Acknowledging Rape on College Campuses: There is No Safety in Silence

"The Room Where It Happened" Photo Credit: Olga Voyazides

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Institutional Responses to Rape

Looking at the pictures taken before I was raped is hard for me. In one picture, I am standing in the Main House kitchen with my fellow group after cooking Thanksgiving dinner.  The freshman in the kitchen was not the same person as I was hours later.

Then there’s a picture from five days after the rape: it is of myself, my rapist, and another rower just before my rapist received notice of the Title IX investigation against him. It was one of the many Photo Booth pictures we took during a rowing team fundraiser. We are posing as “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

My rapist is covering his ears.  

My teammate is covering their eyes.  

I am covering my mouth.  

On November 11th, 2012 I was raped by a rowing teammate. His position in my intimate community messed up my ability to imagine justice. He was my friend, my teammate, my captain, and now he was my rapist. I didn’t know how to process what had happened to me.

Ideally, Title IX exists to prevent and address gender-based discrimination in academic institutions. It is supposed to address inequality through consistent protocol and covers dynamics from sports to funding to sexual violence. Title IX hearings do not require the same burden of proof as a United States court of law. They aim to prove that an offense took place “more likely than not” as opposed to “beyond reasonable doubt.” This different burden of proof can allow survivors to seek validation for their trauma. It also gives colleges the potential to support the physical, mental, and emotional health of the people impacted by perpetrators.   

The Title IX sanctioning process assumes that when someone breaks a rule, removal from the community is both healing for those affected and rehabilitative for the perpetrator. In the list of sanctions given to the adjudicators in Title IX hearings, most of the sanctions involve suspension and expulsion. Even if perpetrators are not found responsible, students can request no contact orders or campus bans depending on whether the perpetrator is also a current student.  On a small campus where friendships and public spaces overlap, the possibility of running into my perpetrator at any time was nothing short of torture. Entering Davison, the dorm where I was raped, sent me straight back to the night that it happened. It sent me right back to stumbling out of the side door with my shirt only half on.

We have been taught that rape is rape and that there is a foolproof definition of consent. This definition requires that a seventeen-year-old enters college knowing not only what they want and do not want sexually but also how to express it. Vassar’s definition of consent demands a clear “yes” or “no” response to a question and so it fails to account for the social, emotional, and psychological implications of those two words. Consent is fundamentally an issue of power dynamics.

I do not believe that all rape is intentionally rape, but it is an intentional use of power.

At eighteen, no one had ever asked me what I wanted sexually; they had made all of the decisions before I even realized that decisions were being made. The first time I was sexually assaulted was by an older male teammate on my high school fencing team. I was fifteen years old. Even after telling him to stop over and over, I thought it was my fault for being unclear. I thought a teammate would never finger me until I bled. Scared and embarrassed about my inability to stop him, I told a friend what happened. She congratulated me for getting fingered for the first time. I learned then that any negative response to sex is wrong.

People who have experienced trauma are often confused, so they look to their communities for how to respond. My communities have responded along a spectrum from unequivocal support to outright denial. Whether or not we choose to recognize certain people as rapists, we have to begin to engage with the reality of violence or we will continue to support it. And it has to stop. I do not suggest that everyone has to ostracize every person who has committed an act of violence. I do not think that writing a person off is at its core any more productive than ignoring the violence altogether. Not everyone has to respond in the same way, but I choose to stay away from people who make me feel angry and unsafe. I understand that this isn’t easy.  Accountability can feel like a black and white issue while social dynamics and social responsibility are anything but black and white. I continue to have daily interactions with people whom I know to have committed acts of violence on this campus. I struggle all the time with that incongruence. I want people to take community responsibility, but I don’t want people who scare me in my community. Every community has to begin to acknowledge it in the ways that work for them, but the way Vassar acknowledges it currently does not work for me. After almost four years at Vassar, I still don’t have the answer: who is supposed to take on the role of rehabilitating a rapist?

There is a strong mantra of interpersonal responsibility at a small school like Vassar, especially in micro-communities like sports teams and classes. Athletes and student leaders here are mandated by law to participate in bystander intervention training to interrupt potentially violent interactions between their peers. Freshman must complete information sessions that review how to extract yourself from a potentially violent situation. Bystander intervention training covers gender inequality and the definition of consent (presence of a yes, not absence of a no), but it is all in the context of how to prevent violence from happening to others. Vassar does not offer any piece of training that teaches its students how to not be rapists.

I do not believe that all rape is intentionally rape, but it is an intentional use of power. In some ways, this is scarier to me than a person who truly understands the disproportionate power they wield. There is a serious problem with a rapist who does not believe they have raped somebody. As I was being assaulted, my rapist told me that everything should be “just between us,” that it was “our secret.” I can still hear his voice in my ear saying that he “always knew I was trouble.” I told him that I wasn’t. It is incredibly hard for “trouble” to fight a “good guy” who has advantages of age, muscle, and position of authority. Especially if that guy is crushing your lungs with his entire body weight. During the hearing, he never claimed to have asked me for consent. He instead tried to argue that I wanted it because I was responding to every movement he made towards penetration. And he was right: I was definitely responding. I was trying to push him off.

I didn’t want a Title IX hearing. I didn’t want to report what had happened at all. My first hearing occurred because I told my coach what had happened. I couldn’t bring myself to sweat on a rowing machine next to my rapist. My coach and I did not know that coaches are mandated reporters who are legally required to report these events to the school if they hear about them. My coach found out because she asked the SAVP coordinator for advice. The SAVP coordinator told her that she had to officially report the event.    

I remember sitting in the SAVP coordinator’s office and having the coordinator explain to me, two days after I was raped, that I could not stop the investigation from going forward to take more time to process and heal. There was nothing I could do to stop a group of male administrators from taking control of my life. My only other option would be to erase my voice completely by refusing to participate. I felt like I was being raped all over again, except this time the people holding me down were seated across a desk in broad daylight. So out of fear, I told them I would cooperate. I sat down to an interview with Rich Horowitz, former Title IX Investigator and current Associate Director of Residential Life, that officially launched the investigation. There was a no contact order issued four days later. I went through four days having to pretend that everything was fine before the school told him that an investigation was moving forward.  

The hearing was scheduled for December 6th. I already knew what sanctions I wanted imposed. Days beforehand, I emailed Dean of Students, DB Brown, with the information of a Hudson Valley evidence-based treatment program for young men who were perpetrators of sexual assault. Vassar College mandates therapy and evidence-based treatment programs for what they see as “individual” problems, such as mental health struggles and substance abuse. The school mandates that return to campus is contingent upon a positive evaluation from health professionals and therapists. My fear came not only from my own hurt and trauma but from the probability of the same thing happening to others. I found out over the course of the investigation from a teammate that I wasn’t my rapist’s first victim, but I wanted to be the last.

DB Brown never responded to any of my emails about sanctioning. Throughout the entire investigation, every administrator involved stressed the fact that I was a kind of Title IX “guinea pig” because I was only the second investigation to occur under their “new system.”  

My hearing was held in the President’s Conference Room, which overlooks the Retreat student café. The school is required to offer parties in an investigation remote testimony. I should have been able to call or Skype in to the hearing. Still trying to parse my trauma four weeks after the rape, I was not ready to hear my rapist’s voice and I was not prepared to sit in a room with him. DB Brown did offer to let me call in over Skype or phone, but he also stressed that absent witnesses are far less convincing to a panel. The hearing started at 6:00 pm. I did not want to go. But I also didn’t want to lose even more of my voice.  

In 2012, the hearing process made decisions through an Interpersonal Violence Panel instead of an outside adjudicator like it does now. The Title IX Investigator presented case information to the panel. Because of this set up, both the people presenting and receiving the information were employed by Vassar. Both parties in the investigation were given the option to choose a panel of three faculty members or two faculty members with a student. Rather than risk a peer knowing my story, I opted for the default of three faculty members. The idea of having another student on the panel was terrifying. I needed some semblance of separation between my trauma and my daily interactions. If someone from the student body could rape me, I didn’t want someone from the student body labeling my trauma.  

Walking into the hearing, I expected to see my head coach as a witness, a partition hiding my rapist, and the panel. There was a surprise waiting for me. Rich Horowitz had added one of my teammates, who had been at the rowing party that occurred the night of my rape, to the witness roster. The panel drilled her, my rapist, and me about the amount of alcohol that we had consumed. My coach told them what my rapist and I had relayed to her afterwards. Desire to protect my team kept me from telling the panel that my rapist had told me to remove my shirt during a game of beer pong that night, punishment for landing the ball in the center cup.  

We don’t want to think that we can be friends with, date, or go home with a ‘good guy’ and still end up raped. And so there is a desperation to find the good guys and a fear of admitting when our analysis was wrong.

The panel came back with its decision: he was found responsible for having violated the student code of conduct for sexual misconduct and sexual offenses. He was sanctioned first with a continuance of the no contact order that went into effect when the investigation began. He was suspended for the Spring 2013 semester, the minimum punishment he could have received. He was banned from campus immediately. But he was also allowed to attend classes, academic functions, meetings with his advisor, and final exams for the remainder of the fall semester.  

You can’t suspend misogyny.

I wrote two simultaneous appeal letters, a counter-appeal and an appeal of my own. My own letter I wrote to appeal the sanctions. I wrote the counter-appeal to my rapist’s traumatizing and victim blaming fifteen page long appeal letter. Dean of the College Chris Rolleke had given a six day extension because my rapist had gotten a lawyer, a person from outside the community, involved. I got my rapist’s appeal as an email attachment during team practice. I read it on my phone standing under his name on the rowing team’s record board. He spelled my name wrong. He said I cried during the hearing because I was lying and embarrassed. He claimed that I never told him to stop because I just wanted an orgasm. He said that the onus of communication is on the person not enjoying a sexual experience because free condoms indicate a fundamentally sexual culture. If that logic sounds incoherent to you, that’s fine because it’s still incoherent to me. All I can say is, I would rather have had sex with one of the free condoms than have had him anywhere near me.

My appeal was denied with no explanation. If my rapist was not going to return to Vassar with a new perspective, I hoped that future rapists would be given the chance to change. I worked with the former SAVP coordinator to schedule meetings with administrators to reform sanctioning policies. I met with DB Brown, Rich Horowitz, and Title IX Coordinator, Julian Williams. All three meetings ended with the same answer: they were “legally unable” to require students to complete therapy programs. They will mandate these measures for someone with depression but not for a rapist.   

For me, there is a contradiction. I fear what isolation will do to violent people and I fear the proximity of rapists. I know that there is a disconnect between the social responsibility that I wanted from my rapist and the anger that I felt towards my former friends from failing to cut him out of their lives. I wanted him to change for the better, but I wanted him to do it far away from me and anyone I knew.

Students regularly silence each other through retaliation and resentment when someone shares their trauma. We do this partly because of how much we have at stake when we admit that there is a problem. The smaller the community, the scarier it seems that rapists are walking around it. In a setting where students are exposed to so many sexual assault statistics before they even arrive on campus, it is tempting to classify men in particular in a binary of good guys and bad guys. We don’t want to think that we can be friends with, date, or go home with a “good guy” and still end up raped. And so there is a desperation to find the good guys and a fear of admitting when our analysis was wrong.  

I have not been immune to classifying people. One morning at the Deece in November 2012, a teammate and I talked while waiting for our toast. We talked about how important the rowing team was to our Vassar experience, how even when everything else felt out of control it was there for us. We talked about athletics as a safe haven that builds lifelong relationships. 40 hours later, that same teammate became my rapist.

I knew that if he were to just leave for a semester, then nothing real would have changed.  Rather than encourage students to return to Vassar having learned the impact of violence, removal allows perpetrators to imagine themselves as victims of an unjust system. This is the opposite of restorative justice, where someone who has damaged a community works to repair and understand the damage. My rapist, while off campus and again after graduation, was hired to coach Poughkeepsie high schoolers in rowing. This was not justice. A mere change of community is not rehabilitation. But I assumed because of the no contact order that when he was back certain spaces could stay safe for me. My first no contact order stipulated that he was not permitted in my dorm. DB Brown assured me in a meeting, where the SAVP and Title IX Coordinators were also present, that this would extend into his return to Vassar. DB Brown promised to give me safety and peace of mind by removing my rapist’s card access to my building and by telling me that security was only a phone call away.  

My rapist was back at Vassar for only a few hours before I came face to face with him. I was in my dorm on upperclassmen move in day, walking freshmen to a presentation because I was a student fellow. He walked the opposite direction down a narrow hallway, locking eyes with me and staring me down until he passed. At that moment, my role as a leader and my human emotion clashed. I wanted to embody calm control, but all I had was confusion and panic. Unable to be the leader I thought I should be, I immediately asked another student fellow to take over so that my freshmen would not be alone. I remembered sitting in the sexual assault information session during their orientation. Glancing down the row at the freshmen that I was supposed to lead through their first year at Vassar, all I could think about were assault statistics. If one out of five women on college campuses experience sexual assault or violence on campus, which of the five sitting in my row were going to be raped before graduation? Should I recruit freshmen to the rowing team knowing the legacy of violence it’s had? I went to a friend’s room and we locked ourselves inside. I called security as DB Brown had instructed the year before. I thought that my rapist’s blatant disregard for my well-being would propel the school into some kind of action. I was wrong.

Security took my name when I called, but never showed up. They did not ask me where I was, where my rapist was, or if I was safe. They waited until the next day to contact him.  As soon as my rapist claimed he had not known that I lived in Main, they tried to drop the matter entirely. When I confronted DB Brown about his failure to remove my rapist’s card access, he said:

“My bad. I must have forgotten.” Then he told me to call security if it happened again.  

According to Title IX, the burden of safety is on the school and not on the student.  Vassar administrators tried their best to avoid a paper trail of the violation of the no contact order. I wanted to launch another Title IX investigation to hold my rapist accountable for violating my space, but Rich Horowitz tried to convince me go through mediation with my rapist instead. Under Title IX, schools are prohibited from encouraging students to undergo mediation rather than pursue a formal complaint. The school only opened another Title IX investigation after my father made a call to DB Brown. They were more willing to validate my father in New York City than his daughter who shared a campus with her assailant. Only external force could threaten the school into action. My second all-faculty panel found my rapist responsible only for “disruptive conduct,” also used against loud drunk people, and sanctioned him with deferred expulsion. This meant that he was expelled, but only if he did something wrong again.  He got off with a slap on the wrist.

He graduated on time, surrounded by friends who hated me, after being allowed to live in senior housing all year. The semester he came back, I never went to common spaces like the library or dining areas alone. I avoided parties. As soon as he returned, I lost friends who chose not to question the guy they thought they knew. I did not set foot in senior housing. When they didn’t feel like they were faced with sides to pick, my relationships with my teammates remained relatively uncomplicated. It was impossible to know where people stood until my rapist and I were in the same space, but I felt as though they had chosen him. I dealt with running into him at the mail boxes. I took long routes to classes to avoid him. I watched him eat with my former friends in the Deece. These community spaces that I inhabited alongside my rapist were never truly shared spaces. Every time I saw him it felt like getting punched, so any space he was in was his by default. Throughout my time at Vassar, he’s not the only person who’s had this effect on myself and other women. Walking around campus and constantly seeing people who have been found responsible for violence, or have been seriously accused of it, feels like another hit. When I walk into the Deece and see large groups of male athletes occupying huge tables, it reminds me of the team of men who ignored the violence that happened to me. And I know I’m not the only one overwhelmed by their presence. Because even when I pass by the men’s soccer team, I have no way to tell who is working against a culture of violence and who is ignoring it. That feeling of helplessness is terrifying because it means there’s no way of protecting myself. How could there be?

In a lot of ways, I am the perfect victim. I am white and I was a virgin raped by an older man and I tried to seek justice. When rape means rape, you think you’ll know immediately when it happens to you, but because I didn’t identify with the uncomplicated anger of the “good victim” I struggled with a justice process that wanted to label me and my experiences. People told me I was raped before I came to know it myself. After taking on this word as part of my identity, I wanted to feel a resolution that I did not have. Under their system, “justice” has been done when the hearings are over and a survivor’s story should end there.

Rather than create spaces for conversation and disruption of violence, Vassar and its athletic community proved to me that they can easily become spaces of enforced silence. There is an assumption that people who are close to one another are less likely to hurt each other.  The better you know someone, the less you should have at stake in expressing yourself to them. But most rapists rape people they know. My team was completely silent about my Title IX cases.  Out of everyone on the men’s and women’s teams, two people out of over forty reached out to me.  One was the replacement men’s team captain and the other was a teammate who had experienced a sexual assault only a couple weeks before I did. Many of the others would keep in contact with my rapist, remain friends with him, and even row with him when he returned to campus. There is a team picture from Spring 2013 that represents this continuous denial.  In support of survivors of sexual assault, we are standing by our docks wearing t-shirts that said “I feel strong.”  We never acknowledged the (at least) three women in the picture who experienced sexual assault at the hands of our teammates. One of the assailants is in the picture. This picture was my former coach’s idea, but when my two other teammates came forward to tell her about their own experiences with sexual assault on the team she refused to report the cases to the school. By then, everybody involved knew that this was illegal. She even put these women into boats where they had to row next to their assailants. The only acknowledgment was a direction from her was to ignore any media who tried to contact us about our team’s reputation. She did not want us to jeopardize our ability to recruit. Instead of being allowed to use my experience to address an incredibly dangerous culture, we tried to pretend it never happened.

There is no foolproof way to address interpersonal violence. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “community response” when there is no consensus on how to react. Violence — like rape, relationship abuse, and racism — interact but cannot be lumped together. My rapist was suspended for one semester. I am a white, middle class, cisgender female athlete. I am the kind of person that the American justice system is comfortable with protecting. If that level of protection is good for one semester, what about the people who the American justice system doesn’t want to protect at all? People of color, trans bodies, queer bodies, and people in poverty–there are a lot of facets of identity that influence how a person sees power and victimhood. Who will the institution call a victim? Who will they allow to be violated? Vassar’s system does not protect anyone. The practice of responding to oppression with more silence does not exist in a void. Treating violence as an event that ends with a hearing supports this silence and leaves the rest of the community to pick sides. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable. It should be, because there is nothing uncomplicated, clean, or comfortable about any type of damage that we inflict on each other.  

Our tools of silence and deferred accountability are not working. Silence is not an out: it is its own form of violence. We cannot build safer spaces out of denial, but we can make a start by believing people when they say they’ve been raped. The sooner we can admit this the sooner we can support survivors and address the culture of violence that is alive and well at Vassar. The desire to maintain comfort by silencing survivors isn’t protecting our community. It’s tearing it apart.

2 Comments

  • J says:

    Dear Elena,
    You enlightened my perspective on sexual violence at Vassar, as well as the limitations of the administration. I hope that this man becomes aware of the people that he has hurt and undergoes rehabilitation. Thank you for sharing.

  • G. says:

    Elena,
    a very powerful, moving, and well written article. As a leading (formerly women’s) college that prides itself in its diversity and acceptance of individuals from all walks of life, I find the administration’s response to and handling of your experience disappointing, to say the least.

    I commend your courage in coming forward with your story in such an articulate and informative manner.

    As a founding member of the school’s rowing program many years ago, I am also deeply disappointed in the coach’s handling of the other two instances of the same behavior to which you referred.

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