Six years ago, Katie Koestner helped elevate date rape in the nation's consciousness when she spoke out, loudly and at length, about being attacked while a freshman at the College of William and Mary. Today, she returned to the school as she left it -- at the center of controversy.
Although the student government association refused to pay her speaking fee and many at the institution doubted her story, there were no protests about her visit tonight when she was the featured speaker at a Take Back the Night candlelight march meant to call attention to sexual assaults.
About 150 students, including a dozen or more men, walked briskly through the campus's wooded paths, passing Friday night beer parties at fraternities and dormitories. As they walked, they chanted, "What do we want? Safe streets," and, "What ever we do, where ever we go, yes means yes, and no means no."
If few of the partying fraternity members joined the march, still fewer made fun of it.
Drinking beer outside the Phi Kappa Alpha house, Niko Dietsch, 21, a senior from the District, said he took the message seriously but doubted that there was much crime of any kind at sedate William and Mary. Dave Richelsoph, 18, of Greenwich, Conn., a pledge, said, "We may get oversaturated" with lectures about sexual assaults, "but the principle is important."
The closest thing to a derisive remark came from a ball-playing dorm resident who laughingly told a friend as the marchers went by, "They're going to kill us all."
The march began and ended at the Sunken Garden, a mall-like area in the center of campus where Koestner spoke at its conclusion.
Koestner, 23, who graduated with honors in 1994, spoke quietly for 65 minutes in a voice like a child's, but her words were spellbinding. Her audience, seated on the ground, listened in silence as she told of being raped by "this gorgeous hunk" -- whom she said she had been dating or hanging around with -- after about the first two weeks of her freshman year.
"Getting raped changes your life forever," she said. She offered three suggestions to prevent sexual violence on campus: Communicate clearly with your date; be responsible (in 90 percent of date rapes one or both parties are drunk); and be respectful of yourself and others.
She especially thanked the men who attended, saying, "Rape will not be stopped by women alone." She added, however, that "the men who need to hear this are not here."
At the end, whether her story is true seemed incidental to the message she delivered. If any skeptics remained, they kept their views to themselves.
Hinch Knecke, 21, a junior from Circleville, Ohio, and Dan Sell, 20, a junior from Roanoke, had come to size up Koestner.
Before the march, Knecke had said, "The message is important, but the vehicle is somewhat skewed." Sell said he "came to hear her side."
Afterward, Knecke said: "She's a very powerful speaker. I can totally believe her."
Sell said he was uncomfortable with some of the women marchers -- "they looked at men like we were the enemy" -- but he, too, said Koestner "was very convincing."
At the end of the rally, a long line of young people showed up to talk to Koestner, some of whom appeared to be sharing their personal stories with her.
Earlier, Peppin Tuma, a 19-year-old government and history major from Great Falls who is president of the Student Assembly, said: "Katie's presence and speech tends to cloud the issue. She divides the campus, rather than bringing it together."
Koestner, who now makes a living lecturing about sexual violence, was catapulted into the spotlight in the fall of 1990 when she alleged publicly that she had been raped in her dorm room by another student only weeks into the school year. She acknowledged that no force was involved, but she said she was intimidated by the young man's relentless demands for sex.
The male student, whose name has never been released, challenged Koestner's story in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper. He contended that their sexual relations had been consensual, saying that the two had brunch together the morning after the incident and continued to see each other for several weeks. He was found "responsible" at an administrative hearing and as punishment was barred from entering any dormitory but his own.
Although she never pressed criminal charges, Koestner took her story to the national media, where she found a willing audience. She and the college's dean of students, W. Samuel Sadler, appeared together on CNN's "Larry King Live." Her picture graced the cover of a Time magazine issue that looked at date rape. HBO made a movie, "No Visible Bruises: The Katie Koestner Story," for which she was paid an unspecified consultant's fee.
Whatever the truth of the story, the publicity turned a glaring spotlight on William and Mary's quiet, conservative campus. The college, which had initiated a sexual assault task force three years earlier, responded by enacting a groundbreaking and widely praised policy on sexual assaults and violence.
Today, as scarlet ribbons decorated trees on campus in advance of the evening march, Sadler talked about the orientation incoming freshmen now receive. It includes a 20-minute lecture in which sexual assault is described as ranging from unwanted touching to rape with extreme force. Individual dorms hold further discussions, warning students that, statistically, they are most vulnerable to sexual attack during the first six or seven weeks of freshman year.
About 20 cases of sexual assault -- half involving intercourse -- now are reported annually on the 8,000-student campus, a figure nearly 10 times as high as before Koestner's story was known. Two or three of those reports result either in a disciplinary hearing on campus or charges filed with the local prosecutor, according to Sadler. The others are handled through counseling and medical treatment. CAPTION: During a Take Back the Night march at the College of William and Mary, Lise Adams, left, walks alongside Katie Koestner, who spoke afterward.