Sexual Respect on Campus Five Years After Angie Epifano’s Testimony
Issue   |   Wed, 10/25/2017 - 00:35

Warning: This article contains references to racial and sexual violence that some readers may find upsetting.

“I will not be quiet.”
- Angie Epifano, “An Account of Rape at Amherst College,” The Amherst Student (2012)

Angie Epifano’s harrowing account of her rape in The Amherst Student and the college administrators’ subsequent dismissal of her story catalyzed dialogue on sexual assault and gender discrimination on this campus. Since 2012, the college has significantly increased initiatives, such as bolstering the Peer Advocates and the Sexual Respect Task Force, in the hopes of reducing sexual misconduct on campus and creating a safer community for everyone. But to what extent has our campus changed in the last five years? While we often avoid the complexities of Title IX reports due to their legal density, we want to pay tribute to Epifano’s bravery by collecting and publishing the testimonies of several current Amherst students who identify as women.

The gendered, heteronormative terms used to discuss these incidents of sexual misconduct reflect how our queer, trans and non-binary peers are silenced. Given the personal nature of Epifano’s piece, we want to focus on those who brought their cases forward to Title IX to enhance our readers’ understanding of the sexual misconduct reporting process.

Being a “Freshman Girl”

“...being forced to stay on campus in a dorm populated with men I did not know, that was the real psychological issue.”
- Angie Epifano

It was Claudia’s* first college mixer, with presumably one of the campus’s “best” teams. Her Hawaiian shirt-clad acquaintances — it was too soon to know if they would be friends — invited her to take a picture for a Sunday night Instagram post. She ran into her classmate from high school — the only familiar face — and they went to the bathroom to give each other cheerful pep talks.

As soon as she stepped out again, she recalled, she felt a large hand grab her lower butt.

“Hi, my name’s Nick,” he said, towering over her in a basketball jersey and salmon shorts.

After such an introduction, Claudia was confused about how to read the situation. “You’re really hot,” she remembers him saying. “Are you a freshman?” She said she was, and he proclaimed, “I’m a senior,” his beer-soaked voice booming in her right ear. This wasn’t the way her high school crush had ever treated her, she thought, and this was so public, but so oddly and uncomfortably flattering.

“A senior?!” exclaimed the girls around her. “I heard he’s hot … You should hook up with him.”

“I felt a strange knot in my stomach, but I liked the surge of attention,” Claudia recalled, an interaction complicated by the way in which we are taught to valorize male attention.

Teaching hypothetical consent to our first-years does not reflect how sexual misconduct often actually plays out on this campus. Sexual assault isn’t always a green-eyed monster who slips a roofie in your drink. There are evident power dynamics that primarily put women, especially younger women, at risk of being preyed upon by older men. And Claudia, with no fully established support systems and little knowledge of who to avoid, was no exception. In fact, she did not recognize or articulate what went wrong for a long time.

Nick ran into Claudia again and whispered, “Hey, can you help me with something?” Her friends encouraged their exit as they left, holding hands. She told one of them to call her in five minutes, just in case she wanted to leave.

He told her, “I really like you,” and flipped off his light switch, pulling her back against the plaster wall.

“It seemed nice at first. He was a good kisser,” she told us.

Then she tried to leave: “But I thought we were having a good time,” he said.

“We were, but I have to help my friend,” she answered. She could tell he was frustrated and disappointed. She didn’t like saying no to him. He gave her his number and said they could do this some other time. Claudia is one of at least four first-years he preyed upon.

Many may be tempted to say he coincidentally hooked up with a lot of first-years, but what was troubling about Nick was that he targeted them because they were younger. He texted Danielle, another who met him during her first year, “Happy birthday, hope you had some great birthday sex,” even after she had ignored his previous messages because their sexual encounter had felt so exploitative.

Claudia ran into him on the stairwell of a party dorm a few weeks later. He ignored her and glared at her. That made her want to talk to him more. She finally reintroduced herself, and they went back to his room. He lit a candle because she was “worth it.” She was scared when he took off her bra because she had never gotten that far with a boy before. “He moved quickly, and I wasn’t sure where he was going,” she said.

She explicitly told him what she did and did not want to do multiple times, but he didn’t care. She tried to convince herself that this was something she had signed onto. But she finally stopped him, and he got angry. He locked the door and yelled at her in the dark, telling her that she had tricked him and that he was disappointed. He would “never take her virginity,” and how dare she think that she can come into his room and be so rude? She cried, and he told her that it disgusted him to see her cry in his bed.

“I just remember leaving with my underwear scrunched up in the sleeve of my sweater,” she said.

One of Claudia’s friends reported him to Title IX after hearing about his violence and his often racist verbal attacks on women who rejected him in the socials. Claudia received an email from Title IX staff about the resources she had available. She didn’t want him to be more upset, and she was scared that she would be excluded from social spaces.

At Crossett Christmas, he publicly screamed about how he wouldn’t hook up with Claudia because she was a virgin. Back in his bedroom, he berated her for her identity as an Asian-American woman. “You may think you’re from the West, but you’re really from the East,” he said, pushing her hand wherever he wished and making her clean up his semen.

At least five other women reported him to Title IX over the course of his four years for racially and sexually violent incidents. He faced no serious or evident disciplinary action. Some stories involved virulently anti-black comments and his drunken screams aimed at another girl, Danielle, who said she ignored his repeated advances as she walked home alone on a Tuesday night.

In the spring, Nick graduated with athletic honors.

Blackout

“In short I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup … You should forgive and forget.”
- Angie Epifano

You black out, you have sex, you regret it. Yet that sex may have been rape. The impracticality of not having sex under the influence or the “awkwardness” — or, maybe worse, the prideful pats on the back people give themselves for asking for mandatory consent — should not preclude doing nothing at all. These encounters leave you with “the rusty taste of shame” Epifano cited nearly five years ago.

Danielle recalled such an event. “He looked down at me, holding my legs up at the foot of his bed, and said, ‘By the way, you’re consenting, right?’ And I sorta laughed like, ‘Well, yeah, kinda late for that when you’re inside me’. And he said, ‘Well, sometimes people get in trouble for that.’ Not to mention the people who they raped. But I was wasted and didn’t think about that comment until later. I was a first-year and thought bad sex with men you disliked was how one-night stands worked. Though I technically consented, after more bad sex with men I dislike, I see how particularly disgusting and exploitative he was.”

Even calling that morning-after confusion “regret” oversimplifies the feeling that something about last night went wrong. We normalize this transgression to laughable shame or “rapey-ness,” but maybe the fear returns in ways you do not expect when you see the “bad hook-up” in passing, see another student with the same backpack as them, or shudder with a secret repugnance at the mention or memory of that night.

“I would not have gone through that process if nothing had happened,” another interviewee said. She remembers very little from that party but woke up in physical pain with the conviction that something was not right. Her sober roommate and peers who saw her out the night before urged her to report after hearing her say how a man was following her and she didn’t want to hook up with him. The individual she later accused messaged her late that night asking her to not disclose what happened between them. Yet, how can a conviction that something is wrong be a certainty for a woman living in our society? We don’t trust women, and we fracture their ability to trust themselves.

The blame and the shame are not solely institutional but also a reflection of the legal and medical suspicions surrounding rape. When an interviewee went to conduct a rape kit test, the friend who accompanied her for emotional support was not allowed in the room. Over the course of the next five hours, she had to repeat their story to every new nurse who entered the room for testing. Equally repetitive and draining, the testimony was a horribly detailed, graphic recounting of what the defendant called “our sexual encounter.” Many survivors reach a point where they have repeated the details so many times that they dull in meaning.

When Claudia, whose case we visited earlier, finally took her friends’ advice and went to the college’s counseling center, her therapist told her that she needed to stop putting herself in the position of being abused and feeling unsafe. “I wondered, was I perpetuating my own assault?” she said. She already had blamed herself for what had happened. If anything, going to the counseling center made her more confused.

Fortunately, when she reached out to Jacqueline Alvarez, the director of the counseling center, Alvarez listened thoughtfully to her experience and reassigned her to another therapist dealing specifically with trauma. Another specialist at the center was supportive to one of our respondents even when their Title IX case went nowhere.

The college staff handling sexual assault today would likely not directly discourage a report as they did during Epifano’s case. However, one interviewee said, “[Title IX Coordinators] talk to you in this quiet, hushed voice that is supposed to make you feel comfortable, but it’s very condescending.” She felt that they did not offer her enough guidance throughout the process, seemingly more invested in saying where they were at in the investigation than explaining her rights in crafting a statement or navigating a no-contact order (NCO). Some students have received short and casual notice that they will be living in the same dorm as someone with whom they have a NCO and others have had to move out right before school.

The ruling on the case brought forth by a previously mentioned survivor stated that he was “not guilty and not responsible,” the student observed, which she found particularly hurtful.

“If he is not guilty and not responsible, I thought, am I responsible?”

Authors’ Note: This article is the first part of a two-part series in which we reflect on the changes the college has made since Angie Epifano wrote her article, “An Account of Rape at Amherst College,” published in 2012. Our goal in writing this article is to determine whether or not those who bring cases to Title IX feel heard, respected and satisfied with the outcome. The second part of this series will focus on Title IX’s failure to recognize the intersectionality of survivors’ identities, especially as incidents of sexual assault are racialized.

*We have changed the names of those involved and omitted identifying details out of respect for the privacy of our subjects.

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