Daniel Episcope regularly saw guys in college aggressively pursuing women, like the time he saw someone at another school drop something into punch for a party. He worried about his female friends getting into bad situations and being sexually assaulted.
But along the way, something else surprised him: “It goes both ways,” he said. Things happened to guys, too.
For all the intensity, emotion and pervasiveness of the debate about sexual assault in college, there’s an element that’s often lost and unheard: men’s stories.
Though sexual assaults on men are rarely reported to authorities, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of current and recent college students found that 1 in 20 men said they were sexually assaulted while in school.
Some of the incidents were terrifying. Others, like one Episcope described, left the men involved confused, sometimes wondering how they could have lost control.
One night in Shanghai, when Episcope was a sophomore studying abroad, he helped some new exchange students get settled in. That night at a party, the women unexpectedly started pouring him shots, and one told him she was going to thank him for all of his help.
By his account, “Suddenly they were like, ‘Drink, drink, drink!’ ” he said. He didn’t have much experience drinking, and he soon found himself hammered. He was drifting in and out of a blackout, he said, when he realized one of the women was having sex with him.
He’s conflicted about what happened, and he kind of laughs it off. “A guy is like, ‘Yes, tie me up, take advantage of me — grab that whip!’ ” For a woman it would be downright scary, he said, then added: “It is kind of scary.”
It was troubling, knowing he hadn’t intended to do it, knowing he couldn’t walk away. But — echoing some other men who had unwanted sexual encounters but also don’t know quite what to make of it all — he said he wasn’t traumatized but was mostly confused. “For me it was like, ‘This really shouldn’t be the way I should be getting some.’ ”
In interviews with men who participated in the poll, they described a wide range of unwanted sexual experiences — some blurry, some violent, some confusing, some terrifying. Some joked about it or blamed themselves. Others are tortured by the memories.
One man described an incident with a fraternity brother — his roommate — that escalated unexpectedly. “He was really drunk that night, and he started hitting me,” the student recalled. “I wasn’t drunk at all. He kept trying to take off my pants. He tried pinning me down and groping me. It was a really bad struggle. I hit him as hard as I could, and I got out of it.”
He found another place to stay, but he didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened. “I had nervous panic attacks. . . . I almost dropped out,” he said.
If he were a woman, he said, he might have told people or asked for help. “Since I’m a guy, it’s a lot harder. If something happens, guys aren’t supposed to be victims. We’re supposed to be manly.”
Another man, a student at a South Carolina school, went to talk with his ex-girlfriend on her campus after their breakup. He thought it was just a talk. But in her dorm room — where he thought her roommate would be — she forced him into sex.
“I was raped,” he said, noting that he tried to resist, but she seemed not to notice. “It’s hard to speak when you’re in physical pain.”
He felt horrified, ashamed and betrayed, and he later had nightmares and flashbacks.
Like the other men who spoke to The Post, he didn’t report the incident — or even seriously consider reporting it.
“It’s one thing to deal with the after-effect of being raped, but it also was a secondary hit for me — ‘Oh, you’re a guy, how could you be raped by a woman, that makes no sense,’ ” he said. “I was afraid to talk to anybody about it because of the stigma.”
It’s very common for men to feel confused, ashamed and certain that no one will believe their accounts after they are sexually assaulted, said Jim Hopper, an expert on psychological trauma who is a consultant and part-time instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Though counterintuitive, there can be a physical paradox that explains how men can get an erection even though they are emotionally unwilling to have sex, Hopper said.
“The physiology of how a penis responds to being grabbed can run in parallel with fear,” Hopper said. “Just because you’re terrified doesn’t mean you can’t have an erection.”
It’s rare that men do report an incident, he said. “Any experience of being dominated, overwhelmed, exploited, assaulted — especially sexually — whether by a male or a female is going to be something that males are programmed to not want to talk about,” he said.
The stories men told The Post cover a wide range of types of assault, including men who were too drunk to consent, those who were physically forced into sex and one who was attacked while at a bar.
When a bartender found the 22-year-old sophomore from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire passed out in the back room of her Minneapolis bar, she assumed he was drunk. But when the man took a Breathalyzer test, bar security found he hadn’t had any alcohol at all.
He thinks he had been drugged and then raped after someone slipped something into his soda while he was distracted.
“I’ve been drunk once in my life, and I’ve never done drugs,” the man said. “And I’m a big guy. The fact that this could happen to me means it could happen to anyone.”
The man, now 26 and a law student in Milwaukee, had traveled to Minneapolis for Pride Week. He’s less naive now, he said. And less trusting.
“It’s hard enough to be gay in Wisconsin,” he said. “A gay bar is supposed to be a comfortable, safe place.”
Episcope, who was coerced while studying in China, still worries about women on campus. But after hearing troubling stories from a couple of his friends — one of whom broke down, devastated, when he told of losing his virginity to a woman who he thought intentionally got him blackout drunk — he’s now more apt to think there might be two sides to the story.
He had another unwanted encounter a couple of years later, back on campus at the University of the Pacific. He stopped by a party at his fraternity house and was chatting with a woman he knew slightly. He said good night to her and his friends and went upstairs to crash. About 15 minutes later, he said, she arrived at his room, very drunk and very clearly interested in him.
He was tired, sober, had a girlfriend and had absolutely no intention of having sex with her.
He asked her to leave, but she wouldn’t go. So he told her again, then took her arm and led her out into the hallway.
At that point, he said, she suddenly screamed: “No! I’m not going to have sex with you!” and dropped to the floor, looking around to see if anyone was watching.
His heart stopped, thinking: No one would believe me.
“I have yet to forgive that girl for that,” he said. Who, he wondered, would take his word over hers? “I could have faced much bigger issues than what I would rather do or not do.”