Jensen said.

In an effort to reduce sexual assault on campus, University administrators and students are currently finalizing the plans for the Green Dot Initiative—a strategy already implemented on many college campuses that is designed to promote social change by recognizing all members of the community as bystanders to violence and sexual assault. The program will train these bystanders how they can intervene during a potentially dangerous situation.

After years of controversy surrounding the hiring of a sexual assault prevention coordinator, this year marks the first academic year that Webb’s post as the sexual assault prevention coordinator has been filled.

Strom said that Webb’s position coupled with the Green Dot Initiative is a major step in confronting the misconceptions and myths surrounding sexual assault on campus.

“I think we are on the right track with having [Webb],” Strom said. “The Green Dot program reinforces what we are trying to do. Our community has to understand that it is a shared responsibility.”

Lessons for the future

Rachel and Katie’s experiences with rape changed the way they view sexual assault and how they make decisions when drinking and going out—they keep track of their friends in an effort to ensure that no one leaves alone.

“I never thought I would be so close to rape in this sense,” Katie said. “It’s shocking to realize that it’s not just happening in your community, but to someone that is close to you.”

Although Rachel is still coping with the rape, she is hoping to spread awareness of the prevalence and often nuanced nature of sexual assault.

“People don’t associate rape with a successful Wash. U. student. I feel like everyone is aware [of rape], but they don’t think it can happen,” Rachel said. “Getting through this and Wash. U. is something that I’m proud of.”

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