Imagine you’re sitting with five friends. Based on the results of an April 2015 survey, if they’re all cis women there’s a good chance at least one of them has been sexually assaulted. And even fewer will have reported it.
The survey, completed by Vassar College, found that 21% of female-identifying students at Vassar were sexually assaulted and 77% of incidents were left unreported. 90% of assault cases involved a cis-male perpetrator, and in 57%, the victim identified the perpetrator as a peer, colleague, or friend. While these statistics are horrifying and maybe unsurprising as well, their reality has become something many students can lament and then leave behind. Of course, sexual assault must also be addressed in trans and gender non-binary communities—even though statistics collected by institutions, on those most vulnerable to violence within the institutions, are often incomplete and inaccurate. For those assaulted, the process extends far beyond the numbers and beyond the moments in which they were hurt. So few cases are reported partly because of the grueling Title IX trial process that awaits survivors when they seek justice from their school administration.
In the following personal narrative, Yvonne Yu ‘18 recounts how the Title IX office failed her. Her story is one of many, and in conjunction with the recent “What Happens Here” survey, it emphasizes the need for reform at Vassar. As many times as Boilerplate publishes the brave voices of sexual assault survivors, that is not an out or a solution: it does little until real changes are made to how the administration views and treats students. If we want to effectively reduce sexual assault at Vassar—at any and all schools—approaching it from all angles is necessary. This means educating students on affirmative consent and school guidelines, but also approaching institutional relief and support systems to make them effective outlets for healing and justice. Here, Yvonne offers her perspective on what went wrong.
-Saskia Globig, Co-Editor of the Vassar Climate section
Fall Semester, 2016. In my dorm, Jewett House, a place I had called home for three years, I first met him.
A friend of mine introduced me one day when we were doing homework together. He was a freshman and I was a junior, but we found a lot in common and quickly became friends. He told me he had feelings for me, and I thought maybe I did too, but we had one week before winter break, so we decided to wait before considering a relationship. We talked about how physical we wanted to be until then. I told him I definitely didn’t want to have sex, not until we discussed our relationship. He said he wanted to have sex with me, but he agreed to wait until I was ready.
On the last night of the semester, December 17th, we decided to have a few drinks to celebrate the end of the semester and watch a movie in his room. We clinked glasses, but I didn’t drink because I was driving home early the next morning. When he finished his own drink, I offered him mine, which I had barely touched. We stayed up until 4 AM, watching the movie and talking. It was late and he had been drinking; things began to move too quickly. He kissed me and slid his hand up my shirt. He had kissed me before, but he had never touched me like this. He asked me how far I wanted to go.
“I don’t know how far,” I replied, “but I don’t want to have sex with you.”
A few minutes later, my clothes were off and his were too. He asked me if he could touch me. I felt his hands all over my body, and then inside of me. I was afraid we were going too fast, but I couldn’t find the words to say so. All I could think was oh my god, what is happening right now? He was positioned on top of me now, our bodies separated only by an inch. He asked me if I wanted to have sex. “No, I don’t want to,” I responded, firmly. I just wanted things to slow down for a bit, so I could think about what I wanted. I needed some time, some space, just a breath of air.
Instead, I got more questions: Are you sure? Come on, I really want to. Maybe just in and out? I had so much to say, but I couldn’t find my voice. What do you mean by in and out? Why can’t you just stop asking me when I said no? Thinking fast, I blurted out, “We don’t have protection. I don’t think this is a good idea.” I thought he would get off of me, or at least go and get a condom, but he didn’t.
He brushed my concerns aside, saying we didn’t need it, he was just going to go in and out anyway. I faltered, I started to say “I don’t know—”, but he was already inside me. Hadn’t I just said no? Maybe I hadn’t been clear enough. I thought he would stop. He had just said in and out. But he continued, thrusting into me several times, until I found my voice. “Stop! I just told you that I didn’t want to have sex.”
The rest of the night was a blur. It was 5 AM. We fell asleep. Next morning, I woke up and drove home. In the days following, my mind drifted back to what had happened that night. This was someone I had trusted. This had been my friend, maybe even my future boyfriend. I struggled to process the events. In my stomach, I felt a deep ache, but I ignored it. I reassured myself that maybe I had wanted this. Maybe I should have said ‘no’ a few more times. Maybe we’ll end up dating and this won’t even matter anymore. Maybe he didn’t hear me. Maybe I should never have slept over in the first place. I wanted something, anything, that would make me feel like I had not been violated. The whole winter break, I pushed that night into the back of my mind. We continued to talk normally and almost daily. I thought we could still be friends.
By the time we came back to school, I had decided that I would try being friends and forget anything else that had happened. I went to his room the night I got back to campus, hoping to catch up. Once I entered his room, I felt something wrong. I started to feel panicked. This feeling got worse over the next few weeks. Sometimes we were with a group of friends, and I felt almost normal, but once we entered smaller spaces with fewer people or just us alone, I started to tremble. I couldn’t stop no matter how hard I tried. I felt trapped. I could no longer pretend that nothing had happened. I reached out to my closest friends, confiding in them the details of the night. Why was I acting this way now, two months later? Why couldn’t I stop the feelings of fear and disgust? They squeezed my hand and told me what I had been dreading: “Yvonne, these feelings are normal. What happened was not ok; you were sexually assaulted.” I spent days trying to process this. I never thought this would happen to me. I wanted to tell him how he had hurt me and that he had been wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to face him.
Finally, one weekend, I was walking back to Jewett at 3 AM. Maybe I was feeling confident, maybe I had finally had enough, maybe it was the alcohol, but I texted him, “Can we talk?” We met in the common area, right outside the room where it had all happened. I told him why things had ended between us: he had sexually assaulted me. I don’t know what I had expected him to say, but the last thing I expected was what he did say: “No I didn’t, I remember you said ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”
I felt the blood rush to my head and I wanted to scream. You didn’t mean to hurt me, but you did. Since when did “I don’t know” mean “yes”? The past two months, I had tried to blame myself for maybe not being firm or clear, but now it was undeniable. He had confirmed: my words had not been enough to stop him.
I knew, then, that I had to face the truth. We would never be able to forget and just be friends. He had violated not only my body, but also my trust. Feeling hopeless and lost, I went to the Title IX office and filed a report.
It has been over four months since the night, and every day has been a struggle. I have had to repeat the details of the incident more times than I can recall, every time forcing me to think back and re-envision myself on his bed, him inside me as I try to find the words to tell him to stop. I feel nauseous when I see him at the Deece. In the class that we share, I hide behind my computer screen, unable to focus on a word of the lecture. I stay up late at night wondering what I did wrong, and when I finally fall asleep, he enters my dreams. I start skipping classes to remain in the safety of my room, and my grades slip. Every few days, I am called back to the Title IX office to clarify my case, discuss procedures, or review documents.
Over two months later, we finally have the hearing. I had spent weeks reading and re-reading the report, writing pages of questions, preparing myself to hear my attacker’s voice, imagining all possible outcomes. The guidelines for the hearing were strange. As this was not a federal case, I had no right to an attorney, and the procedure was arbitrary: opening statements and questioning were permitted, but no closing statements or rebuttal. All questions were submitted through the adjudicator. Witnesses were not required to make an appearance. At the hearing, the adjudicator questioned me extensively on insignificant details, forcing me to share personal information regarding irrelevant incidents and attempting to discredit my account. Despite the clear discomfort I felt, I spoke truthfully, clearly, and confidently. The adjudicator skimmed through the questions I had so carefully prepared, but only asked a portion of them, paraphrasing and shortening almost every one. My attacker responded in a weak voice, stammering constantly, denying most of my claims, fabricating stories and answering inconsistently when questioned about them. He said he had never even read the Student Handbook section on consensual sex. I knew there was little physical evidence in this case, but I hoped his demeanor would confirm to the adjudicator of his guilt. Five hours later, the verdict was delivered:[The defendant] found not responsible due to a greater lack of credibility in the complainant.
My throat closed up and tears came to my eyes. I had tried to be strong the past few months, but now I was bursting at my seams. I left the room, completely numb. All other administrators in the room told me I had done everything I could have at the hearing. They were equally shocked by the decision. It had been very clear to them, as well, that he had been untruthful and inconsistent in his statements. At least someone else had seen the truth.
Through the decision of the hearing, Vassar College not only invalidated my experience, but also challenged my credibility. There is no doubt that I was violated on the night of December 17th, 2016. It is completely unreasonable to say that my attacker had greater credibility, given that he had been intoxicated and had never even bothered to familiarize himself with the definition of consensual sex. While little can be done to challenge the verdict, I hope I can spread awareness about sexual violence at our school and inform other survivors who are also seeking justice.
To other sexual assault survivors at Vassar: if you are considering filing a report through Title IX, especially one with little physical evidence (as mine was), please be prepared. Before committing yourself to a several month-long process that will completely take over your life, think about what you hope to gain out of the investigation. If you are hoping for a fair hearing procedure that will end with your attacker being held responsible for their actions through sanctions, this may not the right path for you. If you just want to report a case to bring awareness to your situation and stand up for your own rights, then it may be worth pursuing.
While the Title IX investigator and coordinator—as well as the SAVP office—were extremely helpful throughout, the adjudication process is unfair and unsupportive. The specific procedure does not reflect that of a legal court, but rather arbitrary decisions presumably made by administration. The adjudicator presiding at my hearing had never reviewed a Vassar College case and showed unfamiliarity with the Student Handbook’s policies, a lack of professionalism, and considerable bias. Additionally, verdicts can only be appealed on three accounts: procedural errors, presentation of new information not available prior to the hearing, and improper sanctioning. In other words, there is no way to appeal the decision of a biased adjudicator.
Vassar constantly encourages students to report cases to Title IX through Orientation presentations, House Team trainings, and administrators. But how can we expect survivors to turn to the support of Title IX if they will ultimately have their experience invalidated through an unfair hearing procedure? Because many of these procedures are decided through administrators rather than law, I believe Vassar should ask for students’ opinions on Title IX processes and consider what will be most effective and safe for survivors. In selecting an adjudicator, Title IX should ensure that they are familiar with the campus climate and specific rules of the college handbook, rather than just a general knowledge about federal law. Survivors should also be given more support. It is absurd to believe that any student would file a case and participate in a several month-long investigation and hearing without truly feeling violated, and anyone deserves assistance in that situation.
Deciding to file this report was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I don’t regret it. As I begin to seek a way to heal, I find some comfort in realizing my own strength. What happened here did not break me. I was finally able to find my voice and stand up not only for myself, but for all women who have endured sexual assault.