by Molly Bookner
As you read this sentence, an innocent person, somewhere in the United States, is being sexually assaulted or raped. She is most likely female, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and at a high risk for developing PTSD in the immediate weeks following the attack. She probably won’t report the incident, and if she does, it is unlikely her perpetrator will ever be convicted or brought to justice (rainn.org). RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN founded and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and also operates the Department of Defense Safe Helpline. Overall, RAINN carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
Many sexual assaults occur when the victim and/or perpetrator are under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs. This makes “college bars” perfect breeding grounds for such illicit behavior.
“Drug facilitated sexual assault is a problem across the US on college campuses,” claims Alison Cofrancesco, case manager at Tulane University Victim Support Services. “Alcohol is a drug frequently used among the college-aged population. As alcohol impacts executive functioning, impaired judgement can be a consequence anywhere binge drinking is prevalent. Although alcohol and other drugs are not the cause of sexual assault, it can make individuals more vulnerable to being in high risk situations.”
In New Orleans, a city booming with vibrant nightlife and overly relaxed attitudes surrounding alcohol consumption, universities like Tulane and Loyola struggle greatly with this epidemic of sexual assaults.
Shirley Young, director of The Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in New Orleans, who holds individual and group sessions with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, can attest to this.
“I had a client who said she had been sexually assaulted by the bartender at (one of the bars right off Tulane’s campus frequented by students) ,” says Young, “He said, ‘Oh you’re so drunk I’ll drive you home,’ and then she wound up in bed with him, and it wasn’t her choice.”
“We definitely see college students at the hospital getting SANE [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner] exams as well as at our office,” says Amanda Tonkovich, director of The Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) in New Orleans, “There have definitely been cases over the 4 years I have been working at the Family Justice Center that the victim patronized one of [Tulane’s common bars] prior to the assault.” In a slightly disturbing detail, she mentions how the “SANE program is on track to see about 400 total sexual assault survivors this year.”
The Palms, one of the bars right off campus, has a particularly suspicious past. In 2013, The Palms lowered its minimum age requirement from twenty-one to nineteen, according to a story in the Uptown Messenger. Only a few months later, “a woman said two men in their early to mid 20s sexually assaulted her around 2:30 a.m. inside a club at Freret and Broadway streets. The only club at that intersection is the Palms Bar and Grill.” According to The Uptown Messenger, the city charged “The Palms with permitting improper conduct and maintaining a public nuisance,” forcing it to change its minimum age requirement back up to twenty-one.
The Palms agreed to a consent decree, which is an agreement or settlement to resolve a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt (in a criminal case) or liability (in a civil case). This was after The Palms was accused of one of its bartenders raping a student.
Although the perpetrator in the infamous Palms case was a bar employee, “3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the survivor”— Amanda Tonkovich & rainn.org.
“It has been very hard for students who have been raped after going to (some of the popular off-campus bars) to get evidence from the venue(s),” according to an anonymous student at Tulane University familiar with this subject. “(Some of the bars) make it very hard for victims as (they) won’t release any evidence from (their) cameras without a legal action, making it very tough for a victim of sexual assault to receive justice.”
“The victim sometimes will not have a memory of what happened or who the perpetrator was,” says Mrs. Tonkovich on drug-facilitated sexual assault.
“We have had multiple students report to us that they are aware of certain college bars where it is rumored that the bartenders drug the drinks,” says Mrs. Tonkovich on the Tulane college bar scene. In a completely separate interview, Mrs. Young mentions the exact same thing. “I’ve heard of people being drugged at bars and then taken somewhere…they [victims] often say, ‘I don’t know what happened…I woke up in a strange place, I woke up in a field, or in my own bed but someone was with me and I don’t know how it happened.”
Mrs. Young, like Alison Cofrancesco, understands how alcohol causes people to have less inhibition and less ability to fight back, or to at least, walk away. Specifically, when alcohol is mixed with other drugs, she explains, even other prescription medications you regularly take, it can cause dangerous and unforeseen effects. As Shirley Young puts it, “It takes experience to know how much you can drink and still function.”
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains how many students come to college with established drinking habits. In a quote that seems to ring particularly true for Tulane Students, the NIAAA states how “the college environment can exacerbate the problem.”
According to a national survey, “almost 60 percent of college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost 2 out of 3 of them engaged in binge drinking during that same timeframe.” Specifically, “the first 6 weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year” (NIAAA).
“What I’ve noticed is there are young women who are inexperienced with being away from the safety of home,” explains Mrs. Young, looking back on her own experiences with sexual assault victims and interactions with college-aged women. “They do things they wouldn’t have done at home, like drinking so much, and then they are embarrassed because they don’t really know how they got into the situation or how to get out of it.”
While the majority of perpetrators tend to be people the victims know, often times, Mrs. Young explains, that “The [perpetrators] in bars are most likely someone [the victims] haven’t dealt with.”
Young goes on to detail the first case she ever worked on:
“There was a young girl who was working as a shot girl in a bar, and she saw a guy she had gone to highschool with, and he introduced her to his friends, and his friends are the ones who actually took her away and raped her.”
Most girls enter college not realizing that there is a frighteningly high chance they will be sexually assaulted at some point over their four years.
Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation, and the statistics only go up for those who identify as transgender, genderqueer, or nonconforming.
Out of those 23.1% of females who are raped or sexually assaulted, only a staggering 20% will officially report the incident to law enforcement (rainn.org):
“There is a variety of reasons that victims do not come forward,” says Amanda Tonkovich on this matter. “We live in a culture that is often shaming and blaming of victims rather than supportive—often victims do come forward to someone in their life, but they are not believed and it stops there. Many survivors just want to pretend that nothing happened and move on with their life. While the criminal justice system can be a powerful process for some, it can also be very re-traumatizing and the process can be drawn out for years, and many people don’t trust this system or want to engage with it. We also live in a culture where we teach women that it is their responsibility to keep themselves safe and not to get raped, rather than putting the responsibility on the rapist for their action. For this reason, victims (and those close to them) often question their own actions, what they did wrong, why they drank so much, etc. and feel as if it was their fault. I think a big fear for students is also that their parents may find out and force them to move back home or question their ability to care for themselves.”
One of the main issues when it comes to bar-related sexual assaults is that most people are too drunk or distracted to realize that a situation is becoming dangerous or suspect. Bar employees are supposed to be sober while working, so hypothetically, they should be on the lookout for suspicious behavior that could later become unlawful.
In a compelling article about bars starting to require staff to become trained in sexual violence prevention, The Globe and Mail writes, “The eyes and ears of bartenders are particularly important, especially since they are often the only sober observers around.”
Every bartender in Louisiana must obtain a Responsible Vendor Permit within forty-five days of being hired, but interestingly, nowhere in the thirty-eight page long 2016 Louisiana Responsible Vendor Handbook, does it deem drinking on the job illegal for bartenders. Although concrete evidence on this matter in Louisiana is inconclusive, many states leave it up to the discretion of the individual bars whether or not to permit employees to drink while working.
Continuing this line of thought, Mrs. Tonkovich adds, “I think that bars definitely have a responsibility to keep their patron safe and there are campaigns and training available that bars can and should implement. We know that perpetrators seek out victims who are vulnerable and are less likely to be believed—this is why alcohol is often used as a tool for perpetration, so bar staff is potentially on the front line to provide intervention and create a safe environment.”
In Louisiana, The Alcohol and Tobacco Control Agency (ATC) is in charge of maintaining “the integrity of Louisiana’s alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries through effective regulation that promotes responsible business practices and the prevention of access to underage persons” (ATC). According to their website, the agency’s vision is “to be the best in the nation.”
Although the Louisiana ATC claims to have many ongoing field operations regarding the reduction of underage drinking, they do not have a single one dedicated to sexual assault awareness and the responsibility of the bartenders/employees in such situations. In fact, nowhere on their entire website does it mention the topic at all.
One sexual violence training program, Safe Bar, “teaches bar staff to recognize the subtle signs of an impending sexual assault and stop it before anyone gets hurt” (upworthy.com).
So far, the program has proved very successful in the Washington, D.C. area. So why hasn’t New Orleans, a place filled with bars (and sexual assaults), gotten on-board?
“Determining how liable bar staff should be in these situations is a conversation happening in New Orleans and across the country,” discusses Alison Cofrancesco. “I think what is being referred to here on a more general level is the tension between legality vs morality. Unfortunately, we can’t always regulate what we might think is right. It is because of this reason that the university spends a lot of resources teaching bystander intervention. Ultimately, each individual needs to speak up when they see something inappropriate happening.” In addition, Shirley Young, who has spoken to men of these sorts in the past, explains, “Things that I’ve heard guys say is that they get her drunk to have sex, which completely leaves her out of the decision—it’s not a relationship, she’s a sex object, and that’s very objectionable, but it’s something that I don’t think is really taught. I don’t think boys are conditioned to empathize or to be, really, kind people to girls.”
In high schools, sexual education is often taught in a completely clinical way, leaving emotion and emotional consequences entirely out of the picture. Although this certainly is not an excuse for boys to become rapists, it may be a small factor in them not truly understanding the consequences of sex, let alone non-consensual sex and other unwanted sexual advances.
Ninety-seven out of every one hundred rapists convicted will receive zero punishment (rainn.org), meaning, literally, only three of them will ever spend a single day in prison. Rapists know their chances of getting caught or put in jail are very slim, so in their eyes, there is little reason for them not to commit such crimes.
“Investigators in the Office of Conduct are tasked with gathering information from the victim, perpetrator and witnesses for any action violating the Code of Conduct,” says Alison Cofrancesco on the situation at Tulane University. “For more serious violations of the Code of Conduct, such as a sexual assault, the case is often heard by a university hearing board made up of a faculty member, staff member and student. They determine a finding of responsibility and also propose recommended sanctions to the Vice President of Student Affairs.”
In discussing his/her personal experience with these services, an anonymous Tulane student explains how “The process of relaying information about my assault to authorities was very upsetting and in a way, embarrassing. So many people had written me off as a liar that I went in there [Victim Support Services office] thinking these women wouldn’t believe me either.”
As you read this article, another eleven or so individuals were sexually assaulted or raped, and the number keeps rising.
“We need to teach little boys from the beginning how to treat girls, because I really believe that some young men don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong,” urges Mrs. Young. “They’re not thinking of how we feel, how girls feel about what they are doing and what girls want.”