Sex assault during college is common and life-altering

‘I woke up.
He was in the room.
I didn’t know who he was.’

Published on June 12, 2015

EAST LANSING, MICH. — She remembers doing shots of liquor in her dorm room before heading out to a football tailgate party, where she got blackout drunk. When she came to, she was groggy, standing in the bathroom of her dorm room, looking in the mirror. Her hair was a mess. Behind her was a man she didn’t recognize, staring back at her and then slipping out the door.

It was just a few weeks into her freshman year at Michigan State University, and Rachel Sienkowski had become a survivor — but of what, she wasn’t sure. A sexual assault? A rape?

About this project: The Washington Post and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation teamed up to poll more than 1,000 people nationwide who have attended college within the past four years about sexual assault and campus culture. Post reporters then interviewed more than 50 women and men who responded that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — or attempted or suspected sexual contact — while they were students. The series looks at the prevalence of sexual assault among college students and the factors that play a role in those assaults.

Read more
1 in 5 women say they were violated
Male survivors often fear they won’t be taken seriously
Alcohol and assault
The meaning of consent
Survivors tell their stories
Read statements from colleges
See the full poll
How the poll was conducted
Join us for a discussion on June 17

All she knew was that her head was bleeding. Blood had spattered the ceiling of her bedroom and stained her bed sheets, her pillows, her zebra-striped comforter. She was crying.

“I was very confused,” Sienkowski says now, nearly three years later. “I woke up. He was in the room. I didn’t know who he was or how I got there or how long I had been there.”

Sienkowski’s story, and her confusion about what happened to her on that boozy football Saturday, echo the descriptions many women and men gave of their sexual assaults during their time in college.

After The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll of more than 1,000 current and recent college students from around the country, a team of Post reporters interviewed more than 50 people who responded that they had, at some point during their time in college, experienced unwanted sexual contact.

Their personal accounts portray college as a world where unwelcome sexual experiences, ranging from fondling to rape, are so commonplace that they are almost mundane. Like Sienkowski, many victims said they were assaulted soon after they arrived on campus, as they embraced newfound freedoms, and many of them had been so drunk that they couldn’t remember much, if anything, of what happened.

Yet however gauzy their memories, they knew they had been violated. Many survivors described their experiences as scars that stayed with them for months or years, often seeding anxiety that interfered with academics and relationships.

Other survivors’ stories — including about groping, coerced sex and rape within long-term relationships — illuminate the dizzying breadth of experiences that make it impossible to generalize about sexual misconduct in college.

A student at California’s University of La Verne, a devout Muslim who was a virgin and had never had alcohol, said she didn’t recognize a sexual advance until it was too late.

A University of Connecticut student said she told her boyfriend she wasn’t ready for sex, only to wake up from a deep sleep to discover he was raping her.

Female students are more likely than male students to say sexual assault and sexism are problems on campus.

See more poll results

A woman at a public university in the Midwest said she pretended to be asleep as her roommate’s friend, a man staying overnight, touched her lips, her arm, her face. He didn’t stop until morning.

“It was seven hours of hell,” she said.

Many female victims blamed a pervasive lack of respect for women and a culture of expected sex. The majority never reported their assaults to their colleges or to police, meaning that their stories don’t show up in crime statistics and have never been investigated.

Some said they didn’t report the attacks because they wrestled with hidden guilt, feeling partly to blame for the crimes committed against them as they grappled with the aftermath.

A student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan said she was raped in the shower after a day of drinking at a house on the lake. A stranger forced his way into the locked bathroom and then joined her in the running water. She said “no” but feared she should have done more. She never reported the attack.

“I could have screamed, I could have yelled for help, or hit him or scratched him or something,” the student said. “I don’t feel like I did enough to prevent it.”

Katie MacPherson, 20, seen on campus at Kent State University in Ohio, was heading out with friends to a concert one evening this year when one of them attacked her inside a car. Hannah Trahan, 22, seen near her home in Utah, had several incidents of sexual assault while at Texarkana College in Texas: A man grabbed her rear end. Multiple men joked that they wanted to rape her. Another time, a man pinned her up against the wall in a cafeteria.

Sienkowski probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to police if not for the gash in the back of her head, she said. Her friends were alarmed when she walked into their room, bleeding and clad only in a bra and gym shorts. They alerted the dorm’s resident assistant, who called Michigan State University police.

Sienkowski went to the hospital, where doctors stapled her wound shut and completed a rape kit, according to police records. The examination showed signs of sexual intercourse but couldn’t determine whether it had been consensual. Because Sienkowski remembered so little, police conducted multiple interviews with her friends and other witnesses to piece it together.

She and her roommate had started drinking that afternoon with shots of Bacardi rum in their dorm room.

Then she headed outside to the campus tailgate frenzy, an all-day party before Michigan State faced off against the University of Notre Dame at 8 p.m. It was a sunny Saturday in mid-September, and lawns near the stadium were crowded with thousands of people anticipating the matchup of two national powerhouses.

Sienkowski and her cousin each had a beer and a shot at a tailgate tent near the tennis courts. Then Sienkowski headed off to Spartan Stadium for the game.

She never made it.

Sometime that evening, she met a man at a tailgate party, police records say.

In interviews with campus police officers, the man described an evening of drunken consensual sex — one he said he regretted, because he had a girlfriend. And, like Sienkowski, he said he was too drunk to remember much.

The man told police that they had flirted while tailgating, holding hands and embracing as they walked through the crowd. They then headed to her dorm, he said. Police found that Sienkowski signed the man in via the receptionist’s visitor log book, the clue that led them to him.

The man told police that the two of them hadn’t discussed why they were going to the dorm, but “he thought to himself that he was going to get laid,” officers wrote.

Among women assaulted,

62 percent reported drinking prior to the incident.

See more poll results

‘A really big deal’

Even sober people can have difficulty agreeing on how and when and whether consent is established during a sexual encounter, and even sober people sometimes struggle to communicate their desires during sex. But survivors said there’s far more potential for trouble when drinking is involved.

A person incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot legally consent to sex; sex with someone in such condition is rape, according to the Justice Department. But where is the line between intoxication and incapacitation? And what if both people are incapacitated?

Alexandra Le Blanc and her date both got “pretty intoxicated” at a party last fall, during the first weeks of her sophomore year at American University in the District, she said. When the party ended, she found herself in a jam: A friend who was carrying her room key had left.

Her date, whom she’d met a week earlier, invited her to his house.

“When he started kissing me, it was definitely consensual,” Le Blanc said, but she didn’t want it to go too far. “I had zero intentions of having sex that night. It’s not what I wanted to happen.”

To Le Blanc’s distress, it did: “I didn’t say no, but I didn’t really know what to do. I just kind of froze. I was visibly crying during the experience.”

She fled his house. When the man called the next day, Le Blanc told him she was upset, and he apologized. “I was a wreck. I very much felt it had to be sexual assault,” she said. She didn’t go to authorities because at the time she felt overwhelmed and confused.

The Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sex crimes. The survivors named in this story all agreed to tell their stories publicly.

Another woman, a student at the University of Cincinnati, said she got so drunk at a party that she lost awareness of her surroundings. In a moment of clarity, she realized that she was on a couch, making out with a man who had his hands up her skirt, in her underwear.

She leaped up and ran home. He apologized afterward, and though she knew she had been violated she couldn’t remember enough about it to be confident that he should be charged with a crime. She never reported it. “Accusing someone of sexually assaulting you is a really big deal, and I wasn’t putting him in that position,” she said.

She thinks about the other partygoers who filtered through the room that night. They laughed, she said, but they should have intervened. “They could have had my back.”

While some survivors who did not report their assaults said they didn’t want to make accusations based on alcohol-blurred memories, others were certain they would not be taken seriously or said they didn’t want scrutiny or blame.

Messages about preventing sexual assault, many survivors noted, tend to be directed at women: Don’t go out alone, don’t drink too much, don’t leave your drink unattended. Survivors said they so internalized those messages that they wondered — and others questioned — whether they should have done something different to head off attacks.

Katherine Bowman often crashed with one of her closest friends at his place, sleeping in his bed without worry. She was sure it was clear that they were just friends, but that changed one night during her sophomore year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She went home with her friend after drinking, got sick and passed out. She awoke at 4 a.m. in a haze, her pants off and her friend touching her. “He was orally assaulting me,” Bowman said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

She jumped up, pulled her clothes on and went home, she said. She was angry. She hadn’t been given a chance to consent, and her intoxication had not been an invitation for sex. She ended the friendship and felt her trust in other male friends evaporate.

But she never reported the incident to authorities. She said she sees it as an unequivocal assault, but she was sure she would be dismissed because she had been drunk, because she had been in her friend’s bed, because — no matter how wronged she had been or had felt — she wouldn’t be seen as innocent.

“It’s not something my friends took seriously. It’s not something the law would take seriously,” she said. “It’s just not something that’s seen as sexual assault.”

Bowman blamed a culture in which sexual assault and rape are not seen as real crimes.

“We live in a society that normalizes it, even celebrates it to some degree,” Bowman said.

Sarah Jane Boyer, 25, seen on her family's farm, ended up having sex with her friend at Southwestern College in Kansas. “Basically it was one of those instances where I said ‘no’ a couple of times, but I was so intoxicated that really, I shouldn’t have been able to say yes or no,” she said. Mikala Burt, a junior at Howard University, was sexually assaulted last fall. A man pinned her arms down and she started screaming for help, but no one woke up. She pulled a knee up and kicked him as hard as she could. She got away and called police.

Wrestling with rage and regret

Sexual assault isn’t just something that men do to women. Survivors interviewed by The Post included men who said they were raped by women, men raped by men, and women assaulted by women. And these victims said they often found themselves battling gender stereotypes afterward.

“Guys aren’t supposed to be victims,” said one male survivor, a student at a public university on the West Coast who said he was assaulted by another man who was his fraternity brother and roommate.

He left the fraternity and found another place to stay. But he was rattled and ashamed, and he didn’t want to tell the fraternity, the school or the police.

“I didn’t think anybody would believe me,” he said.

Read survivors' stories

A student at Northern Illinois University said she was assaulted when she stayed with a female friend who promised a ride to Chicago the next day.

“As I was getting ready to sleep, she started to kiss me. I froze and didn’t reciprocate,” the woman said. “I turned my head away but she didn’t stop. She started touching me other places. I still didn’t say anything. After a bit, she stopped and called me a prude.”

The student, who is a lesbian, told her girlfriend what had happened. She said her girlfriend replied that if she hadn’t wanted it to happen, she would have found a way to stop it.

The student said she began to have trouble concentrating, and her grades plunged. “I was crying all the time. Everything felt like a blur and I felt dirty, small and numb,” she said. “I felt like it was my fault and like I was broken.”

Some survivors were victimized during long-term relationships.

A student at the University of Nebraska Omaha said she dated the same man for six years, starting in high school and into college. Only after she left him, moving out of their shared home at the behest of her family, did she realize that he had raped her multiple times.

“He was never super violent against me, but it was very much a lack of consent,” she said. “He would continue to berate me until I gave in.”

Once when they were driving, for example, he refused to let her out of the car until she performed oral sex. “Eventually I gave in so I could get myself out of that situation,” she said.

She began having panic attacks, and she didn’t want to leave the house. “I felt so unsafe in the relationship all the time,” she said.

Many survivors said they wrestled simultaneously with rage and regret.

“That night it was just poor decisions,” said Sarah Honos, a student at Eastern Michigan University, who got separated from friends after a night of drinking in New York City. They were headed back to their hotel in New Jersey when she got off the subway and realized, standing on the platform, that it was the wrong stop.

Her cellphone was in a friend’s purse. Honos said she remembers asking dozens of people to direct her to the Port Authority, until a man said he was going there and could show her the way.

Among women assaulted,

62 percent reported drinking prior to the incident.

Among women assaulted: How well did you know that person?

22%

Very well

25%

Fairly well

23%

Not too well

28%

Not at all

See more poll results

When the bus they were on crossed the Hudson River, she started to worry. When they got off the bus, he led her into a liquor store and into the bathroom, pressed her up against a wall and raped her, she said.

She spent the rest of the night terrified, walking through the dark, asking for help and finding none. “I take it as a lesson of humanity,” she said. “No one would help me.”

She never told anyone what happened until she was contacted by The Post.

Other women were assaulted in situations that seemed safe. Mikala Burt, a student at Howard University in the District, was on her way to study German with the guy she was seeing when they stopped off at a friend’s house one night last fall.

When she realized that he had drunk too much to drive, she didn’t think twice about curling up on a couch in the living room there; the father of one of the men, who owned the house, was home at the time.

But then a man woke her up around 2 a.m., saying that he wanted to have a good time. He told her he would pay her $100. Disgusted, she told him to let her go, but he pinned her arms down.

She started screaming for help, but no one woke up.

“I was determined to fight my way out. I was more angry than scared,” she said. He was lying down on top of her, but she somehow pulled a knee up quickly and kicked him as hard as she could in the chest. She got away.

Rachel Sienkowski, 21, was at a tailgate party at Michigan State University before a football game. Next thing she remembers, she woke up in her dorm with a man she didn't know.

Grappling with the unknown

Three years after Rachel Sienkowski woke up with a strange man in her Michigan State dorm room, she thought she was done grappling with the experience. She had come to terms with not knowing exactly what had happened.

But then she read the police files.

“We were both interested in each other and hit things off right away,” the man wrote in his statement to police. “Both of us were intoxicated, but neither was more intoxicated than the other.”

The man provided officers with photographs of hickeys on his neck as evidence that Sienkowski “was very into everything that was happening,” according to his written statement.

“At no time during sexual intercourse with this girl did she ever tell me to ‘STOP’ or try to push me away,” wrote the man, who was not a student at Michigan State, according to police records. Sienkowski doesn’t know the man’s name, and it was redacted from the documents. Authorities declined to share his identity with The Post, citing privacy restrictions.

He told police that he fell asleep and awoke when Sienkowski fell out of her loft bed onto the floor. When he got up to check on her, he found her in the bathroom, looking in the mirror. He described a scene that matched Sienkowski’s hazy memory of the same moment: He asked her why she had given him hickeys when he had a girlfriend. And he left.

Sienkowski said the man’s account made her doubt herself. “He said all of this stuff, that it was me who caused all this trouble. It was just me being drunk,” she said. “It made me feel guilty.”

Her case went to the office of the county prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings III, who said he decided not to file charges but declined further comment on the case.

There’s still plenty about that night that Sienkowski still doesn’t understand, and she is troubled by the unknowns. She doesn’t know why she blacked out, as the amount of alcohol she had that afternoon wasn’t unusual for her, she said. She still isn’t sure what caused her head injury. And she doesn’t know for sure whether she had wanted sex in the moment, when she was unaware of what was happening.

She still has trouble assigning a label to what happened to her. Even though she was too drunk to know what she was doing, rape doesn’t seem like the right term. But it wasn’t consensual sex, either.

Still, she knows she was violated, the term she says makes the most sense to her. It was not what she wanted; she can’t imagine seeking to have sex with a stranger in a crowd.

“It’s not something I would do,” she said. “If I could’ve made a decision, I wouldn’t have chosen to do that.”

Brown reported from Michigan; Anderson, Svrluga and Hendrix reported from Washington. Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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