By Marley Vebares
“This one guy was like ‘do you want some water, don’t you want some water?’ and I’m like ‘yeah okay, I do want some water’,” Jennifer said recalling a conversation she had with a man at a frat party. “I wasn’t even really buzzed, but then after drinking the water all of a sudden I felt drunk.”
Jennifer (the names of the survivors in this article have been changed to protect their identities), a senior at Tulane University, sat cross legged on her bed, leaning back casually and holding herself up with one arm. Her room was filled with plants and natural light, a banner that said ‘no fuckboys’ spanning across one of her white painted walls. Jennifer gestured with her hands trying to articulate how different she felt once she had drank the water that the man gave her.
“He insisted on walking me home and we ended up like literally hooking up on someone’s front lawn because I fell over,” Jennifer said. “I knew that earlier in the night I had no intention of hooking up with anyone, and even when we were walking home I was like I’m not going to hook up with him. But then I just got like woozy and we hooked up in public! It was really weird, but afterwards I was like why did I do that? I ended up getting a super bad rash from the fertilizer on the ground, too.”
Jennifer was certain that she had been drugged by whatever the man put in her water, but despite knowing what happened was wrong, Jennifer never reported the incident.
“It never even crossed my mind,” Jennifer said with a shrug. “I watch a lot of Law and Order: SVU, so in the show I’m always like, why are they so reluctant to report it? But then I’m like, oh God wait, nobody reports anything! Unless it’s like a very severe situation, but even then, I feel like so many people don’t report.”
Jennifer came to this conclusion after hearing countless stories from friends and acquaintances about their different experiences with assault. Jennifer explained that several of her friends have woken up after a night out to a random man on top of them. Yet, none of those friends subsequently reported what had happened. They traded these stories over meals at the Bruff Dining Hall on Tulane’s campus, just as casually as they would talk about a grade they had gotten in class.
In 2015, the American Association of University Women reported that 89% of U.S. colleges didn’t experience any incidents of rape on their campuses. This suggests that rapes and sexual assaults are not occurring at America’s institutions of higher education. However, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that 11.2% of all college students, regardless of gender, experience some kind of sexual assault during their time at college.
The discrepancy in the data comes from victims of assault like Jennifer, that never end up reporting what happened to them. In fact, the vast majority of sexual assault and rape do not report their experiences. According to data provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, 80% of survivors of these kinds of incidents never report them to college officials or police.
“Some of the common reasons I have heard are: I don’t want to ruin someone’s life, I don’t want my personal life to be put on trial, reporting doesn’t do anything anyways – this is, unfortunately, often correct as few perpetrators actually serve jail time if they even see the inside of a courtroom or are arrested- or they feel responsible, shameful,” said Erin Shapiro.
Erin, who is a survivor herself, began getting involved in the nationwide efforts for college campuses to become safer places for their students when she was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University. There, she started working at a rape crisis center, then eventually moved to New Orleans in order to attend graduate school at University of New Orleans. With a masters degree of education in counseling, Erin landed at Loyola University, where she and the other counselors in the office provide mental health counseling to 24% of the student population.
“So many people who go through any kind of gender-based violence feel like they can’t talk, they have no voice.” Erin said.
“Many survivors of sexual assault do not label it as such.” Erin went on, referring back to her experience as a counselor at Loyola. “They may have been taught what happened to them was ‘just an awkward encounter’ or ‘just drunk sex’ when in actuality it is assault. Other times, survivors may be feeling a tremendous shame, or they are in denial about what happened to them or they may not want to believe that sexual assault has happened.”
Like the survivors that Erin described, Jennifer did not label what had happened to her as assault.
“I wouldn’t want that to define me, like ‘oh I’m that girl who got assaulted’,” Jennifer said with a flip of her hand. “Yeah, stuff like that happened but I don’t want to own it. Like yeah, it was fucked up, but a lot of fucked up stuff happens, can’t save everything.”
“It happened the second month of school my Freshman year,” Rose, another senior at Tulane University, said, staring ahead at some ducks in Audubon park. “I had just met this really cool older girl who introduced me to a guy friend of hers at the Boot bar. Even though I knew I wasn’t interested, I felt like she wanted me to kind of entertain him, so I did.”
“And yeah, I was dancing with him and hanging out, and I wasn’t even really opposed to fooling around, but I didn’t want to sleep with him.” Rose sounded tired. “I told everyone there that, too. I literally told three different people that night that I didn’t want to sleep with him. I knew having sex with random people wasn’t really for me. I had already tried it once by then and it just made me feel gross.”
Despite not wanting to have sex with him, Rose said that she couldn’t figure out a good way to ditch him without being weird. She wasn’t opposed to hooking up outside of having sex, so she decided to take him back to her room where she could eventually tell him to leave. However, on the walk back to her dorm room she realized that she had lost her keys, so she agreed to go back to his dorm room with him.
“As we’re walking I begin telling him over and over again that I don’t want to sleep with him.” Rose said. “But he didn’t really get it? He kept asking me why. I didn’t have a reason though! At least not one that would have made sense to him, so I just kept saying that I didn’t want to.”
However, despite making it clear that she had no intention of sleeping with him, the man became even more insistent once they entered his room and began hooking up.
“Eventually, I stopped saying no,” Rose said, picking at a stray piece of lint on her leggings. “I just didn’t know how to keep saying it without things getting super weird or without him getting mad. I know, I know I should have just left and figured something out, but I was drunk and I didn’t know where to go. I don’t know. I just literally said the word sure and that was it.”
“I woke up the next morning and I felt disgusting, but I felt disgusted with myself more than anything else,” Rose said. “I should have kept saying no, I should have left. I should have been stronger than that. I didn’t know how to separate myself from all of these things that I should have done and accept that he just should have listened.”
According to Hannah Novak, a victim advocate and student at Tulane University, Rose’s response to what happened to her is very common amongst those who experience sexual assault. “There is a lot of self-blame that victims feel,” Hannah said, “because as a society we have told victims that it is their fault. To some extent, we internalize that.”
Erin Shapiro agreed that so many times survivors have trouble processing what happened to them. In her experience as a counselor, Erin has had many students come to her and tell her about hookups that they describe as just having gone awry.
“When they start telling me what happened, I’m like that’s not a hookup that went bad, someone assaulted you.” Erin said. “Someone sought you out then wouldn’t let you leave without this sexual exchange that you didn’t want to consent to. Coercion is a big part of that, too, because sometimes it’s like ‘well I didn’t say no, but I really didn’t want to do it’. That’s coercion, that’s still rape.”
Coupled with her inability to come to terms with how her assault occurred, Rose also felt that she couldn’t report what had happened because she had been drinking while underage. “I just didn’t know if I was going to get in trouble or if anyone would even believe me. Like they might even think what happened wasn’t wrong because he had been drunk, too.”
“A lot of times people will be like, ‘oh well this person was drunk, too, so neither of them could consent’, but the thing is that there is a differentiation,” said Hannah, arguing against the idea that being drunk gives a perpetrator leeway. “If one person is plying another person with drinks all night, that’s intent.”
Alcohol use, according to a study published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is involved in 50% of sexual assaults occurring on college campuses. If there is a correlation between alcohol use and an increase in sexual assaults, then Tulane University has something of a problem on its hands. The school was ranked the No. 1 party school in America on Princeton’s 2018 school rankings and No. 3 just the year before.
However, according to Hannah, it’s difficult to talk about Tulane’s drinking culture in relation to sexual assault. “It’s really hard to talk about alcohol and sexual violence in a way that does not either let perpetrators off the hook,” Hannah said. “And it’s really hard to do it without victim blaming and saying they shouldn’t be drinking.”
Erin, in her bright white office, felt similarly to Hannah on the topic of alcohol’s involvement in sexual assaults on campuses. While she acknowledged the room for alcohol causing confusion amongst consenting parties, she believed that in the end assault occurs because someone has decided to assault someone else.
“Ultimately the responsibility has to be put back on the person who perpetrates the assault.” Erin said clasping her hands together.Unfortunately though, according to Erin, the presence of alcohol in these situations is often a huge deterrent to survivors who want to report.
“Many survivors don’t want to admit that they were drinking or engaging in drug use,” Erin said. “This in no way should affect how their cases are handled and does not mean that they were not raped but I have seen cases where they are afraid of being prosecuted themselves for underage drinking or drug use and so they choose not to report it.”
While Rose never reported what happened to her, she said that she finally came to accept that it wasn’t her fault after years of attempting to bury the incident in her mind.
“I’m not ever going to report what happened, and I still can’t really even say out loud what some people would call it,” Rose said. “But, a long time ago I decided that I didn’t need to keep carrying around shame for something that I thought that I had done to myself.”
Marley Vebares is a senior at Tulane University studying English and Public Relations.