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Surviving: The Reality of Sexual Assault
In the week before her spring semester finals in 2009, Helen*, a senior, got a call from her ex-boyfriend asking if he could come down for a visit that weekend. He was a Georgetown alum who made frequent visits to D.C. to see friends who were still living in the area, so it wasn’t unusual for him to call her or make the long drive into the District. Helen said she would be happy to meet up with him, and she began to look forward to their visit.
That weekend, the two went to The Tombs. They ordered a round of drinks and caught up with one another. They ordered a second round. And except for a few, fleeting recollections of negotiating Georgetown’s cobblestone sidewalks and fumbling to unlock the door to her house, that is where Helen’s memory of that night ends. The next morning, she woke up naked from the waist down next to her ex-boyfriend, who was in his boxers. From the waist up, she was still dressed exactly as she had been the night before.
Her ex-boyfriend—her friend—had raped her.
“What happened last night?” she asked him. “Why am I half naked?”
“Well,” he said, “when we got back from Tombs last night, you really wanted to have sex. And so we had sex. And it was great.”
She was silent. She couldn’t remember otherwise, and she didn’t know what to say. She took a shower, and when he cheerily invited her to lunch, she went with him. It wasn’t until she called a friend from high school, who told her that what happened to her was rape, that she was able to bring herself to use that word.
Helen belongs to a group of women that you have probably heard about before—she’s “one in four.” The phrase refers to the approximate number of Georgetown women who are sexually assaulted before they graduate—in most cases, at the hands of someone they know, often in a setting where they feel safe. That number, which is based on statistics from the University departments that work with victims and from anonymous surveys, is on par with statistics at colleges and universities nationwide. But without having heard a story like Helen’s, the number can be hard to fathom. It can even be hard to believe. Few people realize that sexual assault is commonplace at Georgetown until they find out that they know a woman who was assaulted or raped by an acquaintance, a mutual friend, or someone whom she once trusted. Or, as in my case, until they become a victim themselves.
Less than a year ago, another Georgetown student, a friend I had known since my freshman year, sexually assaulted me. We took a trip to another city, and after a night of bar hopping we shared a futon in the living room of his friend’s college dormitory, where he tried to hook up with me.
I didn’t want to, and he didn’t care. Soon, I was hitting him in the chest and telling him to stop touching me. When he did, I stayed awake as long as I could until I was certain that he was sleeping. Sometime later, I woke up because he had his hand in my underwear. I rolled onto my stomach and began to cry and plead with him to stop. He asked me what was wrong. I begged him to go to sleep and he did. The next morning, when we went to get sandwiches, he laughed as he told me that he had blacked out before we got to the second bar.
It took me a while to accept that I had become “one in four.” When I did, I could barely believe that this was how it had happened. My sexual assault did not look anything like I thought a sexual assault should. Until the moment I realized my friend was not going to stop kissing or touching me, there had been no signs that I needed to worry about my safety in his presence. So this summer, I interviewed former Georgetown students who had experienced rape and sexual assault for two reasons: I wanted to speak to women who could shed light on what “one in four” really looks like at Georgetown. And I wanted to see if their stories were anything like mine.
Like Helen, I felt soon after I was assaulted that something very wrong had happened to me, but I couldn’t articulate my feelings right away. Only when I told a mutual friend what had happened could I admit, days afterward and with her help, that our friend had sexually assaulted me. It would still take me months to accept how much this had affected me and begin to deal with it. In the meantime, I was miserable. I saw my attacker several times a week when I was with our other mutual friends. Sometimes, an unfortunate seating arrangement would force me to sit right beside him on our friend’s couch. I began to cry spontaneously in secret. But worst of all, because I was terrified of the consequences of revealing my assault to our other mutual friends, I felt utterly alone.
In the spring of this year, six months after I was assaulted, I admitted to myself that I needed to deal with it. I called Georgetown’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services and made an appointment to see a counselor.
Georgetown offers better services for victims of sexual assault than almost any other school of its size. The University employs a trauma specialist at CAPS who is better equipped than most college counselors to help assault victims. The Department of Public Safety staffs a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Response Team with officers who have additional training in responding to reports of sexual assault. Jen Schweer, the Sexual Assault and Health Issues Coordinator, does everything from counseling victims to helping them sort through their options, like taking time off from school or reporting the assault to DPS. Schweer has a paid, full-time position, which is very rare among mid-sized schools like Georgetown.
Victim resources, though, can only help those who proactively seek them out. For crimes like sexual assault and rape, Schweer said, many victims do not seek counseling or pursue legal options. Helen never saw a Georgetown counselor before she graduated, and neither of us reported our sexual assaults to authorities—predictable choices, since nationwide as well as at Georgetown, sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. In 2009 and so far in 2010, DPS’s public crime logs record only four sexual assaults for each year.
In 2006, Amanda*, a sophomore, was one of five students who did report her sexual assault to DPS. Her roommate was out of town when her attacker, a male student she had known her freshman year, knocked on her door to wake her up at 4 a.m. She rejected his advances and he attacked her. As he tried to rape her, she struggled and repeatedly yelled “no.” Finally, she yelled, “You really need to leave now!” He hadn’t raped her, but there had been moments when she thought he was about to.
Amanda reported his crime to DPS within seven hours. But over the next few weeks, as she frequently saw her assailant in their shared dorm building, she couldn’t focus in class or on homework. She decided to take a leave of absence.
Amanda came back to campus for a hearing before the Judicial Hearing Board two months after she had reported her assault to DPS. It was nothing like she had expected. To her, the Board’s three student members and two faculty members—the same people who hear cases of academic dishonesty at Georgetown—seemed unprepared to discuss her case. Among other questions that she found insensitive, members asked her why she didn’t leave her room when he attacked her.
“Why didn’t I just leave? It was four in the morning. We were in my room. He was on top of me. We were in a corner,” Amanda said. “I understand they need to be relatively neutral, and anyone can make an accusation, but there is a more respectful way to handle this. … I felt attacked.”
In the end, the Board placed her assailant on probation and ordered him to write her a letter of apology. Feeling the University had betrayed her, she doubted that she would even return to Georgetown. While she was on leave, her parents learned that because her attacker had violated his probation, Georgetown would not re-enroll him the following semester, but the school would not say whether this meant that he could never come back to Georgetown. Ultimately, Amanda did decide to return to campus. But for several semesters after she returned, one of her parents called the school at the beginning of each semester to make sure that her attacker had not been allowed back on campus.
Amanda is not the first former student to criticize how the Judicial Hearing Board handles cases of sexual assault. When she adjudicated her case before the Board as a freshman, Kate Dieringer (NHS ‘05), who was drugged and raped by a friend’s New Student Orientation adviser just two weeks into her freshman year of college, faced questions like “Why were you with him?” and “Why did you know him?” In the Sept. 16, 2004 issue of the Voice, Dieringer said, “I’m always thinking about which was worse, being raped or the adjudication process.”
Judy Johnson, the director of the Office of Student Conduct, explained that because the Board presumes that the respondent is innocent, and the burden of proof is on the complainant in any kind of case the Board hears, the complainant and respondent do not start off on equal footing. The Board cannot ask leading questions, either, which can force them to ask seemingly insensitive questions like the ones Amanda faced.
“I’ve never had anyone come back and say the Board was not respectful,” Johnson said. “They may say that … the hearing was difficult, but not that they were unnecessarily intrusive. By [the allegation’s] very nature, the questions that have to be asked are sensitive, they’re awkward, and they’re in the context of someone who already feels violated.”
Meanwhile, Georgetown’s efforts to prevent rape and sexual assault are weak. The University’s messages about sexual assault usually involve telling students that they can protect themselves by locking their doors. Georgetown’s methods of educating students about sexual assault are so poor that last year, the Justice Department denied Georgetown’s application for a sexual assault education grant because Georgetown does not have an education program that reaches all of its students.
DPS and University officials are aware of how pervasive acquaintance rape and assault are at Georgetown, and there are conversations within the administration about how to prevent them. But pushing the University to broaden its public discussion of acquaintance rape and sexual assault at Georgetown has been difficult. Jared Watkins (COL ‘11), one of the founders of GU Men Creating Change, a campus group which works to prevent violence against women, has been part of a persistent effort to get Georgetown to adapt a mandatory sexual assault education program akin to AlcoholEdu. It would be harder for student attackers to get away with assaulting their peers, Watkins said, if students shared a more accurate idea of what most rapes and sexual assaults really look like. But no one in the administration seems ready to adapt such a program.
“There’s a lot of power politics behind how to make things mandatory,” Watkins said. “Somehow, they can make going to the Off Campus Student Life meeting mandatory, or you can’t register for spring classes. But we can’t make sexual assault education mandatory?”
Watkins said that he is not naïve enough to think that such a program will exist before he graduates from Georgetown this spring. More likely, he thinks, Georgetown will adapt one further in the future, maybe four or five years down the road.
Brigit McLaughlin (COL ‘10) is a rape survivor—not a victim. She told me this very clearly when I spoke to her on the phone this past July.
“I feel that I survived it,” she said. “I feel like for that year and a half I was a victim, but now I’m a survivor.”
Three weeks into her freshman year, McLaughlin went to a Village B party with a group of friends. One of her friends knew an upperclassman who lived there, and after drinking and dancing for a while, McLaughlin went back to one of the apartment residents’ bedrooms to hook up with him. She told him she was a virgin and did not want to do anything more than make out, which he said he was fine with. At one point he left the room, and she passed out on his bed. She woke up again when he was raping her.
For the next eighteen months, McLaughlin spiraled into a state of self-blame and depression. She became terrified of crowds and, despite her efforts to repress the memory, had flashbacks of that night whenever she saw her attacker, who was now dating a girl in her residence hall. Finally, inspired to process her assault and react to it positively by an ESCAPE leader who had had a similar experience, McLaughlin joined Take Back the Night, an awareness-raising group on campus, and spoke to victims at other schools about her experience. Slowly, she began to heal—a process that did not include confronting her attacker.
“It’s not like he’s going to say, ‘You know, you’re right, I’m sorry for ruining a year and a half of your life and changing who you are forever.’”
In the same vein, Amanda never received the apology letter that her attacker was ordered to write. Helen kept receiving friendly emails from her ex-boyfriend after he raped her. When she confronted him with what he had done and told him not to contact her again, she received a response that said, in effect, that he was sorry she felt that way about what happened but he’d had a great time.
I never confronted the person who sexually assaulted me at all. We never had a conversation about what he did. He and most of our mutual friends grew apart until I no longer had to see him.
But I don’t share McLaughlin’s enviable confidence that I have survived.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.