“If I Consent” Part I: How Schools Violate Survivors Behind Closed Doors

"If I Consent" Photo Credit: Mia Fermindoza, Vassar '14

 

TW: Sexual Assault, Dating Abuse, Gross Administrative Negligence, Fragile Masculinity 

Two days after my Title IX hearing, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday among friends. Of the eight or so girls that I had invited, all but one had been sexually assaulted — two of them by the same person, a boy who walks freely around this campus. I felt free and the happiest I had in years. He was gone. I would no longer have to walk around campus terrified at the sound of every passing skateboard.

My freshman year, in a period of three months, I went from giving away my virginity to being raped by my boyfriend. In our first sexual encounter, we had both been sober. He had been tender and sweet. He asked for my consent, asked if he was hurting me, held me close as we fell asleep.

Before we started dating, but after I gave him my virginity, he tried to finger me while he was blackout drunk. All pretenses of consent were dropped, all sense of innocence lost. My body was no longer respected or treated as my own. I was a hole to be fucked.

When he raped me, I was sober and he was drunk. We were laying in the same room, in the same bed, in the same position as when I had given him my virginity. He ignored my plea to ‘have sex tomorrow when he was sober.’ I told him ‘no,’ and that he was ‘hurting me.’ He did not look me in the eye; he ejaculated, he rolled over, and went to sleep.

I tried so hard to make the memories go away. I actively tried to unremember my assault. I did not want to be raped, I did not want to acknowledge it. I had loved him. I thought that if I decided it was not real then eventually it wouldn’t be.

"If I Consent" Photo Credit: Mia Fermindoza '14

“If I Consent” Photo Credit: Mia Fermindoza, Vassar ’14

In October of 2014, I had my first flashback. I remembered a night from the very beginning of our relationship when he had gotten drunk and we had had sex. Except that I did not want to, and he would not listen. His eyes looked past me. His arms held me down. His silver ring felt cold against my skin. I could hear myself telling him to stop. I felt that same feeling of terror and utter helplessness. I weighed little over 110 pounds. My entire being was petrified. I was brittle to the point of breaking. My mind went blank. I stopped giving any outward reaction. I waited. I prayed for it to end.

After the grips of my first flashback ended, I was exhausted. Biting into my pillow as I sobbed, I knew it was real. I continued to experience these memories. On loop. Every day. Several times a day. I could not sleep, it was difficult to eat, I was manic. I desperately wanted to prove to myself that I had not been raped. I became obsessed. I read through every email we had exchanged, every text message, every conversation over Facebook. As I pieced together a timeline of the events of our relationship, the memories of my assault came back in fits and bursts. After our relationship ended, my body, mind, and spirit continued to deteriorate. I lost weight. My depressive and manic episodes had intensified. I stopped contacting friends. My grades dropped. I quit playing sports. If I had not been Bipolar this confrontation with the truth would not have been possible. Stuck in a manic state, I possessed an inexhaustible source of energy. I went days without sleeping, devoting all of my time to finding out the truth. The more evidence I gathered, the harder it became to ignore what had happened to me. I began to have nightmares and panic attacks, at times waking up in the middle of the night sobbing because I had felt his hands pressing down into my back. I tried so hard to make the memories go away. I actively tried to unremember my assault. I did not want to be raped, I did not want to acknowledge it. I had loved him. I thought that if I decided it was not real then eventually it wouldn’t be. I came to a point where I was reliving my assault on a daily basis. After returning from abroad and seeing Kevin for the first time in nearly a year I knew that I could no longer pretend.

Title IX is a landmark federal civil rights law that prohibits any kind of sex discrimination in any federally-funded educational institution, and requires schools to investigate and rectify accusations of violence, harassment, or discrimination. Gathering my friends and collecting what evidence I had, I filed a complaint with the school.

On the 58th of the legally mandated 60 business day time-limit from when a complaint has been received, Vassar College scheduled my Title IX hearing.

The morning of the hearing, 

I was stuck. I had no idea what to wear. I asked myself, what would Emily Post recommend? How does a rape victim dress? I spent over an hour going through my closet, rejecting every possible option. If I wore color would the panel think I was not taking this seriously? If my dress was too short would they think I was a whore? Heels? Flats? Lipstick, no lipstick? Why did this have to fucking matter? I wanted to have control over my body and I wanted them to listen to me. I knew that the panel would judge me not only my testimony, but on how I looked as I delivered it. I was angry at the weight I knew they would give to my appearance. I armed myself with a black dress, black boots, and my darkest shade of lipstick.

As I walked into the President’s Conference room on the day of the hearing, I was greeted by a tan partition that blocked Kevin from view. I had planned in the months leading up to the hearing that I would look directly at him as I recounted the abuse and the assaults.

‘Why is there a partition up?’ I asked Julian Williams, the head of Title IX, ‘I specifically asked for there to be no partition.’

‘He asked to have it up. It’s under his rights as the respondent,’ Williams responded, dismissively.

I was instructed to take my seat as the proceedings began.

At the start of the hearing we were advised about the process. We both were given the opportunity to present our opening statements. I was the first to speak.

Gathering my prepared remarks, I took a deep breath. Speaking as clearly as I could, my entire body shook. I was on the verge of tears.

‘The morning after you raped me, I was sore and ashamed. I did not speak of it to anyone. I purposely did not think of it even to myself. It was not until this year when I was away from Vassar in London that I came to understand what had transpired. I did not want to acknowledge that I had been raped, especially by someone I had loved and who I thought at one point loved me.’

Slowly throughout my testimony, I moved my chair forward. Soon I was able to peek over the partition. I could see Kevin. He was staring at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with me.

‘I did not want to pervert the image of what we were in my mind. A matter made more difficult by your unsolicited promises that you were my ‘family’, that you ‘loved me’, and that you would ‘always be there.’ I mistook your pains and fears and reflected them as my own, as an understanding between the two of us and a bond. I was wrong. Your broken promises were not innocent, they were painful and pointed and incredibly unfair.’

As soon as I finished speaking, I burst into tears. Bella*, my support person and oldest friend at Vassar, held me in her arms as I sobbed in front of a panel of complete strangers. It was traumatizing.

I was asked to move my chair back so that I could not longer peek over the partition.
Kevin described the day of my rape, January 19th, 2013, in his testimony. He was an actor, and he used his best romantic stage voice to recall his excitement at reuniting with me after winter break. He said that when he saw me for the first time in Grand Central Station, I was a ‘vision.’ While he had no issue discussing our romantic reunion during the daytime, he was unable to ‘recall’ the events of that evening. ‘I do not recall’ was his response to every question the panel asked him. Over and over again he repeated ‘I do not recall,’ until he made it clear that he was not going to say anything substantive at all. I spent years trying to unremember my assault; he, apparently, could not even bother to remember. The panel did not press him to explain his hazy memory.

After having my questions be rejected over and over again, I felt forced into silence. It felt like the school was protecting him, and I was the one on trial.

The lead investigator of my case and an administrator at Vassar, was called into the room to present her findings. She had interviewed both Kevin and me, and her description of the evidence supported my accusation. Kevin had openly admitted that he was unable to recall ‘whether or not we had had sex that night and whether or not I had said no.’ Before I had time to think about if he had just admitted that he raped me, it was time for witnesses to be called.

The first person to be called as a witness was my friend Lilly*. Recalling panic attacks and manic episodes that followed directly after Kevin and I resumed contact at the end of my sophomore year, she detailed the ways Kevin’s presence in my life directly impacted my overall well-being and Bipolar Disorder. While we were abroad together in London, she was the first person I told that I had been assaulted.

Lilly further spoke about how she had first encountered Kevin freshman year in a casual hookup. She said that he had been sexually aggressive. Once, she had even seen him drunk, in a fit of rage, punch a hole through the wall of Raymond House.

After concluding her testimony, the adjudicator, a former judge who now works as a private arbiter, asked Lilly a follow up question: had she ever engaged in sexual activity with Kevin?

Lilly, taken aback and visibly uncomfortable, reiterated that they had never had penetrative sex, and that her experience with him had shown that he was very sexually aggressive towards women. I was dumbfounded they would ask such an uncomfortable question. Suddenly I was nauseous.

The next witness to be called was Keenan*, Kevin’s best friend and my friend Bella’s former student fellow (Vassar’s form of residential advisor). He had introduced Kevin and I to each other, and had spent a lot of time with us throughout our tumultuous relationship. Kevin did not ask him to speak. I did. (Kevin did not have any witnesses, something that did not surprise me given our secretive relationship.) Keenan was clearly irritated that he had been called to speak, but nonetheless consented.

When Keenan began his testimony, he denied any and all possibility of Kevin having ever dealt with alcoholism or other substance abuse issues. He went on further to say that he and Kevin rarely drank together.

Outside of my relationship with Kevin, I did not exist. As a result, Keenan was largely unaware of the intricacies of our relationship and the reason why our relationship ended. All he knew was that Kevin said that the relationship ‘no longer felt right.’ At the hearing, he explained that our relationship was characterized by periods of intensity juxtaposed with periods of distance, and so was not surprised that it ended so suddenly. What he did not know was that Kevin broke up with me two weeks after he raped me, and that’s why it ‘no longer felt right.’ Keenan was asked no further questions.

Bella was the next witness called. She had known both Kevin and I before we ever met. She had witnessed the deterioration of my relationship with Kevin and the subsequent mental and physical health issues that arose as a result. Bella had seen my Bipolar Disorder intensify in relation to his abuse, and had been among the few who knew about my diagnosis. She described how Kevin had taken a primary role in helping me seek treatment, how she had reached out to him for help, and how he had offered himself to her as my support.

I sat there remembering how intimately aware he was of my condition and how he had actively disregarded my emotional and psychological needs during the course of our relationship. I felt humiliated that we had ever dated, that someone who was supposed to have loved me had treated me with such disdain. Maybe he never even loved me? I had to remind myself that this did not matter.

Beyond helping me deal with my own problems, Bella had been affected to the point where she felt she needed to take time off from school; an event for which I will always feel guilty.

Since I was unable to look at Kevin because of the partition between us, Bella spent the entirety of her testimony trying to make eye contact with Kevin. She recalled that when Keenan had first introduced her to Kevin he told her that Kevin had been asked to leave Vassar because of problems relating to his substance abuse. At this, Keenan interrupted her testimony and yelled, ‘It wasn’t abuse!’ Not missing a beat, Julian Williams shot back: ‘be quiet.’ Bella explained that it was ludicrous for Keenan to assert that he and Kevin rarely drank together. They had just started a beer blog, The Imbible, which, to quote Vassar’s newspaper, The Miscellany News, was ‘dedicated to all things alcohol.’

With the conclusion of witness testimony, Kevin and I were given the opportunity to ask questions of all involved parties, pending approval by the adjudicator. Only questions that have direct relevance to the accusations meet the criteria for approval, as set by Vassar’s internal requirements.

I asked two sets of questions. First, I asked about Keenan’s experiences with Kevin’s substance abuse. Keenan continued to vehemently deny that Kevin had with any substance abuse problems.

And second, when it came time for me to submit questions regarding Kevin, the adjudicator refused to question him in any way whatsoever about his substance abuse and prior issues with adhering to the school’s code of conduct. When asked about his relationship to alcohol, he described his habits as being within the bounds of ‘normal collegiate activity.’ He was not pressed to clarify what he defined as ‘normal.’ The only question that I remember her pursuing was about Kevin’s sexual history. She asked him, in his opinion, if he had a reasonable amount of sexual interactions, to which he replied that he did. I was deeply unsatisfied. I felt like Alice in the Red Queen’s court, where the only questions allowed were those without real bearing on the case. After having my questions be rejected over and over again, I felt forced into silence. It felt like the school was protecting him, and I was the one on trial.

I felt as if my experiences and my body held no worth. My lived experience, my trauma, was less important than his. It was OK to rape me. The school had not only found him responsible for rape but they said it was also OK that he had abused me.

After questioning ended, we had a short break of fifteen minutes to prepare our closing statements, which I had not been informed of beforehand. Bella and I convened in the Jade Parlor. Laying on the carpet, she furiously typed as I dictated my closing statement to her.

More angry than sad, I cleared my throat and told him as directly as I could how he had failed me as a lover, a partner, and a friend.

‘You were smitten. I was a vision, cinematic even! It was not fair for you to have used me as an idea. As an idea of a relationship, you said, not a person. In my weakest states, both psychologically and physically, you took advantage of me and my kindness and my love for you. Dare I say you found my tragic vulnerability sexy. I never asked anything of you that you yourself did not provide first and was devastated when you were unable to do the most basic of decent things, like call or text or show up for a hug.’

When I finished, furious tears soaked my cheeks. I tried so hard to suppress how upset I was, I began shaking.

In Kevin’s closing statement, he did not say much. He used his stage voice and said that he had ‘learned a lot through this process’ and that he was ‘sorry.’

At the end of the hearing, I was asked to give an impact statement to reflect on the emotional impact of my abuse and assaults. By this point, my throat was so sore that talking cut like knives. I had left everything I had in that room. I did not have anything left of myself to give. Speaking directly to him, I told him this would be the last time I ever wanted to see his face or hear his voice. He no longer would play any significant role in my life. I was done.

After a five hour long process, it took the hearing panel only fifteen minutes to make their decision. Kevin was found responsible for two counts of Sexual Misconduct (Nonconsensual Sexual Intercourse) and not responsible for Dating Violence. I was euphoric and Bella and I left the hearing believing that I had won.

On Tuesday May 5th, the same day as my mother’s birthday, I was informed of the sanctions against Kevin. Kevin was allowed to remain on campus until the completion of the semester. I saw him an hour after I received the sanctions. Never expecting to see him again, I had a panic attack.

The adjudicator, in her final report on my case, had acknowledged that my relationship with Kevin was concerning, yet she excused his behavior, noting that he was ‘compromised by his own personal problems.’ Reading this, I felt as if my experiences and my body held no worth. My lived experience, my trauma, was less important than his. It was OK to rape me. The school had not only found him responsible for rape but they said it was also OK that he had abused me. Until the end of the Spring, 2016 semester, Kevin is suspended from Vassar and not allowed on campus.

Under Title IX regulations, schools may not discourage survivors from continuing their education. They cannot tell us to ‘take time off,’ or force us to quit a team, club, or class. I, and other survivors of sexual assault, have the right to remain on campus and have every educational program and opportunity available to us. Schools must take immediate action after a report has been filed to ensure a victim can continue their education free of ongoing sex discrimination, sexual harassment, or sexual violence.

Vassar failed me by letting Kevin remain on campus. I appealed the sanctions; I wanted him gone. Having taken months to complete the investigation, it took Vassar only a few days to reject my appeal. Even the Title IX Investigator, admitted in the letter of rejection that the sanctions should have been imposed immediately, and the significant emotional impact on me of seeing the perpetrator on campus after the hearing ‘could have been remedied if the sanction of suspension had been imposed immediately.’ Until the end of my junior year, the only protection I had against him was a no-contact order, a piece of paper which he violated as easily as my consent. I did not feel safe, and Vassar did not care.

After I had sat in a room for five hours telling the administration how he had raped me, he had nothing left to lose. They believed me. He was going to have to leave school and everyone would find out why. I ostensibly ruined his life. He was an alcoholic who had a history of violence and no regard for the rules Vassar laid out for him. Ever since I filed against him, he had no qualms trying to intimidate and scare me. I reported six violations of the no-contact order.

The day before the hearing, he purposely put himself in direct contact with me. I was sitting on the grass with my friends; he spotted me from across the quad and, changing course, rushed at me on his skateboard. He had seen me having multiple panic attacks as a result of seeing him. He knew how he affected me. He understood the power he had. What was to stop him from coming after me? A piece of paper? No. He did not care and his actions following the hearing proved that.

Perhaps more importantly, I was white. I am visible, I am privileged, and this is how they treated me. How will they, how do they, treat bodies that are not so visible?

Banned from all campus events, he decided to come to Founder’s Day, a campus wide day of celebration, in order to make a spectacle of himself. My friend called security, and even after he had been kicked out of school for this stunt he actively tried to scare me. On Mother’s Day, when I was eating with friends at Babycakes, a restaurant only one-hundred feet from campus and still on Vassar property, he seized his last chance to terrify me. My back was exposed to him as he walked up to the restaurant. My friends were the first to see him. Wanting to keep me calm, they did not say anything, hoping that he would go away. He did not.  Apparently he had casually walked into the restaurant, and, as there were no tables available, walked back out, and stood directly in front of where I was sitting. We made eye contact and I was instantly consumed with terror. I cried out and began to hyperventilate. Why was he here? Why does he keep doing this? I ran inside and locked myself in the bathroom. He just walked away like nothing had even happened. He always just walked away. That was the last time I ever saw him.

I was lucky. I easily could have been attacked again, Vassar made it so. By allowing us to live close enough to each other that I could see him watching me from his bedroom window for weeks after the investigation had begun, by not immediately suspending him after he was found responsible for raping me, by giving me only a piece of paper with which to defend myself, Vassar showed me that it did not care about me or my safety. Being raped by my boyfriend was terrible. Unthinkable. But how Vassar treated me, how they neglected me, was traumatic. And I was the perfect victim. I was not drunk, I was with my boyfriend, and I remembered everything. Perhaps more importantly, I was white. I am visible, I am privileged, and this is how they treated me. How will they, how do they, treat bodies that are not so visible? How will they continue to treat black bodies? Queer bodies? Other bodies of color? This is an issue of safety: if my body is not safe, then neither is yours.

 

 

4 Comments

  • Joe says:

    What on earth do you want Vassar to do? By your own admission there isn’t a shred of evidence. And before people say so, your psychological well being is not evidence; he’s not responsible for how you react to events. You admit that you had psychological issues before the relationship even. And he might be an alcoholic, but that doesnt mean hes a rapist. It means he has a disease. Ultimately no evidence means no conviction and that’s how it should be.

    • Kelsey says:

      Joe, I only know what I’m reading from this article, but it seems like Vassar did have enough evidence to find him guilty/responsible for 2 counts of sexual misconduct (non-consensual sexual intercourse). So I think the problem is that they did find him guilty, and yet this is how the author was treated.

    • Joanna says:

      FROM THE BALDWIN RESEARCH INSTITUTE: “Research has shown that alcoholism is a CHOICE, not a disease, and stripping alcohol abusers of their choice, by applying the disease concept, is a threat to the health of the individual.
      The disease concept oozes into every crevice of our society perpetuating harmful misinformation that hurts the very people it was intended to help. Remarkably, the assumptions of a few were accepted as fact by the medical profession, devoid of any scientific study or supporting evidence.”

      http://www.baldwinresearch.com/alcoholism.cfm

    • Joanna says:

      Joe, I disagree with your statement wholeheartedly and find your comments dismissive and cruel. This is the kind of perspective that perpetuates rape culture. I find there to be a surmountable amount of evidence–a person who has not experienced trauma would not go so far out of their way to fabricate an experience and pursue justice against a former lover. Who keeps truly documents their life in preparation for a traumatic experience? Usually these experiences catch the individuals involved off guard, out of their element, and under extreme psychological stress. Vassar should have given the benefit of the doubt and the verdict in favor of the victim, not the perpetrator. Yet they did not, which is unacceptable. If a victim of assault cannot feel confident that their statements will be taken seriously, they may become silent about their traumas, and other perpetrators will perceive they can do as they choose without ramification. This is rape culture. And this is not fair.

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