Sex as­sault in col­lege is com­mon, of­ten trau­matic


EAST LANSING, MICH. — She re­mem­bers do­ing shots of liquor in her dorm room be­fore head­ing out to a foot­ball tail­gate party, where she got black­out drunk. When she cam eto, she was groggy, stand­ing in the bath­room of her dorm room, look­ing in the mir­ror. Her hair was a mess. Be­hind her was a man she didn’t rec­og­nize, star­ing back at her and then slip­ping out the door.

It was just a fewweeks into her fresh­man year at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity, and Rachel Sienkowski had be­come a sur­vivor — but of what, she wasn’t sure. A sex­ual as­sault? A rape?

All she knew was that her head was bleed­ing. Blood had spat­tered the ceil­ing of her bed­room and stained her bed sheets, her pil­lows, her ze­bras­triped com­forter. She was cry­ing.

“I was very con­fused,” Sienkowski says now, nearly three years later. “I woke up. He was in the room. I didn’t know who he was or how I got there or how long I had been there.”

Sienkowski’s story, and her con­fu­sion about what hap­pened to her on that boozy foot­ball Satur­day, echo the de­scrip­tions many women and men gave of their sex­ual as­saults dur­ing their time in col­lege.

Af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post and the Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion con­ducted a poll of more than 1,000

cur­rent and re­cent col­lege stu­dents from around the coun­try, a team of Post re­porters in­ter­viewed more than 50 peo­ple who re­sponded that they had, at some point dur­ing their time in col­lege, ex­pe­ri­enced un­wanted sex­ual con­tact.

Their per­sonal ac­counts por­tray col­lege as a world where un­wel­come sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, rang­ing from fondling to rape, are so com­mon­place that they are al­most mun­dane. Like Sienkowski, many vic­tims said they were as­saulted soon af­ter they ar­rived on cam­pus, as they em­braced new­found free­doms, and many of them had been so drunk that they couldn’t re­mem­ber much, if any­thing, of what hap­pened.

Yet how­ever gauzy their mem­o­ries, they knew they had been vi­o­lated. Many sur­vivors de­scribed their ex­pe­ri­ences as scars that stayed with them for months or years, of­ten seed­ing anx­i­ety that in­ter­fered with aca­demics and re­la­tion­ships.

Other sur­vivors’ sto­ries — in­clud­ing about grop­ing, co­erced sex and rape within long-term re­la­tion­ships — il­lu­mi­nate the dizzy­ing breadth of ex­pe­ri­ences that make it im­pos­si­ble to gen­er­al­ize about sex­ual mis­con­duct in col­lege.

A stu­dent at Cal­i­for­nia’s Uni­ver­sity of La Verne, a de­vout Mus­lim who was a vir­gin and had never had al­co­hol, said she didn’t rec­og­nize a sex­ual ad­vance un­til it was too late.

A Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut stu­dent said she told her boyfriend she wasn’t ready for sex, only to wake up from a deep sleep to dis­cover he was rap­ing her.

A woman at a public uni­ver­sity in the Mid­west said she pre­tended to be asleep as her room­mate’s friend, a man stay­ing overnight, touched her lips, her arm, her face. He didn’t stop un­til morn­ing. “It was seven hours of hell,” she said. Many fe­male vic­tims blamed a per­va­sive lack of re­spect for women and a cul­ture of ex­pected sex. The ma­jor­ity never re­ported their as­saults to their col­leges or to po­lice, mean­ing that their sto­ries don’t show up in crime statis­tics and have never been in­ves­ti­gated.

Some said they didn’t re­port the at­tacks be­cause they wres­tled with hid­den guilt, feel­ing partly to blame for the crimes com­mit­ted against them as they grap­pled with the af­ter­math.

A stu­dent at Kala­ma­zoo Col­lege in Michi­gan said she was raped in the shower af­ter a day of drink­ing at a house on the lake. A stranger forced his way into the locked bath­room and then joined her in the run­ning wa­ter. She said no but feared she should have done more. She never re­ported the attack.

“I could have screamed, I could have yelled for help, or hit him or scratched him or some­thing,” the stu­dent said. “I don’t feel like I did enough to pre­vent it.”

Sienkowski prob­a­bly wouldn’t have cho­sen to go to po­lice if not for the gash in the back of her head, she said. Her friends were alarmed when she walked into their room, bleed­ing and clad only in a bra and gym shorts. They alerted the dorm’s res­i­dent as­sis­tant, who called Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity po­lice.

Sienkowski went to the hos­pi­tal, where doc­tors sta­pled her wound shut and com­pleted a rape kit, ac­cord­ing to po­lice records. The ex­am­i­na­tion showed signs of sex­ual in­ter­course but couldn’t de­ter­mine whether it had been con­sen­sual. Be­cause Sienkowski re­mem­bered so lit­tle, po­lice con­ducted mul­ti­ple in­ter­views with her friends and other wit­nesses to piece it to­gether.

She and her room­mate had started drink­ing that af­ter­noon with shots of Bac­ardi rum in their dorm room.

Then she headed out­side to the cam­pus tail­gate frenzy, an all-day party be­fore Michi­gan State faced off against the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame at 8 p.m. It was a sunny Satur­day in mid-Septem­ber, and lawns near the sta­dium were crowded with thou­sands of peo­ple an­tic­i­pat­ing the matchup of two na­tional pow­er­houses.

Sienkowski and her cousin each had a beer and a shot at a tail­gate tent near the ten­nis courts. Then Sienkowski headed off to Spar­tan Sta­dium for the game. She never made it. Some­time that evening, she met a man at a tail­gate party, po­lice records say.

In in­ter­views with cam­pus po­lice of­fi­cers, the man de­scribed an evening of drunken con­sen­sual sex— one he said he re­gret­ted, be­cause he had a girl­friend. And, like Sienkowski, he said he was too drunk to re­mem­ber much.

The man told po­lice that they had flirted while tail­gat­ing, hold­ing hands and em­brac­ing as they walked through the crowd. They then headed to her dorm, he said. Po­lice found that Sienkowski signed the man in via the re­cep­tion­ist’s vis­i­tor log book, the clue that led them to him.

The man told po­lice that the two of them hadn’t dis­cussed why they were go­ing to the dorm, but “he thought to him­self that he was go­ing to get laid,” of­fi­cers wrote.

‘A re­ally big deal’

Even sober peo­ple can have dif­fi­culty agree­ing on how and when and whether con­sent is es­tab­lished dur­ing a sex­ual en­counter, and even sober peo­ple some­times strug­gle to com­mu­ni­cate their de­sires dur­ing sex. But sur­vivors said there’s far more po­ten­tial for trou­ble when drink­ing is in­volved.

A per­son in­ca­pac­i­tated by drugs or al­co­hol can­not legally con­sent to sex; sex with some­one in such con­di­tion is rape, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice Depart­ment. But where is the line be­tween in­tox­i­ca­tion and in­ca­pac­i­ta­tion? And what if both peo­ple are in­ca­pac­i­tated?

Alexan­dra Le Blanc and her date both got “pretty in­tox­i­cated” at a party last fall, dur­ing the first weeks of her sopho­more year at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity in the Dis­trict, she said. When the party ended, she found her­self in a jam: A friend who was car­ry­ing her room key had left.

Her date, whom she’d met a week ear­lier, in­vited her to his house.

“When he started kiss­ing me, it was def­i­nitely con­sen­sual,” Le Blanc said, but she didn’t want it to go too far. “I had zero in­ten­tions of hav­ing sex that night. It’s not what I wanted to hap­pen.”

To Le Blanc’s dis­tress, it did: “I didn’t say no, but I didn’t re­ally know what to do. I just kind of froze. I was vis­i­bly cry­ing dur­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

She fled his house. When the man called the next day, Le Blanc told him she was up­set, and he apol­o­gized. “I was a wreck. I very much felt it had to be sex­ual as­sault,” she said. She didn’t go to au­thor­i­ties be­cause at the time she felt over­whelmed and con­fused.

The Post gen­er­ally does not iden­tify vic­tims of al­leged sex crimes. The sur­vivors named in this story all agreed to tell their sto­ries pub­licly.

An­other woman, a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati, said she got so drunk at a party that she lost aware­ness of her sur­round­ings. In a mo­ment of clar­ity, she re­al­ized that she was on a couch, mak­ing out with a man who had his hands up her skirt, in her un­der­wear.

She leaped up and ran home. He apol­o­gized af­ter­ward, and though she knew she had been vi­o­lated she couldn’t re­mem­ber enough about it to be con­fi­dent that he should be charged with a crime. She never re­ported it. “Ac­cus­ing some­one of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing you is a re­ally big deal, and I wasn’t putting him in that po­si­tion,” she said.

She thinks about the other par­ty­go­ers who fil­tered through the room that night. They laughed, she said, but they should have in­ter­vened. “They could have had my back.”

While some sur­vivors who did not re­port their as­saults said they didn’t want to make ac­cu­sa­tions based on al­co­hol-blurred mem­o­ries, oth­ers were cer­tain they would not be taken se­ri­ously or said they didn’t want scru­tiny or blame.

Mes­sages about pre­vent­ing sex­ual as­sault, many sur­vivors noted, tend to be di­rected at women: Don’t go out alone, don’t drink too much, don’t leave your drink unat­tended. Sur­vivors said they so in­ter­nal­ized those mes­sages that they won­dered — and oth­ers ques­tioned — whether they should have done some­thing dif­fer­ent to head off at­tacks.

Kather­ine Bow­man of­ten crashed with one of her clos­est friends at his place, sleep­ing in his bed with­out worry. She was sure it was clear that they were just friends, but that changed one night dur­ing her sopho­more year at the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham.

She went home with her friend af­ter drink­ing, got sick and passed out. She awoke at 4a.m. in a haze, her pants of­fand her friend touch­ing her. “He was orally as­sault­ing me,” Bow­man said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

She jumped up, pulled her clothes on and went home, she said. She was an­gry. She hadn’t been given a chance to con­sent, and­her in­tox­i­ca­tion had not been an in­vi­ta­tion for sex. She ended the friend­ship and felt her trust in other male friends evap­o­rate.

But she never re­ported the in­ci­dent to au­thor­i­ties. She said she sees it as an un­equiv­o­cal as­sault, but she was sure she would be dis­missed be­cause she had been drunk, be­cause she had been in her friend’s bed, be­cause — no mat­ter how wronged she had been or had felt — she wouldn’t be seen as in­no­cent.

“It’s not some­thing my friends took se­ri­ously. It’s not some­thing the law would take se­ri­ously,” she said. “It’s just not some­thing that’s seen as sex­ual as­sault.”

Bow­man blamed a cul­ture in which sex­ual as­sault and rape are not seen as real crimes.

“We live in a so­ci­ety that nor­mal­izes it, even cel­e­brates it to some de­gree,” Bow-----

man said.

Wrestling with rage and re­gret

Sex­ual as­sault isn’t just some­thing that men do to women. Sur­vivors in­ter­viewed by The Post in­cluded men who said they were raped by women, men raped by men, and women as­saulted by women. And th­ese vic­tims said they of­ten found them­selves bat­tling gen­der stereo­types af­ter­ward.

“Guys aren’t sup­posed to be vic­tims,” said one male sur­vivor, a stu­dent at a public uni­ver­sity on the West Coast who said he was as­saulted by an­other man who was his fra­ter­nity brother and room­mate.

He left the fra­ter­nity and found an­other place to stay. But he was rat­tled and ashamed, and he didn’t want to tell the fra­ter­nity, the school or the po­lice.

“I didn’t think any­body would be­lieve me,” he said.

A stu­dent at North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity said she was as­saulted when she stayed with a fe­male friend who promised a ride to Chicago the next day.

“As I was get­ting ready to sleep, she started to kiss me. I froze and didn’t re­cip­ro­cate,” the woman said. “I turned my head away but she didn’t stop. She started touch­ing me other places. I still didn’t say any­thing. Af­ter a bit, she stopped and called me a prude.”

The stu­dent, who is a les­bian, told her girl­friend what had hap­pened. She said her girl­friend replied that if she hadn’t wanted it to hap­pen, she would have found away to stop it.

The stu­dent said she be­gan to have trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing, and her grades plunged. “I was cry­ing all the time. Ev­ery­thing felt like a blur and I felt dirty, small and numb,” she said. “I felt like it wasmy fault and like I was bro­ken.”

Some sur­vivors were vic­tim­ized dur­ing long-term re­la­tion­ships.

As­tu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska Omaha said she dated the same man for six years, start­ing in high school and into col­lege. Only af­ter she left him, mov­ing out of their shared home at the be­hest of her fam­ily, did she re­al­ize that he had raped her mul­ti­ple times.

“He was never su­per vi­o­lent against me, but it was very much a lack of con­sent,” she said. “He would con­tinue to be rate me un­til I gave in.”

Once when they were driv­ing, for ex­am­ple, he re­fused to let her out of the car un­til she per­formed oral sex. “Even­tu­ally I gave in so I could get my­self out of that sit­u­a­tion,” she said.

She be­gan hav­ing panic at­tacks, and she didn’t want to leave the house. “I felt so un­safe in the re­la­tion­ship all the time,” she said.

Many sur­vivors said they wres­tled si­mul­ta­ne­ously with rage and re­gret.

“That night it was just poor de­ci­sions,” said Sarah Honos, a stu­dent at Eastern Michi­gan Uni­ver­sity, who got sep­a­rated from friends af­ter a night of drink­ing in New York City. They were headed back to their ho­tel in New Jer­sey when she got off the sub­way and re­al­ized, stand­ing on the plat­form, that it was the wrong stop.

Her cell­phone was in a friend’s purse. Honos said she re­mem­bers ask­ing dozens of peo­ple to di­rect her to the Port Author­ity, un­til a man said he was go­ing there and could show her the way.

When the bus they were on crossed the Hud­son River, she started to worry. When they got off the bus, he led her into a liquor store and into the bath­room, pressed her up against a wall and raped her, she said.

She spent the rest of the night ter­ri­fied, walk­ing through the dark, ask­ing for help and find­ing none. “I take it as a les­son of hu­man­ity,” she said. “No one would help me.”

She never told any­one what hap­pened un­til she was con­tacted by The Post.

Other women were as­saulted in sit­u­a­tions that seemed safe. Mikala Burt, a stu­dent at Howard Uni­ver­sity in the Dis­trict, was on her way to study Ger­man with the guy she was see­ing when they stopped off at a friend’s house one night last fall.

When she re­al­ized that he had drunk too much to drive, she didn’t think twice about curl­ing up on a couch in the living room there; the fa­ther of one of the men, who owned the house, was home at the time.

But then a man woke her up around 2 a.m., say­ing that he wanted to have a good time. He told her he would pay her $100. Dis­gusted, she told him to let her go, but he pinned her arms down.

She started scream­ing for help, but no one woke up.

“I was determined to fight my way out. I was more an­gry than scared,” she said. He was ly­ing down on top of her, but she some­how pulled a knee up quickly and kicked him as hard as she could in the chest. She got away.

Grap­pling with the un­known

Three years af­ter Rachel Sienkowski woke up with a strange man in her Michi­gan State dorm room, she thought she was done grap­pling with the ex­pe­ri­ence. She had come to terms with not know­ing ex­actly what had hap­pened. But then she read the po­lice files. “We were both in­ter­ested in each other and hit things off right away,” the man wrote in his state­ment to po­lice. “Both of us were in­tox­i­cated, but nei­ther was more in­tox­i­cated than the other.”

The man pro­vided of­fi­cers with pho­to­graphs of hick­eys on his neck as ev­i­dence that Sienkowski “was very into ev­ery­thing that was hap­pen­ing,” ac­cord­ing to his writ­ten state­ment.

“At no time dur­ing sex­ual in­ter­course with this girl did she ever tell me to ‘STOP’ or try to push me away,” wrote the man, who was not a stu­dent at Michi­gan State, ac­cord­ing to po­lice records. Sienkowski doesn’t know the man’s name, and it was redacted from the doc­u­ments. Au­thor­i­ties de­clined to share his iden­tity with The Post, cit­ing pri­vacy re­stric­tions.

He told po­lice that he fell asleep and a woke when Sienkowski fell out of her loft bed onto the floor. When he got up to check on her, he found her in the bath­room, look­ing in the mir­ror. He de­scribed a scene that matched Sienkowski’s hazy mem­ory of the same mo­ment: He asked her why she had given him hick­eys when he had a girl­friend. And he left.

Sienkowski said the man’s ac­count made her doubt her­self. “He said all of this stuff, that it was me who caused all this trou­ble. It was just me be­ing drunk,” she said. “It made me feel guilty.”

Her case went to the of­fice of the county pros­e­cu­tor, Stu­art Dun­nings III, who said he de­cided not to file charges but de­clined fur­ther com­ment on the case.

There’s still plenty about that night that Sienkowski still doesn’t un­der­stand, and she is trou­bled by the un­knowns. She doesn’t know why she blacked out, as the amount of al­co­hol she had that af­ter­noon wasn’t un­usual for her, she said. She still isn’t sure what caused her head in­jury. And she doesn’t know for sure whether she had wanted sex in the mo­ment, when she was un­aware of what was hap­pen­ing.

She still has trou­ble as­sign­ing a la­bel to what hap­pened to her. Even though she was too drunk to know what she was do­ing, rape doesn’t seem like the right term. But it wasn’t con­sen­sual sex, ei­ther.

Still, she knows she was vi­o­lated, the term she says makes the most sense to her. It was not what she wanted; she can’t imag­ine seek­ing to have sex with a stranger in a crowd.

“It’s not some­thing I would do,” she said. “If I could’ve made a de­ci­sion, I wouldn’t have cho­sen to do that.”


TOP: Rachel Sienkowski blacked out be­fore a foot­ball game. When she came to, she was in her dorm with a bloody head and a strange man. ABOVE: Mikala Burt woke up on a couch with a man on top of her. He pinned her arms down, but she pulled a knee up and kicked him as hard as she could. She got away.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.