2510 assault
Sarah M. McDermott

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article failed to introduce one of the sources, Elizabeth J. Eddison '11. Eddison is co-chair of Sexual Assault Awareness Week at MIT. The article has been revised to reflect this correction.

Editor’s Note: Where only first names appear, names have been changed.

It was a Friday night and the fraternity party was winding down. Rachel and her friends were dancing, when one of the brothers asked her to come upstairs. The rest is a blur, but this is what she remembers:

She remembers him helping her stumble up the stairs, up to the spare bedroom the brothers use for hookups.

She remembers he asked if he should get a condom — she said no, she didn’t want to have sex.

She remembers he asked if he could take her clothes off — she said no, she didn’t want to have sex.

She remembers he told her it would “make things easier” — she said no, she didn’t want to have sex.

Rachel passed out. As she slowly came back to consciousness, she first noticed that her feet hurt. She couldn’t figure out why. Then, she realized it was because he was pinning her feet to the wall behind her head. He was having sex with her.

According to The Tech’s sex survey, 3.6 percent of MIT students say they have had non-consensual sex. For victims, sexual assault is a shameful and often silent crime. At MIT a few rapes show up on the campus police report every year, but some years none are reported. Most survivors don’t go to the police, out of fear or humiliation or because they are not ready to admit it even to themselves.

For those who have been sexually assaulted, the attack is just the beginning.

Survivors deal with denial, dark thoughts, and depression. They deal with friends who don’t believe them, and a school that already pushes students to their breaking point. Despite many resources on campus, survivors rarely find recovery easy. They can feel whole one day and broken the next.

What comes after

After Rachel was assaulted, everything changed. Her boyfriend broke up with her claiming he couldn’t handle being with someone trying to come to terms with being raped. Rachel still says she can never escape being a rape survivor — that the experience will define her for the rest of her life.

She says that the breakup made her feel “essentially unlovable.” She sunk into a deep depression and stopped eating. “I didn’t know why anybody was cruel enough to keep me alive,” she says. She thought it was “horrible that no one had the mercy to kill me.”

After several days of eating only an apple, a banana, and a piece of bread, Rachel realized that in a few hours she’d be too weak to move. Some part of her that still had hope made her go to Medical’s Mental Health walk-in hours, and she started getting help.

At one point, Rachel was seeing people in four different support departments at MIT. Through all of this, Rachel tried to act like her old self, and this fooled some people.

But sometimes she could not keep the pain contained. Sometimes she would be “volatile, loud, or rude,” she says. These outbursts surprised some of the people around her, who thought she was better. “Why aren’t you over it yet?” they asked her.

Rachel reasons that a rapist, if found guilty, can go to prison for years or even decades — she doesn’t feel there’s any reason to expect a survivor to recover in three weeks.

Although the next few months of recovery were tortuous, she tapped in to MIT’s extensive support network and made it through, but not easily. MIT doesn’t slow down for anything, not even rape, and she describes that time as a constant “struggle to maintain the status quo.”

Dismission and denial

Eventually, another MIT survivor recommended her to MIT’s program for Violence Prevention and Response, where Rachel met director Divya Kumar, a person Rachel describes as “simply an angel.”

A main goal of Kumar’s program is to fight many of the issues Rachel faced during her recovery. Sexual assaults are some of the most violent and damaging crimes on their own, but afterwards, many survivors face people who don’t believe them.

VPR seeks to provide education about assault and to dispel common myths that people use to dismiss cases of rape. Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths, according to Kumar, is the idea that women lie about being raped. It is easy for people who don’t want to believe to dismiss the women’s story, saying that “she wanted it,” or that “she just regrets what she did.”

Yet, FBI statisics indicate that only two percent of reported rapes are false reports — which is about the rate as for other violent crimes.

“I think what’s really hard about being a survivor at MIT, is that people think it doesn’t happen here,” Rachel says. When Rachel’s attacker was confronted by some of his fraternity brothers about her rape, he laughingly denied it, and it became an inside joke at the fraternity.

It’s hard enough to speak out about an attack hoping to get help, but being dismissed and called a liar causes further intense damage — especially at MIT, where truth and intelligence are so highly valued, Rachel says.

“When people don’t believe you it’s pretty upsetting, but when they’re the most brilliant minds in the world I start to think maybe I am actually crazy.”

Kumar also tries to fight common misconceptions about rape. Most rape is perpetrated by someone that the victim knows. It’s not usually somebody “behind the bushes with a stick,” says Dave Kennedy, head of the Office of Student Citizenship (OSC), who reviews sexual assault cases before they go before MIT’s Committee on Discipline. Kennedy says that most people don’t know that date rape or acquaintance rape is the most common kind of rape — but just because it’s date rape doesn’t make the assault any less real or any less destructive.

The Reality of the situation

Unless incidents of assault involve non-MIT persons, they are first dealt with inside MIT’s own judicial system. In the two years he’s been in the office, Kennedy has seen two cases of assault make it all the way through his office to the COD.

Kristine Girard, associate chief of MIT mental health, says the worst she’s seen in her 13 years here was a violent gang rape of a student by several non-MIT assailants — but that is by far the exception. Sheila Widnall, current chair of the COD, says that she sees more incidents of stalking and domestic violence than direct assault, but when those cases do come up they can result in anything from a sanction to expulsion depending on the level of threat the assailant poses to the campus. Widnall says that most of the cases she sees are “misunderstandings.”

“The cases that the COD has seen are only part of the story,” says Kumar. Citing research conducted by Dr. David Lisak, a forensic psychologist at UMass Boston, she states “most of the time it’s not a misunderstanding, but a planned and premeditated act of power and control.” Some people see real rape as only those cases involving violent interactions with strangers, but you can be raped by an acquaintance, a friend, or an intimate partner as easily as you can be raped by a stranger. Perhaps more so — data from the National Institute of Justice says that the survivor already knew their assailant in 75 percent of cases. This shoots up to 90 percent on college campuses. Whether it’s behind a bush with a gun, in the hook-up room of a fraternity, or in the victim’s own bedroom, it’s still rape, both for the survivor and in the eyes of the law.

Sexual assault is also one of the most under-reported crimes, particularly among college campuses. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that fewer than 5 percent of rape or attempted rape cases get reported to the police, much less the COD. Campus Police numbers show that only two incidents of “forcible sex offenses” were reported in 2007 (no data is available for later years).

Everything’s harder at MIT

Recovering from sexual assault can be extremely painful and difficult under any circumstances, but Kumar believes the “pressure cooker” of MIT complicates it even further. MIT students are all so busy being MIT students it’s hard for them to imagine having something as traumatic as rape to deal with as well.

As Rachel says, no one knows what it’s like to cope with this and wake up every morning to be an engineer. “People leave this school because the work alone is too much to handle — add a physical trauma to it, it feels like you can’t breathe,” she says.

“Healing is a non-linear process,” says Kumar. In this land of overachievers it’s easy for survivors to get frustrated when they have a relapse and fall back into depression or fear. Her advice is to take a break.

“The way you feel right now, you’re not always going to feel this way,” she says. It’s important for survivors to know that one day they will feel good about themselves again, be comfortable in their bodies and their sexuality.

How others can help

A very common feeling amongst survivors is that it was somehow their fault, particularly if alcohol was involved. One of the things Kumar tries to emphasize is that no matter the conditions, assault is never the fault of the survivor. Alcohol is a tool often used by perpetrators to facilitate sexual assault. Even when alcohol is involved, Kumar insists “you may have had too much to drink, but you did not sexually assault yourself.” She goes on to remind people that, no matter the circumstances, “somebody still has to make the decision to commit a crime, and that is the person responsible.”

The “vast, vast, majority of people are not rapists,” says Kumar. Most acts are premeditated, but some do actually occur because of misunderstandings. Kennedy makes an analogy between drunken sex and drunk driving — if either party is too drunk to have sex, Kennedy says, “just don’t risk it.” The consequences can be just as serious as a car crash.

There certainly are a lot of people who think rape survivors are lying, but the bigger problem is those people who accept it and don’t do anything about it, says Elizabeth J. Eddison ’11, who co-chairs MIT’s Sexual Assault Awareness week. She and Kumar both agree that the best way to prevent assault on campus is to remember that it does happen, and take steps to prevent it from happening to others. Says Kumar, “yes it happens here, yes you can prevent it. If you see somebody who’s in trouble ask them if they’re OK.” Eddison says that if you see someone who’s incapable of supporting herself being taken upstairs, say something. “What are the odds she’s going to be happy that she did that?” she asks. Since when is “being the overprotective prude” worse than letting someone destroy their life? She adds that “all it takes is one person to call it out.”

“There are many people who are survivors, but everybody is a potential bystander,” says Kumar. Not only are bystanders the best way to prevent rape from happening, but the support of the community is crucial to an effective healing process. She also says that “if we as a community cannot rise up and support our own survivors, then we are all failing to be a true community.”

If someone ever comes to you admitting they’ve been assaulted, Eddison has some suggestions on how to handle it in the best way for the survivor.

¶ Most importantly, believe them.

¶ Make sure they’re safe from immediate harm.

¶ Don’t force the term “rape” on them, let them tell it their own way.

Unless you’ve also been through an assault, never attempt to parallel their story to your own experience.

She also says to keep in mind that a survivor’s reaction doesn’t necessarily present itself right away. Often it will appear after a death, breakup, or other trauma, so don’t be alarmed if someone says this happened to them three days, six months, or two years ago. She says this means they’re finally ready to accept it.

Eddison believes it takes very little effort to help prevent rape on your campus, but if you want to get more involved she directs Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which will take place this April. The goal is to increase campus awareness and teach people how to be effective, active bystanders. Eddison says it’s astounding to her that she has to beg people to come to events. “There are so many noble causes going on this campus, but this is the only one that takes 0 effort and 0 dollars to change,” she says. “All you have to do is listen — if that is asking too much of MIT, that to me is baffling.”

The efforts by Eddison and Kumar certainly seem to be providing help and support to the people they work with. Kumar speaks positively of the work her office has done so far in spreading awareness, saying they’ve definitely “made some people get it.” There’s obviously a lot of work left to do, so she also insists that “every day we have to do more.” People in VPR are working with survivors and offices all over campus to advocate for survivors and prevent anyone else from having to experience what Rachel did. Rachel doesn’t want anyone else to experience what she’s been through, she says.

“That was the night that ruined my life.”