Guest Post: Don’t Assume “She’s Lying”

Warning: readers may find the contents of this article triggering. All quotes and anecdotes used in this article were experienced or overheard by the authors.

“She’s lying.” “It was her choice to go to the party.” “But frats raise money for charity.” The response to the recent lawsuit against Psi Upsilon fraternity reflects the extent to which rape culture pervades our community. Sexual assault is by no means an exception at Wesleyan: one out of every four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape and one in every seven college men is a survivor of sexual assault. But only lawsuits like these draw national and international attention.

In light of the reaction to the most recent lawsuit, specifically the focus on fraternity community service and fundraising, victim-blaming, and “misreporting,” we would like to redirect conversation to the real issue: how to support survivors of sexual assault and how to prevent sexual assault on our campus. Fraternities are relevant to this imperative only to the extent that we must eliminate environments in which the much wider problem of sexual assault is exacerbated. This is not a solution, but it is an immediate first step toward preventing sexual violence.  

The report of rape in Psi U is not an attack on the merit of fraternities, nor a request for a list of the services that fraternities provide to the community. Turning this into a conversation about the pros and cons of fraternities (how many hours of fraternity community service vs. how many people have been sexually assaulted in the fraternity house) is not only disrespectful to survivors of sexual violence, but also diverts attention away from sexual assault.

We need to show that we take this issue seriously by combating rape culture on campus. We need to speak up when we hear responses such as “it seems like she’s creating a problem out of nothing” or “but she went home with him.” These reactions reveal three dangerous misconceptions. First, that there is a likelihood of false reporting (in reality, there is the opposite problem of significant underreporting). Second, and closely related to the first, is the tendency to blame the survivor. Third is the misconception that sexual assault is always perpetrated by strangers in unfamiliar places and accompanied by other physical violence (in fact, 90% of sexual violence on college campuses is perpetrated by someone the survivor knows).

It is disturbingly common for people to doubt a survivor who reports sexual assault. This is harmful when such doubt is as explicit as accusing the survivor of false reporting out of revenge or regret, or implying the same by questioning the credibility of the survivor’s claim. Consider the message that this sends. We don’t challenge someone who says that her bike was stolen or that she was mugged, so why do we doubt someone who reports sexual assault? By doing so, we refuse to take survivors seriously and diminish the severity of the crime, while making a statistically improbable assumption. The “largest and most rigorous” study conducted on false reporting found that only 2.5% of reports of sexual assault were false—no more than any other crime. When it happens so rarely, what accounts for the irrational suspicion that women are falsely reporting sexual assault?

Instead of a problem of false reporting, there is a serious problem of underreporting: 74% of sexual assault goes unreported according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. If this surprises you, consider the fear of repercussions a survivor faces. These include harassment (which happens to survivors on our campus), concern that you won’t be taken seriously, the responsibility to hold your assailant accountable, and the prospect of reliving the assault and facing your assailant in the trial. Remember these things the next time you hear someone react skeptically to a report of sexual assault.

The alleged rapist at Psi U was found guilty by the Wesleyan sexual assault board and received the most severe punishment possible, expulsion. Despite this, many students and even eyewitnesses question the plaintiff’s credibility. There appears to be a serious disconnect. The only conceivable explanation for this (except the horrifying possibility that students would knowingly allow sexual assault to occur in their presences) is that people are not aware that most sexual assault at Wesleyan occurs in familiar places with familiar people, and sexual coercion is not always obvious to onlookers. Nine out of ten survivors knew their assailants and assaults often occur in familiar places like a Clark dorm room or upstairs in Beta.

The alleged rape in Psi U last May was not an isolated incident. Whether the defendant is found innocent or guilty, sexual assault on our campus—and that includes inside fraternity residences—must be urgently addressed. Regardless of the services fraternities provide to our community, fraternity brothers are three times more likely to sexually assault someone than a non-affiliated male student. And this is not because fraternities attract a certain kind of male; it was only after membership in a fraternity that this likelihood increased. If this is shocking, consider the attitude behind comments such as “you should probably hook up with him because he brought you to formal” or “it’s bullshit that you won’t have sex with me, we have before!” Preventing sexual assault means eliminating places on campus in which consent is undervalued and sexual coercion is the reality.

Based on national trends, more than one hundred Wesleyan students will be sexually assaulted before the end of the year. These survivors and perpetrators are your friends, classmates, T.A.’s and coworkers. We need to take immediate action by targeting behavior and environments that encourage sexual violence. Sexual assault is a problem on our campus. Sexual assault is everyone’s problem.

Mari Jarris ’14 and Chloe Murtagh ’15

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  • Ugh

    This article is two disparate ideas thrown together. I’m all for your support for survivors. But why can’t fraternal organizations (i.e. co-ed, all female, and all male) be part of that positive support? Why exclude them from being part of the solution? Why not call for the dismantling of all other organizations that allow for instances of sexual assault? To that end, why not focus on binge drinking? I can’t help but think that perhaps you’re not willing to make sacrifices of your own or imagine yourselves as part of the problem. We are all indicted in the issue of sexual assault. Creating a false dichotomy helps no one, and ultimately hurts us all by confining issues of sexual assault and rape culture to Greek life. In doing so, you silence the dozens of survivors assaulted elsewhere.

  • Sarah H

    You have a few facts wrong. First off, The Courant article is completely incorrect; Jane Doe never faced protesters. There weren’t “Free Beta” rallies.

    I question your quote placement; you make them seem as if they’re directly relating to the case when they are not.

    Finally, the Psi U assailant was not expelled. He reached an agreement with the university who encouraged him to leave. Why? Because of the single most important fact:

    The assailant was never charged with a crime. MPD wasn’t able to put a case together, even though (according to the complaint), the victim called the cops and went to the hospital directly after the assault. I’m not defending him, but the reason people are calling her accusation into question is because of the lack of any criminal charge.

    • Theodora

      Your fixation on there being no criminal charge (calling it “the single most important fact” in this case) is exactly the kind of derailing tactic this post is warning us against. A criminal charge does not definitively determine whether or not something happened, particularly with regard to sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime that routinely eludes our justice systems, in part because of the shame that surrounds the issue, and in part because it tends to have little or no “hard evidence”–we say things like, “Who can really know what happened that night?”

      This post is asking you to put aside your commitment to abstract notions of justice and evidence, and to instead listen to the people who are saying that sexual assault is happening and that it isn’t being properly addressed. By referring us back to the idea of criminal charges, you are complicit in a justice system that has been shown to fail survivors of sexual assault.

      • Sarah H

        I absolutely agree with you on all counts. Sexual assault is SO PREVALENT and yet SO UNDER-REPORTED that in all cases, including this one, I’m always going to support the victim. I still do, despite my doubts (see below).

        It is just that, in this instance, when a rape kit was procured immediately following the assault (to my knowledge, I could be wrong), along with alleged eyewitness testimony, shouldn’t there be enough evidence for criminal proceedings? Psi U members I talked to right after this happened (before it went public), said that the leadership asked anyone who had information/who had seen it to step forward contact the police.

        Not to mention that even though the assailant left the school and the “responsible” parties were sanctioned (by Wesleyan, admittedly), the victim is nonetheless pursuing legal action against loosely affiliated parties. To what end?

        But more to your point – the proper course of action to take after the justice system has failed you is to continue to use the courts? I’ll gladly “put aside [my] commitment to abstract notions of justice and evidence,” but that would bolster my point that the victim’s motivations here are more even more difficult to assess.

        • Alum ’12

          I work at an organization that addresses the handling of sexual assault cases in the courts. In a case like this it’s very likely that a rape kit would not provide much evidence of probative value, since they are not trying to determine the perp’s identity. It is often impossible to differentiate between genital injuries sustained from consensual sex and an assault. There are so many reasons why a police dept and DAs office might decline to pursue the case. I would strongly caution against taking this as an indicator that perhaps the assault was not perpetrated as described. More info here: http://counterquo.org/reference-materials/sexual-violence/assets/files/Justice%20Gap%20paper%20Lonsway%20Archambault.pdf

    • ’12

      There were absolutely “Free Beta” protests.

      • ’12

        Addendum: they weren’t particularly serious protests, and I think (hope) that most of the people involved didn’t know that the origin of the administration’s sanctions against Beta originated with the rape, but they did happen.

  • Senior female

    Thank you for this. Even as a senior, I am continually confounded when I hear these things, even from friends and strong, independent women. I get that I need to interject when it happens. We all do. These quotes should be considered as socially heinous as everything else that shocks is.

  • survivor’14

    One point that’s brought up in this is for us all to jump in when we hear someone respond to hearing of a sexual assault case in a way that only exacerbates the problem. Does the author or anyone else have suggestions on how to do so? Like what would be an appropriate response to someone who says something like “it seems like it wasn’t as big of a deal as he’s/she’s/ze’s making it” to get the conversation going about how to change this issue?

  • ’13

    The alleged rapist was never expelled by Wesleyan. He transferred because the administration encouraged him to do so. He was not found guilty.

    • ’14

      According to Roth’s email the student was expelled: “Our internal investigation of the incident, which took place last spring at an event held in violation of university regulations, led to the perpetrator’s dismissal from the university and sanctions against the fraternity and individual members of it.” But if he was lying, we have a bigger problem.

      • clambo

        “dismissal” is not the same thing as “expulsion.”

  • ’13 non-affiliated male

    awesome piece. Hit the points on community service, under reporting, pros vs cons of fraternities right on the head. However, are Wesleyan fraternity brothers 3 times more likely to sexually assault someone? Some national statistics don’t translate to wesleyan. I always thought wesleyan “frat life” was quite different than the rest of the country’s. Maybe i was wrong.

  • ’14

    This entire article is awesome. Especially grateful for the data at the end.