The following story contains descriptions of sexual violence that may be triggering to survivors.
When Ava awoke, she was covered in bruises and scratches, and half her clothes were missing. It was Sunday morning, and Ava, whose name has been changed to preserve her privacy, was in bed with a guy she’d only met the night before. She knew she’d been raped. When the stranger began raping her again that morning she was too scared to resist, or even react. “After the initial overwhelming stress and fear, it was a lot of numbness and just completely shutting down physically and mentally,” she said. “I didn’t say anything, didn’t think anything. Probably about an hour later I finally got up and said ‘I have to get out of here’ and left.” Then only a few weeks into her freshman year, Ava tried to get her bearings after leaving the dorm, but the layout of south campus was still foreign to her. “I kind of just set off in one direction and figured it out eventually,” she said.
Two years, almost to the date, after Ava’s harrowing weekend, forty male students and staff from all walks of Kenyon life — athletes and Greeks, political science and biology majors — crowded into Weaver Cottage for the men’s discussion during Take Back the Night (TBTN), an annual week of events dedicated to ending sexual violence. The circle they formed was several times larger than those of the single-digit audiences that attended in past years.
“We’re pressured to appear apathetic to these sorts of issues; we’re pressured to stay out of these conversations because we’re often just not welcome in them — or at least that’s the impression that we get,” Peter Granville ’16, the discussion’s moderator, said. But on this night, the first of October, men did not shy away from joining the conversation.
Like many guys, David Belsky ’16 had come to be defensive in discussions about feminism and rape culture. Often when he talked with his sister, a human rights major at Trinity College, he felt attacked. “I realized this summer that you just have to get over that hurdle. And you have to accept that it’s not you they’re blaming,” he said. Belsky was driven to speak up after ribbons, schedules, a large poster, and other TBTN items were taken from the Crozier Center for Women on the week’s opening day. “The switch was flipped in my head that action was needed even if your heart was in the right place,” he said.
Despite the heightened interest in this year’s discussion, Granville highlighted how hard it is to engage those who might be inclined to commit sexual assault, saying, “Those are exactly the people who would not want to spend their Wednesday night talking about that subject.” As for the rest of the male population, Daniel Cebul ’17 said a lot of well-intentioned men still feel alienated from the discussion: “Really, some guys don’t show up, not because they disagree but because they feel disproportionately or unfairly blamed or targeted.”
Cebul, however, is walking proof of the effect sexual assault narratives can have on people. “I thought I sort of understood” the trauma survivors undergo, he said. Then he attended the TBTN Speak Out, in which some survivors shared their stories. “Now I know I definitely don’t understand, but I understand a little better than I did before.”
Ava participated in the Speak Out last year. “It’s hard to get too involved, though,” she said. Since the attack her freshman year, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, depression, and anxiety, which, among other effects, sometimes make it hard for her even to leave her room, despite the fact that her alleged assailant graduated last year. Now a junior, Ava’s experience was one of eighteen reported cases of sexual misconduct at Kenyon in the 2012-2013 academic year. It also occurred in late September, during the “red zone” of increased vulnerability to sexual assault, which lasts from a first year’s arrival on campus until Thanksgiving break. Since the week after the incident, Ava has been seeing the same Kenyon counselor, which she said has helped in her ongoing struggle to recover.
“One of the most important things for someone dealing with assault, dealing with misconduct, is to feel like they have their agency back.”
Emma Specter ’15
Can they practice confidentiality? Can they be sensitive to issues? Do they know how to talk to people who are unsure or are struggling with an issue related to sexual misconduct? These are all questions the Sexual Misconduct Advisors (SMAs) ask their applicants, according to Charlie Collison ’15, one of the group’s leaders. The SMAs exist under the auspices of the Counseling Center as a confidential support system for those with questions or concerns about sexual misconduct. “We’re here as a resource,” SMA Emma Specter ’15 said, adding that she and her fellow SMAs aim to listen to students and direct them to counseling as appropriate. “One of the most important things for someone dealing with assault, dealing with misconduct, is to feel like they have their agency back.”
Whenever an SMA meets with a student to discuss an incident of sexual misconduct, the SMA must fill out a report detailing the claim, which he or she must then submit to Nikki Keller, one of the counselors in charge of the SMA program. “My key thing with that report is to identify if there is some kind of pattern,” Keller said. “I first and foremost want a safe campus and I want people to feel like they can go out on weekends and have great times and not worry about this. So if there is a pattern that’s identified, I feel a responsibility to go to the Title IX coordinator and let them know, ‘Hey, we have a problem.’”
The College’s Title IX coordinator is charged with ensuring Kenyon meets the requirements of the titular 1972 statute prohibiting sexual discrimination within educational institutions. At the beginning of this academic year, Linda Smolak was comfortably retired after a three-decade teaching career in Kenyon’s Department of Psychology. Then, due to the College’s former Title IX coordinator moving to Australia with her family in September, Kenyon asked Smolak to fill the void. “We did not want to be without anybody doing Title IX,” she said. “The first couple weeks have been very hectic.”
Smolak encourages individuals to bring forward sexual misconduct complaints and is happy to act as a conduit into the student conduct review process. However, if a pattern emerges in the SMA reports — for example, if multiple individuals have accused the same person of misconduct — Kenyon may step in absent an official complaint. “If the College deems that a student presents a danger to the campus, they can act immediately and in fact are required to act immediately,” Smolak said. This approach is in line with the Title IX mandate that schools work to remedy “hostile” educational environments, though it does not trump the confidentiality afforded to the Counseling Center and SMAs. While required to submit reports, SMAs may make them anonymous, according to Collison. “Whatever initiative people have in these different events has to come about from their own will,” he said.
The SMA program has grown from five or six members when Keller arrived on campus fifteen years ago to the roughly thirty-five students who make up the organization today. In the past six or seven years, the Counseling Center has also enhanced the training it provides SMAs, according to Keller. “It’s intense,” she said. “We do role-playing, we do basic counseling skills, we do how to support someone, we go over rape kit procedures.”
For Specter, involving herself doesn’t feel like a choice. “I often feel exhausted and sad and angry about issues of sexual misconduct, and having this pin on my bag is probably the most concrete way I can make myself feel like I’m actually doing something,” she said, referring to the purple “Sexual Misconduct Advisor” buttons all SMAs pin to their bags so others know they can approach them.
Following her assault, Ava dropped out of one of her classes. “Freshman year was by far my worst year academically,” she said. “I did not get very good grades that semester.” She stopped going to Peirce for two weeks to avoid running into the student she says assaulted her. When she began going again, she ate downstairs. She had to go to the KAC, because she played a sport; but she fretted going, because he also played a sport. In fact, it was at a mixer between the two teams that Ava met her alleged assailant for the first time. “I met him that night at the first party and he seemed very friendly and we talked for a little while,” she said. “I met a lot of people that night; it didn’t really stick out in my mind at all.”
Occasionally in sexual misconduct cases students will seek to lessen their workloads. Ava dropped a class, though sometimes students leave the College altogether. “The toughest ones were ones where the students felt like they had to take time off, and I hated that their education was interrupted,” former Dean of Academic Advising Jane Martindell said. During Martindell’s sixteen-year tenure, Counseling Center staff would get in touch with her when they thought her office could provide academic support to students who said they had been sexually assaulted. “What that tells me is that it is significant enough that it is affecting the student’s work and it’s been verified by medical professionals over at the Counseling Center, so that’s all I really need to know,” Martindell said. Thereafter, “a lot of it is just making faculty aware that an issue is out there.” She would also work with survivors to tailor their schedules to avoid contact with the alleged assailant. “The Title IX coordinator would take a lead role” in providing academic accommodations, Dean Hoi Ning Ngai, Martindell’s successor, said, “to give the student a centralized point of contact and also to give the faculty a centralized point of contact.”
Ava’s was one of three reports of sexual assault on Kenyon students the Knox County Sheriff’s Office took in 2012, according to Detective David Light. (The office took two in 2011, none in 2013, and has taken five so far in 2014.) Ava found her interaction with the sheriff’s office to be far from supportive, however. She said the officer who met her at Knox Community Hospital (KCH) argued that her encounter didn’t sound “completely nonconsensual,” even though she was unconscious. He also chided her for drinking.
“Officers would take a report, obtain statements, collect evidence if any is available, and provide resource information to the victim,” Light said of the sheriff’s office’s protocol for responding to sexual assault allegations. He added that Ava “signed a waiver to discontinue any investigation.”
“Four or five different nurses came in and each one wanted to hear my entire story and almost every single one of them, after I was done, would say, ‘Oh well you shouldn’t have been drinking, you’re underage, this is what happens.”
Ava recalls having only one drink that night, not enough to seriously lower her inhibitions or incapacitate her. But she set down the drink, and doesn’t remember anything beyond that. Except, that is, until she woke up sore in a stranger’s bed the next morning. She believed she’d been drugged, but wanted to know for sure. “It just didn’t add up for why I blacked out and felt so ill, so I asked them to do a blood test and a urine test to test for drugs,” Ava said. As she recalls it, though, KCH staff instead tested her sample for urinary tract infection. By the time she learned of the error it was too late to take another sample, as any drugs would have left her system. “When I went in a few days later to get my results they were like, ‘Oh yeah, your tests were negative.’ I was like, ‘What?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, you don’t have urinary tract infection.’ I’m like, ‘That’s not at all what I asked you to do.’” In an email, Carole Wagner, marketing and community relations coordinator for KCH, wrote that the hospital could not release information about specific patients due to federal privacy regulations.
Ava was also put off by how she was received in the hospital. “I first had to tell my entire story to one doctor — I never saw him again — and then after I was taken to the emergency room, probably four or five different nurses came in and each one wanted to hear my entire story and almost every single one of them, after I was done, would say, ‘Oh well you shouldn’t have been drinking, you’re underage, this is what happens,’” she recalled. Ava said the hospital staff also pressed her for details about what she’d been wearing prior to the alleged assault. “It’s a ridiculous question under any circumstances,” she said, “but the fact was that I was wearing loose jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt and a scarf and was covered from neck to toe.”
Kenyon policy states the College may not penalize students for drinking if the drinking comes to light through the reporting of sexual misconduct allegations. Relatedly, both Title IX and state law require that an individual be capable of giving consent before engaging in sexual activity. According to Smolak, “One way you can be charged with nonconsensual sexual intercourse is if the person you had sex with couldn’t give consent, and that means they’re drunk, they’re stoned out of their minds, they’ve used ecstasy.” Or they’ve been drugged, as Ava suspects she was. But Ava had had enough. Enough questioning, enough tumult. She opted not to file a complaint through the College’s student conduct review process. “I wanted it over,” she said. “I wanted to drop it and for everything to go away.”
President Sean Decatur recognizes the need to be supportive of survivors of sexual assault at Kenyon. “The larger culture in which we live is one in which the default is actually victim-blaming,” he said. “I think that the awareness around sexual assault on campuses is helping to change that culture.”
Smolak wants people to feel comfortable coming forward and comfortable in the knowledge that they won’t be blamed for doing so. “I’m not going to judge them as an individual,” she said. “I’m not going to say or imply you’re stupid for being worried about this, how could you have let this happen?” That said, Smolak can’t assure anyone of any outcome in the College’s judicial process, which is typically overseen by Sam Hughes, director of student rights and responsibilities.
The vast majority of cases Hughes administers stem from alcohol and other drug use. Relatively few sexual misconduct cases make it to Hughes’ desk. Of the eighteen cases of on-campus sexual assault recorded last year, Hughes knew of four. (The rest were reported confidentially to SMAs or the Counseling Center.) Only one student chose to pursue a formal hearing, which became the only case the Student Conduct Review Board heard last year. The respondent, the College’s term for an alleged assailant, was found not responsible. Why more reports don’t result in judicial proceedings “is a good question,” according to Hughes. Dean of Students Hank Toutain suggested the expectation of having to face one’s alleged assailant might deter people from going through the hearing process. “I think sometimes the prospect of that kind of confrontation has a chilling effect on people being willing to come forward,” he said.
The College’s sexual misconduct policy is slated for reevaluation next year. But Hughes is anticipating making big revisions before then, maybe even later this semester. “There’s nothing that says we can’t do it sooner, and with all the changes in the government I just think it’s necessary to do that.” Among the changes she’s referring to are: a requirement that complainants and respondents be able to employ advisors of their choosing (formerly they had to come from within the campus community); the addition of dating and domestic violence and stalking to the crime reporting categories mandated under the Clery Act (the College released these numbers for 2013 in early October after omitting them in its initial report); and a recommendation that colleges adopt an investigator model of conduct review.
In Hughes’ mind, it’s “inevitable” that Kenyon will adopt an investigator model, which calls for one or two investigators to look into allegations of misconduct. These investigators would, according to Toutain, “talk to the principals, talk to any and all witnesses, and make a decision as to responsibility for the charged behavior and in some cases make a recommendation as to sanctions.” An administrator would then issue a final decision on the basis of the findings.
“I happen to like it,” Toutain said of the investigator model. By eliminating the need to find mutually agreeable times for the Student Conduct Review Board to meet, the investigator model would allow for more efficient adjudication of cases, he said. In addition, he said, “somebody might remain an investigator for perhaps a more extended period and so you’d have somebody who arguably is more familiar, more practiced at doing this work.”
The reality of sexual misconduct at Kenyon extends beyond the rape cases adjudicated through the Student Affairs Center. It also encompasses the more insidious phenomena of dating violence and emotional abuse. Cassie, a senior whose name has been changed to preserve her privacy, often felt physically uncomfortable around her boyfriend. He would get belligerent when drunk; when she said his behavior made her feel unsafe, he would verbally lay into her. One night he threw her suitcase against the wall in a fit of anger. “That was a frightening place to be in, because I also loved him and still love him, and it’s really hard to have that doubt in your mind, like, is this person abusing me?” she said. “Should I even be asking this question, and am I being disloyal to him by asking this question, or is this actually what’s happening to me?”
By sharing her story, Cassie is hoping to make known the reality of intimate partner violence at Kenyon. “It’s absolutely a thing on our campus, and it’s just not really recognized for what it is and for how detrimental it can be and how scary it can be,” she said. Cassie was confused. She knew something wasn’t right, but for a while she attributed it to the volatility of her relationship — the good times were good, the bad times bad. Very bad. “All I knew was that I felt like shit and felt so disemboweled and gutted as a human being and scared all the time,” she said. “Abuse like this also forms a sort of sick bond between the partners,” she added, “because you share this really dark emotional experience.”
Under a mandate of the newly passed Campus Sexual Violence, or SaVE, Act, Kenyon reported two cases of dating violence last year. Smolak thinks sexual misconduct is underreported across the board at Kenyon, but Cassie’s experience suggests dating violence statistics in particular might suffer from underreporting. “I never even thought about reporting him because I didn’t know what to report him for,” she said.
“That was a frightening place to be in, because I also loved him and still love him, and it’s really hard to have that doubt in your mind, like, is this person abusing me?”
Christina Franzino ’16, Laura Messenger ’16, Kate Kadleck ’15 and Rhiannon Suggs ’15 are facilitators for the Survivors Group, a joint offshoot of the Peer Counselors and SMAs. The group is meant to be supportive and low-pressure and provide a venue for people to share their experiences with sexual assault and its aftermath. “We generally start with, is there anything on anyone’s minds, anything that’s come up in the past couple weeks?” Kadleck said. The group meets every other week and typically draws eight or nine attendees. As for the term “survivor,” “I think it’s to be as empowering as possible and to give what could be called victims back agency when something has happened that has stripped them of all control,” Kadleck said. Franzino added, “There tends to be a connotation with victim that you’re a victim in a moment of crisis, but you’re a survivor kind of forever.” Franzino wants the group to be a safe space, a place where “survivors can come forward and aren’t going to be attacked or targeted because of what they share.”
Madeline Thompson ’16, one of Crozier’s managers, also aims to provide a safe space for the campus community. Her own sense of safety was jolted, however, when the TBTN supplies were taken from the house. It was also jolted by comments on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak, including “Gang bang at the crozier house tonight” and “Who’s pumped for rape back the night.” In response, Crozier’s residents began locking the house’s doors at night, whereas previously the building stayed open 24/7. “We need to find a balance between the residents feeling safe and being able to be a safe space for campus,” Thompson said. “If it’s a place that people are going to target with threats or theft, then it’s inherently not a safe space.”
For Thompson, though, the glass is half full. “It’s been really great to see all the support for survivors that came out during Take Back the Night from people who might not usually be involved in the event just because of all of the negative attention it had been getting through Yik Yak,” she said. “I think it eventually had a net positive effect.”
Hoping to maintain an open forum for men to discuss sexual misconduct, Granville meanwhile is helping organize weekly men’s discussions on Monday nights. “If someone asks, say, next year, ‘Hey, that whole 2014 Take Back the Night issue, what happened with that?’ then we can at least say, here’s what we’re doing now. We’re still talking about it and we’re not letting it just be that instant or that terrible week.”
Earlier this fall, the sheriff’s office disposed of Ava’s rape kit after she opted not to press charges. “When I got called down to Campus Safety to talk to the sheriff about it, it was still very hard,” she said.
As she recounted her story, Ava spoke in a composed, level tone. The only time her voice quavered was in discussing her exchanges with the sheriff’s office and the hospital staff. “After I had those conversations with them, for a while I started to think that maybe they were right, maybe it was all my fault.” Self-doubt, together with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress, have colored Ava’s life at Kenyon in the months and years since that late-September weekend two years ago. She’s marginally more comfortable on campus now that her alleged assailant has left, but closure remains an illusion, peace of mind a fantasy. “It’s hard to feel safe here again,” she said.