When I heard Columbia University reached a settlement with Paul Nungesser, the man Emma Sulkowicz, a.k.a “mattress girl,” accused of raping her—a charge he’d denied, and the university cleared him of—I was relieved. After Sulkowicz carried a 50 pound mattress around campus for a year, garnering major media attention, Nungesser sued Columbia for tolerating harassment of him. Like Nungesser, many students who’d been charged with sexual assault, losing scholarships and getting expelled, believed they’d received unfair punishment for what they’d genuinely thought to be mutually consensual sex.
Necessary measures must be taken to stop those who’ve committed rape from subsequent offenses. Yet gang banging, stranger rape with weapons, or slipping someone a roofie are not the same as a college frat party where one party has been drinking or drugging, invites someone over to fool around, then regrets it and calls it rape. With so much confusion and ambiguity, campuses need ways to better educate students about the definitions of consent before any more accusations of assault are made. Furthermore, schools must create methods for healing and empowering those who’ve felt victimized that do not rely on ruining the lives of alleged abusers.
My first time, at 17, was not consensual. But I did not speak out or go to the authorities. An insecure adolescent, I didn’t realize the athlete I liked and knew from school who’d coerced me into sleeping with him had committed a crime. Neither of us had been drinking, and he wasn’t violent. While I knew he should have respected my boundaries, I also knew I could have fought him off me.
One year later, in college, a female friend and I were in the same room, drunkenly making out with two fellow freshmen on opposite beds. Following what appeared to be mutually agreed upon intercourse with her date, my friend later accused the boy of raping her that night. At first I was confused, since she seemed to be enjoying him. But everyone has a different scale for judging pain—and a different way of dealing with trauma. Given the inconsistencies around hooking up—the desire for it, drunk versus sober, and how people feel about themselves before, during, and afterwards—what constitutes nonconsensual sex to one person might just be bad sex to another.
While no one should feel ashamed or scared to come forward and report crimes, emphasis should not only be on vilifying offenders, which creates enemies of both sides, lawsuits, and gender wars. Equally important is for campuses to ensure that victims get the help they need. Following my upsetting experience at 17, I fell into a deep depression. Ultimately, what helped me recover was focusing my energy inward—entering therapy, taking up meditation and yoga. With effective support from campus counseling centers and peer advisors, there’s a lot of personal work and self-healing victims can do to thrive independent of their abusers’ fates, minus the additional stress of dealing with legal systems.
Some perpetrators are sociopaths whose behavior resists change. Yet most college-aged frat boys are not lost causes, despite making poor decisions while inebriated or mistaking booze-induced flirtation as consent. Many schools have implemented assault prevention programs that teach students how to communicate effectively and avoid conflict, enforcing “Affirmative Consent”—a voluntary, conscious agreement from both partners to engage in sexual activity, which can be revoked at any point. Incoming freshmen at Columbia, Elon, and other institutions must complete an online course before classes begin that guides them through the ethics of relationships and alcohol’s effects on behavior. Orientation at Indiana University includes a musical performance that covers topics such as gender stereotypes (women can be rapists too) and bystander intervention strategies.
Of course rape is not caused by alcohol, drugs, and going to frat parties. Yet these certainly increase its likelihood. It’s important for students to recognize how their actions create dangerous situations. For instance, it took me a long time to finally understand that agreeing to go back to a guy’s room usually meant he expected me to have sex with him. I had to learn not to drink or get high with someone I didn’t know well, to attend social gatherings with friends I trusted, and that it’s okay to say no.
It was tempting to scapegoat the athlete who’d assaulted me as a teen and blame him for all my problems. Over ten years later, I still wish he’d listened to me when I told him I didn’t want to have sex. On the other hand, I’m glad I was able to move on without taking his future opportunities away from him. Ruining his life would not have helped mine.