I never thought this could happen at Whitman.

Rachel Alexander

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Note: Although both perpetrators and victims of sexual assault can be any gender, all of the people who were willing to speak to me for this article about being sexually assaulted were women who had been sexually assaulted by men. Nationally, according to the Department of Justice’s 2010 violent crime statistics, about 12 percent of sexual assault victims are male.

Most of us know that the popular image of sexual assault––being attacked by a knife-wielding stranger in a dark alley––is wildly inaccurate. About three-quarters of sexual assaults in the U.S. are committed by someone the victim knows, according to the Department of Justice, and this statistic is particularly true on college campuses. But even here, our narrative falls short. We like to imagine that a quick glance will tell us whether or not an encounter is consensual; that in cases of rape, roofies are involved, or there’s an assailant throwing someone down on a bed who’s screaming no at the top of their lungs.

Junior Sarah Forrest* tells her story a little differently. After a night of drinking with friends, she decided to sleep in the room she’d been hanging out in because she was too drunk to get home safely. The guy who lived there told her she could sleep in his bed. Once she was in bed, he got in next to her and started touching her.

I didn’t really know what to do, so I just went along with it. He started taking off my clothes. I was kind of on the verge of being blacked out and don’t remember a lot of it. He started touching me and then we started having sex. It was a really weird experience of not being cognizant of what I was doing; it was more like I was watching myself.

Sarah decided not to tell anyone about her experience. Although she’s thought about it since then, she still struggles with defining what happened to her.

I was so inebriated that I obviously didn’t consent to having sex. I personally hate the word rape because it brings up these feelings of victimization, so I personally don’t use the word rape. At the same time, I don’t have another word to describe it.

Sarah’s story is not atypical. In fact, it may be the new normal. I interviewed a total of nine women who had been sexually assaulted for this article, and almost all of their stories echo Sarah’s in some way. They might not have said no, because they were too confused or shocked or scared to process what was happening to them. They might have been drinking, or their assailants might have been drinking. Some of them struggled with feelings of guilt after the fact, telling themselves that they were responsible because they put themselves in a dangerous situation. Perhaps most importantly, many of them felt that the men involved didn’t feel as if they had done anything wrong.

Whitman’s sexual misconduct policy is, in theory, very straightforward. It says that consent is “a freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity, expressed by clear, unambiguous words or actions.” After discussing other important details––consent must always be present, the party initiating sexual activity has the responsibility of ensuring that consent exists––it mentions that “consent may never be obtained . . . if the victim is mentally or physically incapacitated, including through the use of drugs or alcohol.”

Two simple words. Consent. Incapacitated.

Now, put yourself at a party on Friday night. You’ve had a few drinks and are hoping to find someone to hook up with. You start dancing with someone, maybe making out on the dance floor. You know they’ve had a few drinks too, but they seem to be more or less coherent. One of you goes home with the other. Maybe you ask them point-blank if they want to have sex, or maybe you just grab a condom and assume that they’re OK if they don’t stop you.

Whitman students have wildly different views on how acceptable this scenario is. Some of us don’t see anything wrong with it. Some of us might make minor changes––maybe explicit verbal consent should be a prerequisite to sex. Some of us don’t believe that anyone who’s at all under the influence of alcohol is in a position to consent to any sexual activity. But regardless of whether this scenario should be happening, most of us can agree that it does happen. Outside of committed relationships, this is more or less how Whitties have sex.

For a lot of students, this reality comes squarely into conflict with Whitman’s official policy.

“Saying the only way you should have sex with anyone is for you to both be completely sober, and each step of the way you’re asking and you’re saying yes . . . unfortunately, that’s just not the way people have sex,” said senior Rhya Milici. “No one says, ‘Would you like to come to my bedroom and have sexual intercourse? It’ll start with kissing, but it might move that far.'”

Out of 316 Whitman students who participated in a survey about consent and alcohol on campus, 53 percent agreed or somewhat agreed that consent is not black and white, and 48 percent agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement “consent is complicated.”

In recognition of these nuances, many colleges have significant portions of their sexual misconduct policies devoted to explaining what consent is and isn’t. Many describe consent as a process and list guidelines, such as mutual respect, which should govern sexual encounters. Swarthmore College says that “consent is active, not passive and is possible only when there is equal power.” Dartmouth’s policy says that non-consent may be communicated nonverbally, noting that “even in the absence of a verbal ‘no,’ physical resistance is not necessary to communicate a lack of consent.” Whitman clarifies that “the use of alcohol or drugs does not diminish a student’s responsibility to obtain consent for sexual activity.”

Still, many Whitman students feel that the relationship between alcohol and consent is particularly problematic, regardless of what the official campus policy says. Several students noted that many people drink at parties specifically because being tipsy allows them to do things they might not have the courage to do sober, including initiate sexual activities.

“That in itself just kind of blurs the line. When does it stop being your choice, and when does it become you being taken advantage of?” said junior Maddie Pyatt.

It’s at this line that people disagree with each other most. Senior Matt McMillan believed that miscommunications about consent can happen during heterosexual encounters where men are sexually inexperienced. This can result in women feeling violated, regardless of their partner’s intentions.

“It’s not like they’re trying to do something terrible to this girl, they just don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

Matt felt that in situations where alcohol is involved, both parties can be responsible for an encounter.

“If you choose to engage in the type of behavior that’s going to make you lose all your inhibitions and your ability to control yourself, that’s your choice, and in many ways, you’re just as responsible as the other person,” he said.

Junior Heather Samuels*, also a sexual assault survivor, acknowledged that drawing the incapacitated line can be difficult.

“There are a lot of people that hook up drunk,” she said. If people are a little tipsy, they can still consent, and if someone is blacked out, they obviously can’t, but “there’s a spot in the middle where it’s not 100 percent clear in every situation.”

Heather believes that in these situations, people should err on the side of caution.

“I think that if you’re not 100 percent sure whether or not what you’re doing is not rape, don’t do it. That should be self-explanatory,” she said.

Sexual Misconduct Prevention Coordinator Barbara Maxwell agreed that it’s important to consider how alcohol may affect a person’s ability to give consent.

“Bottom line for me: If you know or suspect the person you want to be intimate with has been drinking, you need to exercise great care to make sure they are capable of being able to give consent,” she said.

Another question that came up with many students was who, exactly, is supposed to decide if someone is too drunk to consent. Whitman’s sexual misconduct policy says that “initiating sexual activity with a person who is incapacitated and unable to provide consent due to alcohol . . . consumption” qualifies as sexual misconduct. Many students felt that expecting drunk students to make rational decisions about their partner’s state of mind was unrealistic. Rhya believed that in many cases where guys hook up with girls who are blacked out, they’re not aware of what they’re doing.

“How would he know? He was probably drunk too. Drunk people are not a very good judge of anything,” she said.

Whitman’s policy is based on a sexual misconduct policy written by the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a nationally recognized authority on college legal issues. NCHERM was consulted in 2009 to revise Whitman’s sexual misconduct policy and bring it into compliance with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in higher education. Yet NCHERM’s model policy includes a phrase not found in Whitman’s. It clarifies that sexual activity with someone “you know to be––or should know to be––mentally or physically incapacitated” is prohibited.

NCHERM Managing Partner Brett Soloskow stated that the reason for having this standard is important.

“The point to the knowledge standard is that we hold someone accountable for taking advantage of another’s incapacity.  Taking advantage implies that someone knows the other party is weak or vulnerable.  Yet, some people are ignorant or willfully ignorant of what a reasonable person would have known, hence the need for the “should have known” standard.  Would a reasonable person (sober), in possession of the information the accused individual had, have known the alleged victim was incapacitated?” he said in an email.

Maxwell agreed that adding the “should have known” standard to Whitman’s policy would help clarify what is expected of students.

“The reason I would advocate adding that phrase is that I believe it makes the student initiating intimacy responsible for not only doing a visual check to make sure the person they want to be with is not impaired, but also responsible for doing an ‘environmental’ check. For example, certain student events have a reputation for heavy drinking, and often, the physical environment backs that up by having plenty of empty cans, cups and bottles in evidence.  That, in and of itself, would indicate that students in attendance may have consumed a large quantity of alcohol and anyone initiating intimate contact would need to make sure their partner is in a condition to consent,” she said.

Sometimes, of course, consent isn’t complicated at all. Sometimes, the problem isn’t that someone didn’t say no, it’s that no one listened to them. Senior Ellie Newell knows this as well as anyone. She went to a party her freshman year, where she met a guy who kept giving her drinks. After a while, he took her back to his room.

He really pressured me to have sex with him, and I kept saying no, that I wasn’t interested.

Ellie paused here, looking down before continuing.

He forced me to give him oral sex, and also touched me in ways that I was not comfortable with. While it was happening, I knew that it wasn’t right, and I knew that I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but I was so scared that if I ran away there would be huge social ramifications for me, as a freshman, new on campus and pretty insecure in the Whitman partying scene. And I just felt horrible and out of control. I was so drunk that it was like it was happening to my body but disconnected from my body.

Though Ellie clearly said no during her rape, she also strongly agrees with Heather that making sure your partner can legally consent to sex is important. Without this guideline in place, it’s always possible to wake up to a partner who had a very different experience than you the night before.

“If someone wakes up in the morning and feels that they’ve been raped, I would never question that. If they feel that they’ve been raped, they’ve been raped,” she said.

Ellie believes that changing the culture of sexual assault on campus requires embedding the idea of free and informed consent into all of our social interactions.

“I don’t think that really enters the brain of the average drunk person on the average Friday night,” she said. “I don’t think it’s deep enough in our Whitman conscience or our social conscience. I don’t have any easy answers for that. I see that as the next big challenge of feminism in the United States.”

For survivors of sexual assault, moving forward can be a challenge. Some of the women I talked to wanted their rapists to be punished; others just wished they could make these men understand what they went through. I asked Sarah what she would like to say to him, if she had a chance to speak her mind. She said she would never do that on a campus as small as Whitman’s, where it’s so easy for people to find out about conversations that seem private at the time. But after thinking for a minute, she did have something she wanted to say.

I would say to him, you violated me, you did this to me personally and these are the consequences that it’s had on my life, and this is how I’ve had to deal with it, and I don’t appreciate it, and if you’ve done this to other women, you can rot in hell.

Ellie has chosen to be vocal about her rape. She’s the co-president of Feminists Advocating Change and Empowerment on campus, and in conversations where sexual assault is mentioned, she will speak up, telling people, “I’m just going to throw this out there––I was raped.” For her, this is an important part of addressing the problem.

It really is the crime of silence. Unless people actively speak out about it, there’s no way rape culture is going to change . . . I think putting faces to these crimes is really important because unless people realize, it’s their friend, it’s their classmate, it’s the girl they walk by on Ankeny every day, there’s no way this would ever stop.

*Name has been changed.

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