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Under the surface: Sexual assault at Brown

This article, the first in a four-part series, delves into the history and culture of sexual assault at Brown, as well as stories of those who have experienced it

Warning: This article contains graphic material regarding sexual assault. 


On a campus that openly celebrates consensual sex, many students do not regularly confront what happens when lines of consent are violated or blurred.

“Brown students love talking about sex,” said Devon Reynolds ’14, a coordinator for the Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse. Sex-positive events see high attendance, she said, “but when I put ‘sexual assault’ in the name, it becomes a struggle to get people to show up.”

Those who have been sexually assaulted often face a culture unwilling to address the complicated realities of sexual violence at Brown.

“You know what happens to rape victims — they get accused of being liars and crazy people, and they have that stigma of being damaged,” said Emily, an undergraduate victim of rape whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

“I still can’t go up and be like, ‘This is what happened to me — I’m going to advocate for this,’” she said. “Because I’m still at school.”

Emily’s experience did not fit her preconceptions about rape, so “it was very hard for me to define what happened to me,” she said. “Because it wasn’t like a dark alley. It wasn’t like somebody jumped me and had sex with me and finished and left me there.”

This four-part series will examine sexual assault at Brown, including its role in campus culture, the reporting and disciplinary processes and the long-term effects for those who have experienced or been accused of sexual assault. Though not all people who have experienced sexual assault use the term “victim” to describe themselves, this series will use the word in accordance with standard journalistic practice.


Reaching consent

Despite Brown’s reputation as a liberal campus with an open dialogue about sexual issues, there is little consensus about the definition and role of consent.

“Explicitly asking for consent is super rare,” said Gabriel Schwartz ’13, a member of the Sexual Assault Peer Education program.

Going home with another student can lead to assumptions about what is acceptable. “If you consent going with someone somewhere across campus, you are letting in an expectation that there is going to be some kind of sexual activity,” said Elena Saltzman ’16.

Melissa Kuriloff ’16 disagreed. “There’s an expectation that you are willing to be alone with this person for a set amount of time” but nothing more, she said.

Many students said explicit consent is essential to healthy sexual encounters. “You have to have consent not only to actually have sex, but … what kind of act are you performing,” said Alejandro Perez ’15.

If a person initiates a hook-up, it often indicates that person’s consent moving forward, said Hersho Barazi ’15, adding that “it’s up to (the other) person to be like, ‘Look, you do not have the green light.’”

But if one partner stops a sexual interaction, Barazi said, the other should understand, even if they are in a relationship.

Behavior does not indicate consent — rather, consent indicates consent, said Daniel Rowe Jacobson ’14. Students “start to assume certain ways of acting are cues for consent” and are then less likely to communicate with their partners, he said.

“Every individual scenario in which you are with someone — doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex with them before, or if you’re in a relationship — has to have consent,” said Angel Gutierrez ’15. Consent is “black and white,” he said.

But other students said consent can be  ambiguous, especially when people rely on nonverbal signals.

In a Herald poll conducted in March, about 8 percent of undergraduate students indicated they have had sex — genital touching, oral, anal, vaginal — when they wanted to say no but didn’t object. Less than 3 percent reported having had sex with the hope that a partner wouldn’t say anything.

Just under 9 percent of students reported having had sex because they felt obligated to do the same with a partner as they had previously. Only 2 percent reported having had sex after a partner gave mixed signals about consent.

But students suggested their peers may not have answered honestly. Schwartz said he doubted the poll’s finding that only 14 percent of students have had sex after not explicitly saying yes or no.

Brown’s reputed “hook-up culture” presents problems, said Rachel Karen ’14, a co-coordinator of the Sexual Health Awareness Group, a student group run through Health Services. It “skews with people’s emotions” and makes students think they need to act certain ways.

Healthy sexual encounters require preemptive planning, especially when alcohol is involved, said Caroline Doherty ’15, co-chair of the Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council. Particularly with new partners, “definitely get the yes,” she said.

But even if consent is given, it may not hold for an entire encounter. “Consent can be given or taken away at any moment,” Karen said.

One night during her senior year, Sarah, a recent alum whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, returned home from a party with a close friend. They began hooking up, but after a while she told him explicitly she did not want to have sex, and they went to sleep. She woke up in the middle of the night to him raping her.

“I kind of freaked out, and I pushed him off of me,” she said.

But the next morning, they had consensual sex, she said. “I just remember not really being able to process it at all.”


Past and present

Most national statistics — including those from the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ­— indicate around 20 percent of women and 1.5 percent of men experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes.

But according to a 2000 NIJ study, under 5 percent of attempted or completed sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement officers, a statistic in line with the findings of several other studies.

Though sexual assault statistics can be complicated by false reports, a 2010 study, which drew from a 10-year period at an unnamed major university, estimated that the rate of false allegations fell between 2 and 10 percent.

Researchers at the Alpert Medical School conducted a study in the 1999-2000 academic year examining incidents of sexual assault at Brown, which revealed statistics largely in line with national numbers, said Bita Shooshani, the University’s coordinator of sexual assault prevention and advocacy. But the methodology of the study, which was released in 2005, did not use “the best sampling method,” Shooshani said, and the University is considering conducting another study in the near future.

In the past few decades, the University has appeared in the national spotlight several times due to controversies related to sexual assault and attitudes on campus surrounding rape.

In 1990, female students posted lists on the walls of several stalls in the Rockefeller Library bathrooms with the names of up to 30 male students who they claimed had committed sexual assault. Even as janitors scrubbed the walls, students rewrote the lists in other bathrooms around campus, the New York Times reported at the time. Eventually, the University changed how it handled cases of sexual violence, as well as how it educated students about resources and safety on campus.

Sheila Blumstein, then-dean of the College, told the Times the University would begin mandatory first-year workshops on date rape the following fall.

In 1996, the nation turned its attention to a case of alleged rape at Brown. Adam Lack, originally a member of the class of 1997 who graduated years later, claimed he met and engaged in consensual sex with a fellow student, who said she could not remember the night’s events and accused Lack of rape five weeks after their encounter. She said her level of intoxication invalidated her consent, The Herald reported at the time. The incident sparked campus protests and debate about the existence of a spectrum of consent, as well as if and when drugs or alcohol change its boundaries.

In 2006, William McCormick III, a former member of the class of 2010, was accused of rape by a fellow student, forced to leave school and never given an official University hearing. Over the next six years, McCormick, who was never informed of the specific allegations against him, engaged in several legal battles with the University over the handling of his case.

Despite this checkered history, Shooshani said the University has made strides in recent years.

“Brown has really been at the forefront of addressing sexual assault, compared to campuses nationally,” Shooshani said.

Campus organizations that address sexual assault include CASARA, which advocates against sexual assault and domestic violence, and SAPE, which works within Health Services to train students in sexual assault prevention.

Greek Council launched an in-house initiative two years ago to encourage bystanders to speak up if they see potentially problematic situations, said Tommy Fink ’13, Greek Council chair.

“We’re creating this program to make sure that sexual assault doesn’t happen,” he said.

But Shooshani said not everyone is ready to intervene in potentially unsafe situations. “We’re in a culture where people are not feeling so comfortable doing that,” she said.


Under the influence

Consent is further complicated by the party scene, where alcohol plays a dominant role.

“Whenever I go to a party situation, there’s a lot of alcohol, there’s a lot of aggression, there’s a lot of energy. I make sure I’m never alone. I make sure I know where I am,” said Kathryn Graves ’15.

Just over half of students have had sex while intoxicated and about 41 percent have had sex with an intoxicated partner, according to Herald poll results. The Health Services consent education webpage lists several signs a person is too intoxicated to give consent, including impaired motor skills or speech.

Among class years, senior poll respondents reported the highest rates of having had sex while intoxicated, at 65 percent, or when a partner was intoxicated, at 50 percent. About 37 percent of first-years reported having had sex while under the influence. Of those polled, athletes reported having sex while intoxicated at a higher rate than the general population, at roughly 63 percent compared to roughly 51 percent. Men were also likelier to have had sex while intoxicated than women, at around 58 and around 50 percent, respectively.

Some students said it is difficult to determine how drunk is too drunk.

“There is a barrier where you can’t really trust the person if they’re in a certain state,” said Jessica Liang ’16.

Ability to give consent depends on how much someone has had to drink, said Aida Palma ’16.

“If you can’t walk by yourself, you shouldn’t be giving consent to anybody for anything,” she said. “That would be a clear line.”

But other situations are less clear, particularly when a student may not be visibly drunk. In the case of intoxication, students said both partners must properly convey their expectations.

“If you’re too intoxicated too, they could ask the question, and you could very easily just be like, ‘Ah, whatever,’” said Nicole Lee ’15.5, adding that a person could later recognize he or she had not wanted the interaction. “I still think the fault lays with the person who did it, but also the person who didn’t give explicit consent.”


Addressing gender

Though most reported cases involve male perpetrators and female victims, sexual assault does not discriminate by gender.

The numbers surrounding incidents of sexual assault are inconsistent, both because of its varying definitions and because of the methodologies used in leading studies.

The common assumption that sexual assault is only perpetrated by men against women conditions how people assign blame, students said.

Men “get less of a pass,” said Chris Latham ’14. “A male is held responsible for his actions when he’s drunk, no matter what he does, whereas a female — if she gives consent when she’s drunk — can retroactively say, ‘It wasn’t consent because I was drunk.’”

Jacobson said making sexual assault solely a gender issue puts males on the defensive, disenfranchising a population that could work to prevent sexual assault.

“Sexual assault is perpetrated by everyone,” he said.

“Everyone involved — the perpetrators, the victims — they’re people,” Reynolds said, “and it’s coming from somewhere in our culture that can be changed if we all stand up together.”

In some cases, a victim’s gender can influence how others respond to allegations of assault. Jacob, an undergraduate whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality, was assaulted at the beginning of his first year by a sophomore male he did not know in a Keeney Quadrangle bathroom. Jacob said he believes his gender has affected how others perceive his assault.

“I feel like if I were a woman talking about being sexually assaulted by a male, I might be met with more skepticism,” he said. “But I think my maleness sort of unfortunately has added to my credibility as a source.”

Natella Johnston ’13.5 said current culture places insufficient blame on male rapists. Johnston, who works with sexual assault victims in the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Pawtucket, added, “Challenging that mentality would do a lot more than telling people, ‘Be careful, take a self-defense class, don’t look slutty.’”


Stranger danger?

Emily had repeatedly told the man she was casually hooking up with that she did not want to have sex, but one night, he became aggressive and raped her.

When Emily told her psychiatrist she had been date-raped, he told her, “‘You know, date rape is hard, but things like this happen all the time. You’ll get over it,’” she recalled.

Stranger rape is often stereotyped as the most dangerous kind of sexual assault, but Shooshani said date and acquaintance rape are more common on college campuses.

National studies have estimated about 90 percent of female victims in college are assaulted by people they know, according to a 2007 NIJ study.

When asked, students guessed that acquaintance rape is the most common type of sexual assault at Brown. Prior acquaintance probably “helps facilitate the rapist’s actions,” said Anisa Khanmohamed ’15. “They have some background with this person and ... they kind of know what social scene they enjoy or partake in.”

A forcible drunk hook-up counts as “a form of sexual assault,” said Zak Enzminger ’15. “But that’s different from somebody who actively would go and try to rape another person.”

The range of interpretations of what qualifies as sexual assault can allow others to cast doubt on the validity of a victim’s account.

During her entire time at Brown, Sarah shared classes, a student group and a close circle of friends with the man who raped her during her senior year. Many of her friends had difficulty reconciling the assault with their own relationships with her attacker, she said, and the incident drove a wedge between her group of friends.

“You think at Brown it’s very progressive. ... (You) think people would understand when that happens,” Sarah said. But “I think people would rather believe anything than believe one of their friends would be capable of raping a girl.”


Community and culture

Some students said the community is not fully able to engage with the lived reality of sexual assault.

“You think we’re all intellectually engaged, and therefore we should be able to rationally know what’s ethical and what’s not, but unfortunately that’s not the way it works,” Barazi said.

Because student groups and individuals at Brown generally promote healthy, sex-positive lifestyles, students might have skewed perceptions of what actually happens, said Lizbeth Maldonado ’15.

“We’re supposed to be sexually empowered because we have this known hook-up culture,” she said. “If you do get sexually assaulted somewhere in Brown, it’s kind of less acceptable.”

There are still large populations of students at Brown who have no exposure to issues surrounding sexual assault and act like the problems don’t exist, Schwartz said. Brown has a reputation of being open and welcoming, and as students, he said, we are “really good at pretending we are really good” at responding to sexual assault.

Tomorrow’s story will examine the victim’s perspective, the options available following assault and the underreported nature of sexual assault on campus. The rest of this series will continue to follow the stories of Emily, Sarah, Jacob and other victims, as well as alleged perpetrators, as they navigate judicial processes and emotional fallout of sexual assault.


-Additional reporting by Katherine Cusumano, Maggie Livingstone, Eli Okun and Alison Silver

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Natella Johnston ’13.5 works with rape victims through her volunteer work with the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. In fact, Johnston does not work with rape victims at CSPH but does talk to students at the University who have experienced sexual assault. The Herald regrets the error. 


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