Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2013 | Features

Time to Say No

By Kathryn Howe
In response to several high-profile news cases, Iowa Alumni Magazine and UI experts join the national conversation about sexual violence and examine the university's approach to making positive changes on campus.

Dusk falls across campus as waves of jubilant basketball fans flood the streets. The home team has just emerged victorious over its archrival in a dramatic conference game. The cheers, high-fives, and emotional electricity combine for the ultimate block party—underscored by the camaraderie of shared victory.

It's a brisk Sunday in early March and Lauren Levy is warm underneath her favorite sweatshirt.

A business student in her senior year, she originally planned to study after the game, but the excitement is too thrilling to ignore. Instead, she goes with friends to grill burgers and attend a frat party. Quickly tiring of that chaos, Lauren sets out on foot to meet some other friends at a bar about three blocks away.

A car pulls up to her as she walks, and two men hang their heads out the windows.

"Hey, where you going? Can we give you a ride?"

The festive atmosphere convinces Lauren that everyone is part of the community of celebration. Plus, she's had a couple drinks and feels trusting, relaxed.

"Sure. OK. Thanks."

With that, she gets into the backseat. After a bit of chit-chat about the game, it becomes clear that these men aren't taking her downtown. Instead, they drive to a wooded area on the outskirts of town.

"Which one of us do you want to make out with?"

Up until this point, Lauren has retained her composure and optimism, but these words represent an official threat. She tries to joke her way out of it, telling them she can't possibly choose. When it becomes clear the men won't budge, she shifts into panicked survival mode and selects the guy on the passenger side. He climbs over the seat and begins kissing her, touching her. He drags her out of the car while she kicks and screams. He rips Lauren's clothes from her body, throws the sweatshirt to the ground. The car drives away, and he rapes her. When he's finished, she curls into a ball and cries, her tears mixing with the dirt and devastation.

Time to say no PHOTO: TOM LANGDON Years after her rape on a different college campus, Lauren Levy found the courage to speak openly about her trauma at a UI event.

Last spring, eight years after this violent sexual assault, Lauren Levy shared the story of her rape publicly for the first time at the University of Iowa's annual Take Back the Night rally in support of survivors of sexual violence. Her assault happened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but the terrible truth is that rape occurs on every campus and in every corner of society. One in three women will be raped in her lifetime; for men, that number is one in six—and the assaults can happen at a university function, at work, at home, at church, or in the military. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey, every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and the majority of those assaults go unreported.

After years of healing, acceptance, and growth, Lauren—now a doctoral student in the UI's counseling psychology program—emerged from behind the curtain of her own guilt and shame. With the sun setting behind the Old Capitol dome, right about the same time of day as when she closed the car door on the life she once knew, she took the stage with a sheet of notebook paper clasped in her shaking hands.

Even now, Lauren hesitates to tell her story.

"I know your readers will blame me for having a few drinks, for getting in that car," she says. "I know because I blame myself. But, while I take responsibility for my actions, it's important to remember that rape is a violent crime. Like other victims, I shouldn't be made to feel guilty and shameful—instead, the perpetrators of these crimes should.

"We survivors must be brave enough to speak up—otherwise the world will continue to tell us that it's our fault. Rape defies all stereotypes. This isn't something that happens to some 'slut' on the street; rape happens to your sisters, mothers, grandmothers, sons. Until people realize that sexual violence happens to people they care about, rates of sexual abuse and assault will remain high. That is why I am finally telling my story publicly."

For all the strides made toward improving women's and victims' rights, the way American society typically addresses rape remains alarmingly skewed. The act of forcing any form of sexual intercourse against another person's will often isn't viewed for what it is: a crime motivated by a need to control, torture, humiliate, and harm. Instead, it turns into victim-blaming: what she wore, what he drank, what she said, what he did. As a result, many survivors feel doubted and dismissed. Abandoning their educations, jobs, and the other places where they've experienced trauma, they often take refuge in secrecy, ending up—unlike their attackers—in a kind of prison. Trapped in an anguished silence, they experience social isolation, intimacy problems, anxiety, and depression. For some, suicide is the only escape.

207,754 victims (age 12 and older) of sexual assault each year (in U.S.)

Says Karla Miller, 94BA, 01MSW, director of the University of Iowa's Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP): "It's always interesting to hear someone tell me, 'I don't know anyone who has been raped.' Either you haven't asked or they aren't comfortable telling you."

Most anti-violence organizations like RVAP say that a "rape culture" exists in America—one that accuses victims even as it normalizes, excuses, tolerates, and, in some cases, condones sexual violence. Rape culture makes Lauren blame herself for her ordeal. Rape culture kept her silent for eight years.

This past March, Lauren experienced an especially difficult time on the anniversary of her rape. Even after all these years, the traumatic event sometimes still overwhelms her with painful memories and self-recriminations. To make matters worse that month, a 16-year-old girl in a courtroom in Steubenville, Ohio, burst into tears upon seeing herself naked in a photo taken at an end-of-school celebration. That night, the high-schooler had drunk until she passed out, then two fellow teenagers—star football players at their local high school—sexually assaulted her.

Such incidents aren't uncommon, but the proliferation of social media posts, images, and text messages surrounding this one drew national attention. The public came face-to-face with the disturbing fact that many people watched what happened to this girl, but did nothing to stop it. On the stand, witnesses made statements such as:

"She didn't really respond to it."

"It wasn't violent."

"I didn't know what rape was."

(The definition of rape differs from state to state, but generally it's considered as sexual contact or penetration achieved without consent or with use of force, threat, or coercion, and/or when a victim is mentally or physically impaired. A victim does not have to prove resistance.)

Before, throughout, and after the trial, the Ohio victim endured a barrage of harassment, name-calling, and character smears. Ultimately, her attackers were convicted of rape and received minimum one- and two-year sentences with the possibility of remaining in juvenile detention until they turn 21. Upon hearing the judge's ruling, the boys burst into tears of their own. Outside the courtroom, some news commentators expressed sympathy about the boys' sterling grade-point averages and ruined futures, seemingly blaming the victim instead of recognizing the boys' responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Little compassion appeared directed toward the victim. Although she committed no crime, the overwhelming reaction in this tight-knit community seemed to be: she got what she deserved.

Steubenville sparked a national soul-searching about attitudes and responses to rape. Around the same time, other stories from stateside and around the world made headlines, keeping the issue at the forefront of people's minds. Despite the surge of attention and some public outrage, when an American tourist was attacked while hitchhiking in India this summer, online comments to media coverage included: "A woman accepts a ride from a vehicle with multiple men?" "Arrogant? Ignorant? Just plain stupid?" "Looks like she asked for that one."

To the consternation and anger of anti-rape campaigners and sexual assault survivors, many people seem almost instinctively to aim their rage at the victims of such crimes—analyzing whether they were drinking, flirting, or walking in a dark alley—rather than the actions of the perpetrators who actually broke the law. Those everyday, normal, legal actions are not an invitation to rape, Lauren says. No lapse in judgment warrants such vigilante punishment—especially not in a "civilized" society.

"It's easier to blame a victim for getting into a bad situation; the rationalization becomes 'that won't happen to me' because rape only befalls people who make poor choices," she says. "As a society, we do this because it makes us feel safe. It makes us think that rape can't happen to us or to the women and men we love. But it can, and it does."

"Hello? I need to talk to someone. I don't know what to do. Last night, I was raped."

Karla Miller and her staff regularly receive such calls on the RVAP crisis line, often accompanied by details of brutal attacks. Since 1973, the UI's RVAP has been the go-to service organization for Iowa City and several counties for survivors who come forward for help. The center offers free and confidential support, counseling, and advocacy to victims of sexual violence and their friends and families, answering some 2,000 assorted crisis calls each year.

Miller began her work with the organization as a volunteer advocate around 1977, shortly after she learned about the rape of two friends by a man who had waited for them outside their apartment building. As much as RVAP tries to increase public awareness and educate the community about rape through its services and campaigns like Take Back the Night, Miller says rape prevention is more than simply a matter of education, although that is important. Rape, she says, gets to the very core of how society functions. It requires a painful, honest look at how and why women, children, and other marginalized groups linger at the bottom of the hierarchy of worthiness.

"We live in a society driven by inequality. The question is whom in our society are we going to value?" says Miller. "And, on the individual level, we have to place the responsibility for rape where it belongs: on the person or people who rape."

She recalls a piece titled "The Legal Bias Against Rape Victims (The Rape of Mr. Smith)" by Connie Borkenhagen that first appeared in the April 1975 American Bar Association Journal and was later published in Harper's Magazine. Still relevant today, the article asks the reader to imagine a robbery victim undergoing the same sort of cross-examination a rape victim does:

Lawyer: "Did you struggle with the robber?"

Mr. Smith: "No."

Lawyer: "Why not?"

Mr. Smith: "He was armed."

Lawyer: "Then you made a conscious decision to comply with his demands rather than resist?"

Mr. Smith: "Yes."

Lawyer: "Did you scream? Cry out?"

Mr. Smith: "No. I was afraid."

Lawyer: "I see. Have you ever been held up before?"

Mr. Smith: "No."

Lawyer: "Have you ever GIVEN money away?"

Mr. Smith: "Yes, of course."

Lawyer: "And you did so willingly?"

Mr. Smith: "What are you getting at?"

Lawyer: "Well, let's put it like this, Mr. Smith. You've given money away in the past. In fact, you have quite a reputation for philanthropy. How can we be sure that you weren't CONTRIVING to have your money taken from you by force?"

Lawyer: "What were you wearing at the time, Mr. Smith?"

Mr. Smith: "Let's see—a suit. Yes, a suit."

Lawyer: "An EXPENSIVE suit?"

Mr. Smith: "Well, yes. I'm a successful lawyer, you know."

Lawyer: "In other words, Mr. Smith, you were walking around the streets late at night in a suit that practically advertised the fact that you might be a good target for some easy money, isn't that so? I mean, if we didn't know better, Mr. Smith, we might even think that you were ASKING for this to happen, mightn't we?"

Even though it's difficult talking openly about her rape, Lauren says the fact she was dragged into the woods by strangers makes it easier, like she is less to blame. "Because my attack was so brutal, unprovoked, and by strangers, it makes it easier to call it rape—a violent crime. If I'd only been robbed, I wouldn't be blaming myself or excusing the perpetrators," she says. "The fact that I was robbed is pretty much forgotten, and society still blames me. As a result, despite the fact that it was a violent assault, I still had a hard time making sense of it or being open about my experiences."

90% of campus rapes are alcohol-related

Given such attitudes, it can be even harder to explain or prosecute a rape when the circumstances are less clear-cut—when it's not as violent or it involves a friend, partner, or acquaintance. As Lauren says, "A friend of mine once said, 'Oh, I thought you were date raped,' as if that were somehow better or not as big of a deal."

Why does much of mainstream U.S. society cling to this attitude? Miller points to disparaging messages about women in the media, the impact of pornography, the sexualization of violence, and a deep-seated misogyny (generalizing women as bitches, whores, or Madonnas with emotional control over men).

She also notes an overall cultural conditioning of boys to value power, strength, and sexual domination, while girls are groomed toward submission and accepting their roles as objects, conquests, victims. In this worldview—particularly when held by abusive, angry, or violent people—potential victims aren't human beings with feelings but bounty in a sexual game.

Anti-violence organizations also take issue with dangerously ill-informed attitudes that linger among some police officers, medical staff, and politicians. In August 2012, during a discussion about abortion rights for sexual assault victims, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin ignored scientific evidence and said: "If it's legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

During a debate in Texas just a couple months ago, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg explained her opposition to an anti-abortion bill's exemption for victims of rape and incest by saying: "In the emergency room they have what's called 'rape kits' where a woman can get cleaned out."

97% of rapists never spend a day in jail

To Lauren—someone with actual experience of rape kits—such dismissive and trivializing language shows a complete lack of empathy and understanding about the physically and emotionally painful process of a post-rape vaginal examination. Many rape victims say it's like being violated all over again.

As she cries in the dirt near the woods, Lauren glimpses her attacker pacing nearby. Then, a glare of headlights causes her watery eyes to squint; the other man has returned. She fears another attack, but the men put her back in the car and around 1 a.m. dump her near campus, where a police officer discovers her sobbing uncontrollably.

Her assailants have stolen her purse and the patrolwoman keeps asking Lauren who she is, where she lives. Lauren struggles to express what has happened to her, and it will be a long time before she ever utters the word "rape." She manages to give the officer an address where her friends are still hanging out. Alarmed by her incoherent and distraught state, they override her reluctance and take her to the ER.

"I felt so disgusting," Lauren says. "All I wanted to do was take a shower. I can see how a person goes home alone, bathes, and tries to forget. If I hadn't returned to a place with friends, I probably would've done the same thing. But you can't."

At the hospital, an officer confiscates her clothes to seal into an evidence bag. For what seems like an eternity, Lauren lies on an uncomfortable examination table while a doctor collects pubic hairs and semen. She spends six hours at the hospital, repeating her story again and again throughout the longest and worst night of her life. She takes a pregnancy test before being prescribed the Plan B prevention pill, and then she swallows handfuls of powerful HIV anti-viral medications that make her violently sick.

Most survivors never make it to the emergency room or the reporting stage. Although Lauren consented to a rape kit, and DNA samples went into a national crime database, her assailants remain at large. In fact, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail; for those who do, the average sentence is 128 days. Such lack of consequences for rapists sparks outrage from survivors and their advocates.

The situation can seem worse on college campuses. "Many women leave campus because their alleged perpetrators remained without sanctions," Miller says. "Many college administrators hold the attitude that men can 'learn' not to be rapists. Rape is a crime, not a teaching moment."

Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim

At the University of Iowa, a few high-profile cases involving sexual assaults by Hawkeye student-athletes caused UI officials to re-evaluate their policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct and violence. In 2008, as part of a wide-ranging review and revision of policies, administrators created a new position—the UI sexual misconduct response coordinator—to provide clarity to the sexual assault reporting process.

Karla Miller says, "In 40 years, we've never seen the magnitude of positive institutional change regarding sexual assault and harassment as we have in the last four to five years. The university has focused on policies and procedures that afford the appropriate treatment of and equal rights to victims, while increasing perpetrator accountability."

The coordinator also ensures compliance with campus guidelines, as well as federal protections outlined in Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE), and the Clery Act—named after Jeanne Clery, a first-year student who in 1986 was raped, tortured, and killed in her dorm room at Lehigh University. The Clery Act, signed by U.S. Congress in 1990, requires schools to disclose all crimes that happen on campus.

Sam Cochran, director of the UI's University Counseling Service, applauds the university for making major advances toward a safer campus and supportive environment. "We're not near where we need to be and it will probably take a few generations to finally realize the kind of cultural shift needed to eliminate this kind of violence," he says. "But I'm encouraged by the progressive initiatives I see on our campus to change the conversation. In my work with our younger students, I have a real sense of hope."

128 days is the average jail sentence for a convicted rapist

Where safety programs at many other universities merely tell students to walk in pairs and carry an alarm whistle, the UI actively promotes conversation-changing programs like consent education and bystander intervention (click here to see article). Also, all new students receive extensive information about personal and alcohol safety at orientation and must complete an online sexual safety education program called "nformd."

Research shows that such efforts can make a difference. Monique DiCarlo, the UI's sexual misconduct response coordinator, likes to think her office has helped align campus-wide prevention efforts and promoted evidence-based solutions. "The work we've done in the last 30 years to change the way women are viewed in this country hasn't done much to reduce the [rape] numbers," she says. "I'm willing to try something else."

Lauren Levy's road to the Take Back the Night stage required her to try something else. She graduated from UNC a mere two months after her rape and immediately moved to New York City to work as an investment banker. Away from home and everyone she knew, she struggled to meet the demands of her stressful job. She began to suffer from panic attacks as her body responded to the trauma she was trying so hard to forget. The life she'd planned for herself before her rape wasn't working.

Eventually, she met a therapist who set her on a course for recovery. Around the same time, Lauren volunteered at a domestic violence shelter in Harlem. Working with these women convinced her that the meaning and peace she sought in her life required a career shift. She moved to Iowa City in 2008, soon serving as a RVAP advocate and traveling to Central America to support survivors of interpersonal violence. Upon her UI graduation next year, she'll begin a new chapter as a professional therapist, helping others confront and process their trauma.

As part of her own healing, she knew she had to speak out about her rape. Finally, she was ready. Violence shatters a survivor's belief in humanity; healing can take a lifetime. But, Lauren Levy is not defined by the criminal act inflicted upon her by a nameless man. She's living proof of what she tells other survivors: "We can be OK. We can do far more than just survive."

In an act of triumph, they can thrive.

Statistics source: RAINN