Telling Tales Out of School by Tifenn Python
Telling Tales Out of School by Tifenn Python

The Silent Epidemic

Sexual Assault on Campus
March 31, 2005

A few days before fall break in October 2002, sophomore Emily Faulkner* stayed up late studying for a biology midterm in her room in Wannamaker residence hall. Around 5:20 a.m. on October 9, she walked down the hall to the bathroom. She noticed a young man in one of the stalls. She assumed it was someone's boyfriend who was spending the night. It wasn't.

The man grabbed her. They struggled, and Faulkner tried to defend herself with a penknife she kept on her keychain. The man turned the knife against her, cutting her on the face, chest, arm, and leg. He then sexually assaulted her.

The incident shook the Duke community. Undergraduate women began traveling in pairs or groups to bathrooms. Based on Faulkner's description of her assailant, and his presence in a residence-hall bathroom accessible only with a student identification card, many people speculated that the man was a Duke student. Despite extensive police investigation, to this day, no one has been charged in the incident.

A poised, friendly young woman, Faulkner, now a senior, is a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar and a pre-med student interested in pediatrics and women's health. She is also a statistic.

One in four women will be raped during her lifetime, according to the American Association of University Women. One in six will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape during her college career. Unlike most victims, however, Faulkner didn't know her attacker. And unlike most, she reported the assault to the police. By contrast, 90 percent of women nationally say they know the person who attacked them, and 65 percent of attacks go unreported. The American Medical Association has called sexual assault "the silent epidemic."


With the encouragement of friends, Faulkner submitted a first-person essay to The Chronicle in November of that year titled "Sexual Assault Reality." She shared details about her own attack and extended an invitation to other men and women affected by sexual assault to send in their stories. "I was shocked by the response," she says. "I heard from men, women, parents, friends of assault survivors. After reading through them all, I knew I couldn't keep these to myself. I wanted to share the range of experiences with the rest of the campus."After taking a few weeks off to be at home with her mother in South Carolina, Faulkner returned to campus. "I had very mixed feelings about coming back to Duke," she says now. "A part of me felt as though I could never go back to my room or be around my friends again. But another part of me wanted to move on with my life. I knew I wanted to go to medical school and was looking forward to going abroad my junior year. I didn't want to give up on everything I had worked so hard for."

With the contributors' consent, she and a group of students published Saturday Night: Untold Stories of Sexual Assault at Duke in the fall of 2003. One woman wrote about being raped on the eve of graduation by a friend who had offered her a ride home. A black woman, raped by a classmate, said she decided not to report it because she felt it would reflect badly on the black community.

The book's frank and graphic portrayals of acquaintance rape--Duke women being assaulted by Duke men--shone a harsh light on a grim topic. The voices were angry, accusatory, and heartbreaking. Several survivors wrote of feeling incredulous and detached as the assaults took place. Others lambasted Duke for not doing enough to address the problem. The book became something of a primer about sexual assault for the Duke community and helped raise awareness about the preponderance of assaults that occur between people who know each other.

The following spring, a reported rape on West Campus added fuel to the flame. At a "scream in" on the steps of Duke Chapel, nearly 100 students, faculty members, and administrators screamed for a full five minutes to express outrage over what student organizers called the university's slow response to informing the community about the incident. "These are screams of anger at the pervasiveness of rape and violence towards women at Duke," said Alessandra Colaianni, the freshman who organized the protest.

Less than a week later, the annual Sexual Assault Prevention Week activities took on an added urgency because of the conversations still taking place about Saturday Night and the most recent reported assault. Events included the "pinwheel project," an installation of pinwheels on West Campus representing the number of men and women who will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes; a clothesline project displaying T-shirts designed by survivors; and the "white ribbon" campaign, which encouraged men to wear a white ribbon and sign a pledge that they would never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women.

Despite complaints that Duke has been slow to address the problem of sexual violence, a look at other universities reveals that Duke is doing as much as and, in some cases, more than peer institutions to address the problem. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, the primary on-campus resources for sexual-assault survivors are the offices of the dean of students and student health. At Yale, peer counseling hotlines are augmented by the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education office. Stanford has a Sexual Assault Response and Recovery team led by staff members from its counseling and psychological services office.

But Duke has two full-time professional staff members, as well as dozens of student volunteers who serve as peer educators. Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS), established in 1990, provides crisis intervention, advocacy and counseling, and educational outreach programs on sexual assault and healthy relationships; sponsors Sexual Assault Prevention Week every spring; and offers self-defense workshops for women. And SASS is fully integrated into the university, working closely with Student Affairs and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as such community entities as the Durham Crisis Response Center and the Durham Police Department.

One place that Duke fell short until the fall of 2003 was in its sexual misconduct policy, which students complained was vague and ineffective. Consisting of only two short paragraphs, the old policy emphasized assault but did not address what constitutes consent. Members of Duke's Undergraduate Judicial Board found it difficult to apply imprecise, legally confounding jargon to complicated, real-life cases.

Tracy Johnson* found this out the hard way. The daughter of an alumnus, Johnson grew up loving everything Duke represented. Before she matriculated, the Virginia native viewed Duke as "an incredibly healthy, happy place, where there was a sense of camaraderie and fun."

That changed her first week on campus. As first-year students living on East Campus have been doing for decades, Johnson and a group of other first-year women went to one of the West Campus parties that mark the social launch of the academic year. (Although Duke's alcohol policy prohibits underage drinking, students say that it is very easy to find alcohol on campus, even on all-freshman East.) The group went to several parties before winding up in the commons room of a fraternity. In retrospect, she acknowledges, she should have seen the warning signs: the young men who weren't drinking themselves but were eager to give free booze--high-proof Everclear punch--to the young women in attendance.

Raising the volume: protesters against sexual assaults on campus stage "scream-in"

Raising the volume: protesters against sexual assaults on campus stage "scream-in". Jon Gardiner.

But at the time, "nothing seemed threatening," she says. "And I was traveling with a group of people from my dorm, which is what we'd been told to do."

The party moved upstairs to the room of two upperclassmen, including one who had been trained to be an official party monitor. (According to the university's alcohol policy, groups must register parties where alcohol is served and have designated party monitors to keep an eye on partygoers and intervene if necessary.) At some point, Johnson realized that everyone had drifted out of the room except her friend and the two upperclassmen. She recalls that the loud music in the room prevented conversation, and that soon one of the men was removing her clothes. The rest of the evening was a blur.

"I woke up the next day in my own bed, groggy and hung over," she recalls. "At first, I thought it was a bad dream, but then I started remembering pieces of what happened." She was filled with remorse and self-loathing. "I thought to myself, how did you already screw up everything so badly in your first week?"

In fact, experts say, she was the victim of an all too common occurrence. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 70,000 college students were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape last year alone.

"Most, but certainly not all, students who are assaulted are assaulted early in their college careers," says Jean Leonard, director of Sexual Assault Support Services, which is part of the Women's Center at Duke. "The first six weeks carry the highest risk for assault because you've got a new class of students who are eager to fit in and be accepted. They go to parties and are handed something in a cup and before long, many have exceeded their limits or lost good judgment. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of that."

Johnson continued to blame herself, even after a friend told her that the encounter sounded like rape--after all, she was unable to give consent in her inebriated state. Then things got worse. She couldn't concentrate on her studies. She was in physical pain and worried that she'd contracted a urinary-tract infection. Finally, she went to Duke's emergency room.

Johnson told the intake nurse about the urinary-tract infection, then, almost as an afterthought, blurted out that she thought she might have been raped. Immediately, she says, the Duke police and Durham Crisis Response Center were contacted. Johnson agreed to undergo a rape kit collection, which revealed internal tears consistent with nonconsensual sexual intercourse.

At first, she didn't want to report the rape officially. But after reflecting further on what had happened, she decided to bring a case against her assailant through the university's internal disciplinary process.

During the hearing before the Undergraduate Judicial Board, the fraternity brother's testimony matched Johnson's, with two exceptions: He said that she had overstated the amount of alcohol consumed--and he said that the sex was consensual.

At the time, Duke's sexual-assault policy was only a single paragraph and left room for a wide variety of interpretations. Even though all five members of the judicial board agreed that something wrong had happened, given the wording of the sexual misconduct policy, the group was divided over whether there was enough evidence to support a finding that the young man had committed sexual assault. To Johnson's dismay, the board, which comprises students and faculty and staff members, ruled three to two that the young man could not be held responsible for sexual assault.

Based in part on the outcome of Johnson's case, a committee of administrators and students expanded the sexual misconduct policy to a seven-page document that includes a philosophy statement, clearer definitions about what does and does not constitute consent, revised hearing procedures, and examples of policy violations. The policy was implemented in the fall of 2003. (For the complete policy go to http://deanofstudents.studentaffairs.duke.edu/sxmscondt.html.)

"What we've tried to do is offer a clearer foundation for the board to stand on so their time spent is not spent on debating the policy," Leonard said at the time the policy was implemented. "I think it conveys a better message to the campus community."

The examples used to illustrate policy violations include some that might seem obvious--taking advantage of a peer who is clearly intoxicated, for example, or videotaping a sexual encounter without a partner's permission. But compounding the risk factors at Duke and on many other college campuses, experts say, is the current social climate for young men and women. Instead of dating, many college-age students engage in "hook-ups," isolated encounters that may or may not lead to any other interaction. For some, it's a fast, noncommittal way to achieve sexual satisfaction. Hook-ups aren't necessarily planned in advance, although many students, both men and women, speak of going out to a party or bar with the explicit notion of finding someone to hook up with. A lack of communication about expectations and limits can create dangerous sexual situations.

But more disturbing, Duke officials say, there appears to be a subset of college-age men, including undergraduates at Duke, who take advantage of the charged combination of socially curious first-year students who don't yet know their limits, the easy availability of alcohol, and the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are never reported. In the summer 2004 issue of Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education, David Lisak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, writes about rape on college campuses. "Date rapists are widely assumed to be basically good guys who, because of a combination of too much alcohol and too little clear communication, end up coercing sex upon their partners. This image is widely promulgated but it is flatly contradicted by research." He cites social-science studies on such men who are often willing to talk about their sexual behavior because they do not consider themselves rapists. "Their violence and predatory behavior mirrors precisely that of the sexual predators who have been incarcerated and studied, except that by targeting non-strangers and by refraining from gratuitous violence, they have escaped prosecution," he notes.

Christopher Scoville, a Duke senior, has used his Chronicle column to underscore what he sees as unhealthy social situations on campus, including fraternity parties. "Male students take advantage of drunken female students, whether or not the female student truly desires the sexual encounter," he says. "I have a few female friends who have been passed out from drinking, and men have essentially raped them. I know firsthand that frat brothers know this is happening, but there's rarely condemnation, maybe indifference, or even a wink and a pat on the back."

That's the backdrop for what happened to Rita Nelson* on the last day of classes in the spring of 2003. It was a gorgeous day in April, and West Campus was filled with students talking, playing Frisbee--and drinking. Nelson was among a group hanging out at a fraternity where she knew many of the brothers and felt comfortable. "I knew not to go to a random fraternity party and drink the punch. I was with friends, I felt safe." In this environment, Nelson, who considers herself an occasional drinker with a low tolerance for alcohol, says she felt free to drink more than she otherwise would.

Home by Tifenn Python

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But the night turned horribly wrong when an acquaintance from the fraternity, someone she considered a friend, someone she had had dinner with several times, offered to walk her back to her residence-hall room on East. Once there, "he pretty much did anything to me sexually that could be done," she says. The next night, she says, the young man called back and made a sexually suggestive, threatening phone call.

Over the summer, she started talking with SASS director Leonard, even while pondering whether she should transfer to another college. As the fall semester grew closer, Nelson began experiencing increased anxiety about returning to Duke. In September, she decided to report the incident to the Office of Judicial Affairs. Even though her case was heard under the old sexual misconduct policy, the facts were so compelling that the board ruled five to zero in Nelson's favor. The young man was suspended from Duke. Nelson has heard he has since transferred to another university.

Not surprisingly, fraternity members take umbrage at accusations that they condone or ignore such behaviors. Interfraternity Council president Will Connolly, a senior, says that, on the contrary, most fraternities are receptive to the educational outreach offered by SASS, student health, and peer educators. "We invite speakers to our fraternity about sexual assault, and we acclimate new pledges every spring to the scope of the issue," he says. Further, Connolly and others cite risk and liability concerns among fraternities' national charters, as well as the university's implementation of quad-based living clusters, which has broken the Greek-stronghold on West Campus real estate. "Most parties now take place off campus, or people go to [local] bars to socialize," he says.

Megan O'Flynn, a sophomore and member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, echoes Connolly's observations. "We mix with fraternities and get to know the same group of guys over time. If a fraternity member ever went too far [sexually], he would be blacklisted by the sorority. We have a sort of informal recommendation system in place where you do or don't recommend a certain guy your friend is interested in, or you warn your sisters to stay away from someone who gets belligerent when they're drunk."

O'Flynn says that she feels safe at Duke parties but is concerned about the inherent dangers of the robust off-campus party scene. "A lot of students walk to these parties, so you've got people walking around late at night. At [registered, on-campus] Duke parties, you know there are monitors and people looking out for you, which is not always the case with the off-campus scene."

Duke officials acknowledge that there is not much they can do to curb off-campus parties beyond urging students to exercise caution and to be good neighbors in their Durham communities. But regardless of where social interactions take place, Duke will continue to expand and enhance its education and outreach efforts to reach as many students as possible. This fall, SASS launched a First Six Weeks Campaign initiative to get Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention (SHARP) peer educators out into first-year residence halls on East Campus. SHARP peer educators are specially trained students who offer interactive workshops and discussion groups for all-male, all-female, or mixed groups. Topics this year include creating a safer environment at Duke, what men really think about relating to women, how gender affects love life, "hooking up" at Duke, making the most out of one's sex life, and how to help a friend who has experienced sexual or dating violence.

SASS assistant coordinator Xiomara Padamsee met with professional and student residence life and housing staff early in the year, before the residence halls opened, to inform them about the range of educational and support services. SASS and the peer educators were able to hold thirty distinct programs with small gender-specific and co-ed groups, including at least one in each residence hall on East Campus, reaching 790 students.

Also in the fall, SASS sponsored Dating Violence Awareness Week, which included programs on domestic-violence prevention, date rape, and self-defense. Dating Violence Awareness Week is a new initiative designed to complement the annual Sexual Assault Prevention Week (SAPW), which, this year, is scheduled to take place March 28 through April 1. "This year's SAPW is preceded by a two-week spring programming campaign, which is similar to the First Six Weeks Campaign," says Padamsee. "But instead of being targeted at freshmen, it is aimed at fraternities, sororities, and other undergraduate student organizations throughout campus."

To better address the problem of alcohol and its role in contributing to rape and sexual assault, Duke began participating last fall in a statewide research study called the Study to Prevent Alcohol Related Consequences. The research is being conducted by Wake Forest University's medical school and funded by a $3.2-million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Strengthening university policy, increasing training and education programs, and offering a range of support services are tangible indicators that Duke takes the issue of sexual assault seriously. But officials recognize that they can only do so much to combat this pernicious problem. National statistics paint a dismaying picture of what Duke and other universities are battling. In her book, I Never Called It Rape, author Robin Warshaw notes that for women age sixteen to twenty-four, the risk of rape is four times higher than in any other age group; nearly one-third of college men said they were likely to have sex with an unwilling partner if they thought they could get away with it.

"I think there is a tendency to bash Duke for not doing enough," says survivor Tracy Johnson. "But I think that is the wrong way to channel your anger. Duke is not the problem; it's not 'allowing' these assaults to take place. There are so many people at Duke who are dedicated to stopping rape and sexual assault; that's where I'd like to see people channel their energy."

In the preface to Saturday Night, the editors called for much the same thing. "We hope that these words from survivors will touch and inform all readers and, perhaps more importantly, serve as a catalyst for a movement toward a community that no longer tolerates sexual assault. This movement will not be built without the participation of all members of Duke's community."

For Emily Faulkner, the events of October 9, 2002, are one small but significant part of who she is. She is working with her fellow editors on a second edition of Saturday Night. Due out next fall, the new version will include stories of men who have been assaulted as well. But she is eager to look ahead and imagine her work as a physician helping women and children stay healthy. "I would never wish it on anyone, but in a way, [the attack] distilled my priorities in a crystal-clear way," she says. "Things I used to see as problems suddenly didn't matter any more. I found myself enjoying my academic work for the joy of learning and didn't care about grades. My family and friends became the most important things to me. People have told me they think I'm brave. But just because my assault was public, and my healing was public, that doesn't make me any braver than the women who never report it."

In her essay in The Chronicle published shortly after she was assaulted, Faulkner wrote of "grasping for ways to deal with this constructively," to help "convert my feeling of 'Why me?' to 'Why anyone?' " It's what Duke seeks to do campuswide.