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Rethinking gender and sexual assault policy: My story

In October 2013, I was sexually assaulted by a female student on campus.

I arrived at a party with a group of friends and struck up a conversation with a girl. We both were a bit drunk, but not to any dangerous levels, and slowly moved our conversation to the dance floor. We started dancing, then making out, then before I knew it, her hand was down my pants. I was surprised, as I hadn’t given her consent to take things a step farther, but I was nevertheless okay with it. Time passed with us together on the dance floor until she began whispering in my ear that she wanted to have sex. While I was enjoying myself, sex was not on the agenda for the night. I took a step back and realized that her friends were gone and she was seemingly alone at this party with me. Even though I didn’t want to end the night in her bed, since she was drunk, I felt I should help her make it back to her dorm.

We started walking home together, but our walk was prolonged by frequent stop-offs. We’d take a few steps holding hands, then take a moment to move off the path and make out with each other for a bit. After a while, these stop-offs became less of a mutual decision and more of a demand from her. I began denying her advances; it was late and I just wanted to get her home safely so I could get some sleep. She continued to engage with me and I denied her requests with a verbal “no” several times. After several failed attempts to push off her advances, we got to the point where I was trading kisses and gropes for steps back to her dorm. Several times her hands went down my pants, and I was not okay with it. I did my best to stick to my “no” every time she demanded more, but at each denial she would stop dead in her tracks and refused to walk with me unless I complied. I felt stuck. Dragging her back to her dorm with her fighting against me simply didn’t feel right. Physically fighting her struggle was not the safest means to that end. But, it didn’t feel right to abandon her there either. She was drunk and could not be left alone in the state she was in. So I felt I had only one option: I complied.

When I got back to my dorm at 2:30 that night, I was confused. Didn’t I go out wanting to engage in sexual contact? Shouldn’t I feel proud and confident that someone wanted me? As a man, shouldn’t I always want sex? This had been what I wanted for so long, but once it was in front of me, it simply didn’t feel right.

I don’t fault her for my change of heart; I fault her for not listening to my clear “no” several times after I made my final decision. Was the situation handled perfectly? No. I was confused, horny and intoxicated. I wasn’t properly educated to even understand that this experience would qualify as sexual assault. But even with all of these things in play, the fact of the matter is that my “no” was not respected. Sure, she didn’t use force, but what was I supposed to do?

***

About eight months had passed since my assault before I even considered the gravity of what happened that night. I relayed the experience to a few friends and at first, we nervously laughed about it. It all just seemed like a joke. Trading kisses and gropes for steps back toward her dorm? The whole situation seemed laughable, all centering on the inconceivable image of a horny college male denying a female’s sexual advances.

In June, I started asking why the events happened even though I said no. It didn’t seem like sexual assault. I wasn’t physically beaten or forced to engage with her. This wasn’t some traumatic event that threw me into a deep depression.

But Stanford’s current definition of sexual assault states, “Sexual assault is the actual, attempted or threatened unwanted sexual act, whether by an acquaintance or by a stranger, accomplished against a person’s will by means of force (express or implied), violence, duress, menace, fear or fraud. If coercion, intimidation, threats and/or physical force are used, there is no consent.”

Actual unwanted sexual act? Check. Coercion? Check. There was no consent. However, this still wasn’t enough for me.

After I returned to campus for my senior year in September, I began the process of reaching out to the Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) Office on campus. When they were unable to meet immediately, I attempted talking to one of Stanford’s Confidential Sexual Assault Counselors. That position not yet having been set up, the University eventually forwarded me to the YWCA Sexual Assault Center on campus.

I began recounting my experience to the woman on the other line. I told my side of the story and she listened attentively until I ended with the simple question, “Does this qualify as sexual assault?” After a short moment acknowledging the difficulty of all the factors at play, what she said left me flabbergasted.

“You just have to be careful,” she said to me plainly. She began to outline how situations like these are difficult when alcohol is involved, but when I reiterated that I clearly said “no” and felt trapped in the situation she continued to astound me with her suggestions at what I should or could have done. “You could have just left her,” she insisted. “If I were a man in your shoes, I would have definitely called 911.” At this point it was tough to hold back my frustration. I was calling this hotline because I was trying to figure out if what I experienced was sexual assault. How could I have called 911 in the moment if I didn’t even know I was being sexually assaulted?

I continued and began speaking of how I felt my gender could have played a role in the incident and how it was beginning to color our conversation. In response to this she began explicitly insisting that the woman in my case might not even know what happened that night and could accuse me of sexual assault. I had gone from possible victim to possible attacker in this woman’s eyes. Not having received the counseling I sought, I quickly ended the conversation. I understand that I didn’t handle things perfectly that night, but not once did this YWCA representative give any ounce of support. She didn’t refer me to any further resources. She never once validated that this was indeed sexual assault. As a man calling into the Young Women’s Christian Association, it’s tough to think that my gender did not play a role in this woman’s response. It was incredibly frustrating that an organization known for warning against victim-blaming in the case of women had no problem jumping straight to this tactic against a male victim when the tables were turned.

A few days after my encounter with the YWCA, I was able to meet with staff at the SARA Office. I explained the same story to the director and feared that I would experience the same victim-blaming that occurred with the YWCA. Instead, she immediately answered my question. Yes, what I described does count as sexual assault.

From there she provided me with a multitude of resources, from Counseling and Psychological Services for psychological help all the way to instructions for entering the judicial review process if I wanted to press charges. My experience with the SARA Office was wholly positive, as the director took the time to see me not as a victim, not as a male, but as a person with a tough question that needed an answer.

***

While Stanford has a concrete definition of sexual assault, the SARA Office affirmed that before even consulting legal definitions, it is first up to the survivor to define what happened based on how they feel. I personally do not want to press charges; we both strayed blindly into grey areas that night. Luckily, I came out the other side without any traumatic emotional scarring or depression. However, not everyone may be so lucky if put in this situation.

Never once have I called this woman my “attacker” or “assailant” because I didn’t emotionally respond as though it were an attack or an assault. To me, she’s just a student that made a mistake. However, she does deserve to know that what she did is defined as sexual assault.

What she does not deserve is expulsion. We need to understand that we can’t solve these grey issues with black and white statements and punishments.

By demanding a “strong presumption in favor of expulsion” through last quarter’s ASSU Task Force Proposal, we begin to force the hand of the administration in cases where they should instead be using a discerning eye. Under the proposal, the only mitigating factor that can be brought forth to fight expulsion is the presence of a “pertinent, acute mental illness.” Mistaken consent, cooperation with the judicial review process and evidence of a lack of malicious intent are all outlined as factors that are inadequate to bring forth an argument against expulsion. It is completely understandable why the ASSU would deem these as inappropriate, but in practice this results in harsh punishments that fail to account for the differing degrees of sexual misconduct and rape.

In my case, I don’t believe she had any especially malicious intent during the incident and her presence on campus does not present any imminent danger to me. Despite these factors, under the above policies, she would still fall under the category of recommendation for expulsion. She deserves to be educated about her mistakes, but this education remains unavailable to her as a result of the punitive approach proposed by the ASSU. The burden of providing her with this education should not fall onto me simply because I disagree with the recommendation for such a harsh punishment. There is definitely a time and place where expulsion is necessary and we need to ensure that the University is able to apply it to keep students safe. However, in cases where education is all that is necessary to ensure a safe learning environment, overreactions like expulsion begin to look less as a decision to ensure student safety but more as an attempt to deliver retribution for emotional distress, which should never be the goal of punishments.

We need to create a better space where everyone can speak constructively about this issue, as this can happen to anyone. Yes, sexual assault happens significantly more often to women than men; however, when we gender these conversations, it marginalizes the already silent population of male victims even further. It reinforces the idea that as a man, you won’t be assaulted. Therefore, when it happens it’s seen as a joke or an issue raising questions surrounding the man’s sexuality instead of his assault. Stripping gender from these conversations is necessary to constructive conversation because its presence provides no benefit outside of reinforcing a statistical fact that we all should already understand. Gendering these conversations often leads to victim-blaming of women and the demonization of men, which simply divides us on an issue we already stand hand-in-hand against.

Ensuring safety for everyone is our priority when fighting sexual assault, and it’s important to remember that while we may disagree on the path, we’re all envisioning the same goal. I’m extremely excited that we continue to hear from voices that have been previously marginalized and silenced when these issues arise. However, we need to ensure that we do not marginalize and silence those that may be fighting alongside us in the process.

Justin Brown ‘15

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