February 2, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 16°F

Opinion

Commentary: Rape culture remains prominent at Ithaca College

Disclaimer: The names of all students mentioned have been changed.

I would like to warn you that reading this article will most likely make you uncomfortable. This is an account of the harsh reality that I and so many survivors face. While this is my personal experience, you will find countless others who have an eerily similar story. This article is just a glimpse into what we have to deal with every day. If you continue reading, I request that you acknowledge your discomfort and examine it. Where does it come from?

Surviving sexual assault and relationship abuse is a life-altering experience. On top of the debilitating trauma, it changes the way you see the world and the way you interact with the people around you. It also often changes the way people see you, and not always for the better. A shockingly large portion of survivors who come forward about their experience are left not only traumatized but friendless.

For me, reporting my abuser to Title IX resulted in the loss of my friend group. Between dealing with the trauma of what happened to me and the amount of people I encounter who are complicit in rape culture, building a new support network is next to impossible. Reasons to carry on are few and far between, but when they come by, I cling to them like a plank of wood in a shipwreck.

This fall, one of my reasons for carrying on was being in the cast of a certain musical on campus. I saw this show as a chance for me to finally take my life back, to do what I had wanted to do for so long but couldn’t because of all that had happened to me. 

The best thing about this show was that I knew for certain that none of my assaulters or their supporters would be present. This was because the show had a blacklist, which functioned to protect the performers. Cast members could add anyone they wanted to the blacklist, no questions asked, and that person would be barred from entering. At least, that’s how the blacklist was supposed to work.

Two days before the show, I got word that one of the people running the show, who we’ll call Sam, was dating one of my abusers, and had been planning to get them off the blacklist and into the audience. I tried to contact Sam about this to no avail. 

On the night of the first show, while the rest of the performers were physically and mentally preparing, I was fighting an overwhelming sense of dread. When the doors opened, I stood by the entrance until the very last audience member came in, terrified that the next person would be my abuser. 

Since the fall of my first year, my college life had been tarnished by the experience of sexual assault, the aftermath of which has followed me throughout my entire college career. Even now as I finish off the first semester of my senior year, I still haven’t emotionally recovered from what happened to me as a first-year student.

I was first sexually assaulted in October 2019 by another first-year student who we’ll call Zack. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me then was rape until this fall, when a friend pointed it out. It was something I would have instantly recognized as rape if it happened to someone else, but not when it happened to me.

With the new knowledge that what Zack had done to me was rape, much of my first year started to make sense. For the longest time, I thought the intense fear I felt was because there was something wrong with me. My entire life was controlled by the fear of running into him. Everywhere I went I was constantly scanning the area for signs of him. I would skip meals because I couldn’t eat in the dining hall by myself. If I ended up seeing him when I was alone, I would have to rush to the nearest place I could have some privacy before I started to uncontrollably cry. 

My life was still ruled by this fear when I met a person who I’ll call Elizabeth. We met in February 2020 and started dating a few weeks later. A month or so into our relationship, Elizabeth’s personality began to change. They started being mean to me, making insulting jokes and rude comments.

The first time I remember Elizabeth pressuring me into sex was October of our sophomore year, a behavior which continued and only got worse. Elizabeth’s reactions to me not wanting to have sex varied from anger to extreme sadness, to complaining, to listing all the reasons why we should have sex, and some other things that I can’t say in this publication. 

One day Elizabeth badgered me about having sex so much that I started crying, begging them to just stop asking. They refused.

“Well, you’re saying maybe,” they said. “Which means there is a possibility you will say yes. So I’m not gonna stop asking when the answer might be yes.”

Later that night, I consented to sex after Elizabeth said that it was of utmost importance for our relationship. Afterward I broke down in tears, saying that I never wanted to do this.

Their response was, “Then why didn’t you say so?” 

It took several months to uncover the reality of what was happening. In April 2021, Elizabeth and I came to the realization that what they had been doing to me was assault. 

Elizabeth’s immediate reaction was to say, “Nobody can know about this, this could ruin my life!” 

Spoiler alert: several people now know what Elizabeth did, and their life has absolutely not been ruined. I have found in my experience that sexually assaulting people has a surprisingly small effect on one’s ability to socialize and function, especially in comparison to the effects on the victim of said sexual assault.

The next few months consisted of Elizabeth making steps to get better at consent but still being severely emotionally abusive toward me and the people around them. They would switch back and forth between profusely apologizing to me for what they did and yelling at me that what happened to me wasn’t rape. In August 2021, I finally broke up with them. 

As much as I wished that was the last I saw of Elizabeth, that was unfortunately not the case. We had arranged to live in an apartment together with the rest of our friend group, an arrangement which I foolishly thought could still work. I was quickly proven wrong. Elizabeth was particularly cruel to me, despite me telling them multiple times that they needed to stop because I had a concussion. 

Our friends knew at that point that Elizabeth had sexually assaulted me multiple times. While they believed me and acknowledged that what Elizabeth had done was wrong, they grew angry with me when I started to fight back. It seemed that Elizabeth could go around treating everyone as horribly as they wanted, and while our friends were upset about it, it was accepted as normal. However, if I ever grew overwhelmed and argued with Elizabeth in any way that wasn’t completely calm and collected, the others became incredibly angry with me. 

It was when I decided to file a Title IX report against my ex that the majority of the friend group turned against me. They thought I was taking things too far and causing unnecessary drama. I had to explain to one of my friends, who we’ll call Katie, that I wasn’t reporting Elizabeth just for sexual assault, but for all the other abuse they had put me through as well. 

I ended up moving out into an emergency apartment in Gardens. After moving out, I texted Katie to say it upset me that she didn’t initially think it was valid for me to go to Title IX for “just” rape. Katie never responded, but I heard that as soon as she got the text, she read it aloud to our friends because of how ridiculous she thought it was. I never spoke to that group again after that.

Luckily, there were a couple of people who stuck by me. Those friends became my anchor for the following months, and I desperately needed it. It was junior year of college and I was living alone, recovering from a concussion made worse by the stress of that abusive living situation, and I had just lost the majority of my close friends. Holding onto the will to live was more difficult than ever, and my experience with Title IX only made it worse. 

When I met with Ithaca College’s Title IX Coordinator Linda Koenig, I had an extensive list of the abusive things that Elizabeth had done to me. I told her about the numerous times they pressured me into sex, about how they would grab my arm when I tried to walk away from arguments; about all the times they would yell at me and manipulate me and guilt me into doing whatever they wanted. I told her about how they continued to scream at me and insult me despite knowing that it would make my concussion worse.

After listening to my story, Koenig said, “That sounds like a very… toxic relationship. But unfortunately, none of what Elizabeth did to you is a violation of Title IX, except for one thing.”

Koenig went on to say that the only Title IX violation Elizabeth had committed was a series of inappropriate comments they made to me and my roommates. It was something that I considered only a drop in the bucket of the things they’ve done. Koenig said that if I chose, I could pursue this in court as a case of sexual harrassment. 

I chose not to pursue the case, because it wasn’t something I felt strongly about and because I knew that none of the other people involved would testify.

After my meeting with Koenig, I talked to one of my friends about how confused I was that pressuring someone into sex didn’t count as a violation of Title IX. That friend did some research and found out that what Elizabeth had done to me was indeed legally considered rape in the state of New York. 

In Spring of 2021, I was interviewed about my experience with Title IX in an article for The Ithacan, titled “Title IX Failures Reveal Systemic Flaws in Policy.” Linda Koenig was in turn interviewed about my statement, and as the article states, “Koenig said that if an accused student was repeatedly asking for sexual favors and not taking no for an answer, it would likely be investigated as harassment.”

Koenig’s statement directly contradicts the reality of what happened to me. Koenig told me that the only thing Elizabeth did that violated Title IX was make inappropriate comments to me and our roommates. However, if repeatedly asking someone to have sex despite my pleas for them to stop asking doesn’t count as sexual harassment, I don’t know what does.

My experience with Title IX in 2021 led me not to go to Title IX this semester when I found out I was raped during my freshman year. The realization had devastated me, and I wanted nothing more than to get justice. However, I knew that the lack of evidence plus the fact that it happened three years ago meant it would be next to impossible to win a court case unless Zack plead guilty, which I could not rely on.

Many well-meaning people believe that it is the logical and morally correct thing for survivors to take steps to pursue their assaulters in the court of law. However, a complete list of reasons why that is easier said than done could fill an encyclopedia.

Firstly, suing for rape can prove to be dangerous to survivors in a variety of ways; the most prominent of which is the potential to be sued back for defamation. When Elizabeth found out I was opening a Title IX report against them, their mother immediately advised them to sue for defamation. After further research, I now understand why.

Defamation lawsuits are the go-to response for people who are accused of sexual assault. If a survivor coming forward about their assault is sued for defamation, they can face hefty fines and even jail time. If the defendant of a sexual assault lawsuit is found not guilty for any reason, that often means a following defamation lawsuit against the accuser will automatically be won.

If you live in the United States and not under a rock, you can probably recognize that our country’s judicial system is far from perfect. People are wrongfully convicted and wrongfully acquitted every day. Defamation lawsuits make it so that any survivor of sexual assault seeking legal justice has to gamble their own freedom on the success of a deeply flawed system. Making the odds even worse, sexual harrassment and assault cases are notoriously hard for the prosecutor to win, especially if the defendant is white, like both of my assaulters were.

Lawsuits for rape are especially hard for the survivor to win if, like me, the survivor had verbally consented to sex. With Zack, I had consented to sex, but not to what he proceeded to do without my knowledge and against my will. With Elizabeth, I had also consented, but only after immense pressure and manipulation. If I pursued either of these cases in court, the defense would use the fact that I had initially and verbally consented to their advantage.

Even without considering these factors, it is important to note that survivors of sexual assault are traumatized. Many, like myself, would not be able to emotionally handle having one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives laid out in detail and debated, having to listen to the opposing side trying their hardest to prove that what they went through was invalid. 

While I desperately wish I could prevent my assaulters from hurting other people, I know that the unbearable stress of court would only damage me even further after everything I’ve been through. I’ve already lost so much of my life and wellbeing to these people, I don’t have any more to give. Even if I won the case, no amount of justice could give me these years of my life back.

The sexual assault and abuse I faced in college has had a devastating effect on my academics. I used to be great at school, but now the absolute best I can do is barely manage to scrape by. Not only did the abuse I faced cause my grades to plummet, but it severely limited my academic opportunities. Going into college, I had wanted to pick up a theatre minor, but because of my assaulters, it’s impossible for me to be in Dillingham without fear. I wish I could take an acting class, rejoin stage crew and see the shows that my friends work so hard on, but I know that I can never feel safe in that building.

However, I am lucky in the sense that neither of my assaulters are in the same school as my major. Because of this, I’m able to go about my classes without fear of running into them, and it’s easy to avoid anywhere they might be. Not every survivor has that privilege.

In a world where it felt like everything was taken away from me and there was nothing I could do about it, the Sexual Assault Advocacy Center in Downtown Ithaca is the only organization that was always there to help me. This semester, it started holding a weekly support group for survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse who go to Ithaca College. This support group has given me a way to process my trauma, and also to realize that I was far from alone in my struggles. The more survivors I talk to, the more I realize that friend groups siding with abusers is an incredibly common experience, no matter what type of social circle they’re in. 

I think a majority of people see rape culture as some archaic, conservative set of values enforced upon us by older generations. However, that is not entirely the case. Rape culture is people refusing to stand against assaulters and the people who stick by them. Rape culture is questioning the validity of survivors’ claims. Rape culture is being outwardly against abuse and sexual assault until the perpetrator is someone close to you. 

From my personal experience, I have learned that you can never tell who is complicit in rape culture based on the values they outwardly project. Sam, the person who took my assaulter off the blacklist, had been preaching about comfort, safety and consent throughout the entire rehearsal process. But ultimately, my comfort and safety came second to their own priorities.

In another instance, in Spring 2021, I found out that Zack had a number of other victims besides myself, including a friend of mine. This was before I knew that what he had done to me was assault, but I knew it felt violating enough to address. I reached out to a particular friend of Zack’s, who we’ll call Troy, because I thought he would be receptive and handle the situation well.

When I told Troy about what Zack did to me and my friend, he said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I didn’t know Zack very well back then, but I know he was going through a very hard time. He’s doing a lot better now.”

I accepted this answer because at the time, I was still suffering from a mental illness with symptoms that caused me to value others’ well-being before my own, even Zack’s, for some reason. Mental illness is just like that.

If I knew what I did now, I would have told Troy that I had also been going through an incredibly hard time at the beginning of my first year and yet had somehow managed to sexually violate a grand total of zero people.

I don’t know if Troy ever ended up addressing my concerns with Zack. What I do know is that Troy continued to be Zack’s best friend and roommate for the following two years.

What happened with the blacklist at the musical this fall only confirmed what I already knew about life — you never know who actually stands out against sexual assault until it comes at the expense of their own convenience.

At first, I was afraid to tell the rest of our musical’s cast and crew about the situation with the blacklist, but I realized the more people that were looking out for me, the safer I felt. After the first show, I started to inform the rest of my castmates on the situation, one of whom encouraged me to talk to Sam in person in case they hadn’t got my messages about Elizabeth.

When I confronted Sam, they backpedaled completely, saying, “If Elizabeth shows up, I’ll turn them away myself.”

I found this answer interesting, considering that if Elizabeth had been on the blacklist, they would not be showing up at all. Still, I knew that even if Elizabeth did show up, there was no need for Sam to singlehandedly turn them away. At that point, a good amount of the people working the show were aware of the situation, and half of the cast had been sent a picture of Elizabeth with instructions on what to do if they saw them.

I felt guilty for the discomfort that people felt once they knew what was going on with Sam and my assaulter. But at the same time, my safety was on the line, and my peers were the only people who were able to protect me in this situation.

I wish I could write a feel-good ending about how everyone helped me and made sure I was safe, but that was not the case. There were a few people who assured my safety, and I am so thankful for that. However, there were also people who referred to my situation as “drama” that they didn’t want to pick a side on, and people who complained about my efforts to seek solidarity because it made them uncomfortable. And by “uncomfortable,” I mean it made them feel guilty about going to the cast party at Sam’s apartment, which several of my castmates wanted to attend despite knowing what Sam did to me. I was physically protected during the show, but after it ended, I wound up just as hurt and isolated as ever.

It has become a fact of my reality that no space in Ithaca College is safe for me. In my three and a half years here I quite literally have not been able to catch a break. I’ve lost count of the times people I trusted have supported my assaulters and their enablers, both in front of my face and behind my back. I don’t believe people anymore when they say they’re on my side because I’ve lost count of the number of people who have expressed support for me with their words but did the opposite with their actions. No matter where I go, there will always be people who tell me I’m overreacting or think that I’m crazy, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Rape culture is a terrifying thing that is even more present in our lives than most people realize. But the reason I chose to speak on my experience is because you, dear reader, can be a part of the solution. 

You can choose whether you will become a part of the system that isolates survivors and defends assaulters from accountability or whether to work against it. You can choose whether to continue being friends with someone who you find out is an assaulter or whether you would prefer the company of friends who don’t sexually assault people. You can choose whether you will be part of the friend group that abandons a survivor who speaks up or whether you will be the one friend who sticks by them against all odds.

You have the power to decide whether you want to be part of the reason that life as a survivor is as unbearable as it is, or whether you want to be one of the reasons that life as a survivor is still worth living.