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Rape report uncovers perception gap

PULLMAN – Ashley Miller used her cell phone’s calculator to do the math.

She was trying to turn percentages into people as part of a discussion at Washington State University about a survey in which 11 percent of WSU women said they’d been raped. She was wondering how many women that would be – more than 900.

“That’s a lot,” said Lindsey Baier, sitting next to her at the student union building.

Several students interviewed here last week said they found the figures surprisingly high, though none was surprised at one key finding: Roughly half of victims and rapists were drinking at the time. And few of those who were coerced into sex actually called it rape.

For experts and in the eyes of the law, there is little question about the boundaries of consent: Someone who’s drunk can’t legally give consent, and being drunk is no excuse for breaking any law.

They say social attitudes toward date rape and drinking sometimes minimize the seriousness of the crime and focus the blame on the woman’s behavior – part of a cultural pattern that downplays sexual violence and makes it hard for victims to come forward.

But students describe a social reality that, for at least a significant minority of WSU students, is filled with heavy drinking and casual sex, a situation they see as full of ambiguity.

In interviews with men and women last week, students described situations where two people were too drunk to think straight and did something they regretted – and students frequently suggested that they didn’t see some of these incidents as rapes, though others might.

All too often, “people just get absolutely, absolutely hammered and then go out and have sex with someone,” said Seth Lake, a junior from Olympia who writes a column on dating for the Daily Evergreen. “It’s just a mess.”

Valerie Russo, who runs the University of Idaho’s Violence Prevention Program, said to describe the problem as one of drunken regrets and misunderstandings is a way of softening the reality of the crime.

“I don’t think we can blame this on miscommunication,” she said. “It is the decision of one person that they have more power and that they can take something they want because they can. That’s not a miscommunication; that’s a deliberate act.”

‘Staggeringly high’

When the news of the WSU study made it into the state’s newspapers last week, Chris Reigelsperger’s mother called her son from Sammamish, Wash., worried.

“I feel like the numbers were staggeringly high,” said Reigelsperger, a 20-year-old junior majoring in communications. “I just feel like I haven’t seen any of it.”

But Sean Kinney, a friend and fraternity brother of Reigelsperger’s, said he’s become aware of the problem during his five years on campus.

“I’m not surprised, actually,” Kinney said.

The recent survey of WSU students is one of the most in-depth efforts to quantify the problem of sexual violence on any American campus, said Thomas Brigham, one of the report’s authors. It surveyed more than 2,500 students, including an unusually large sample of men, he said.

“In some ways, the important part of this was simply doing it – doing the survey,” Brigham said. “What we wanted to do was have real information instead of campus lore.”

In the survey, 11 percent of women reported being forced to have sex, and 10 percent reported an attempt. In a story published Tuesday, the Associated Press incorrectly reported different numbers.

Nearly a third reported they’d been the victim of unwanted touching.

The rape figures fall below national averages. Brigham said national research shows 15 percent to 20 percent of college women have been assaulted. Rape counselors in Moscow and Pullman said the national figure is 25 percent.

The survey also showed some surprising results about domestic violence. The percentages of men and women who reported verbal or physical abuse were nearly the same, Brigham said.

University officials will use the data as they review programs and services on sexual violence, Brigham said.

Students and officials suggested WSU could expand efforts to encourage students to drink less and be explicit about sexual boundaries. The university has focused on both issues in recent years, including organizing orientations on the subject of sexual assault and giving presentations to student groups on sexual decision-making.

But only about a third of students surveyed said they remembered such programs.

“You can always do better,” Brigham said. “In some ways, our (roughly) one in 10 might suggest we’re doing something right. On the other hand, one in 10 is way too high.”

The study reinforced much of what’s already known about rape. Three-quarters of the victims knew their attacker, and very few of the crimes were reported to police. WSU’s campus crime statistics for recent years show at most three rapes for any single year; the student conduct office received just six reports of sexual offenses in the 2004-05 school year.

At Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, counselors worked with 24 women enrolled at WSU in 2004-05.

“Friends are the ones people report to,” said Theresa Miller, sexual assault prevention educator at the group’s Pullman office. “More than the police, more than family, more than rape hotlines. It’s friends.”

It’s important that people not discount reports or place blame on the victim, she said, because that first contact may determine what the victim chooses to do – whether to seek counseling or go to the authorities.

Victims of rape are often confused, uncertain how to proceed and fearful of ramifications if friends or family are involved. If they’re students, it creates extra tensions – seeing the rapist in class or at parties – that lead some victims to drop out, experts said.

“We see that fairly frequently,” said Christine Wall, executive director of the group.

Wall and others say a key part of the problem is the way the culture at large reacts – failing to take the crime seriously, discounting women’s reports, raising questions about risky behavior that sometimes sound like blame, minimizing the crime by linking it with a date or an acquaintance.

“We live in a very violent society,” Wall said. “Violence is everywhere; it pervades everything – movies, media, jokes, locker room chats. … It’s just become normalized. We’re not offended much by violence.”

‘Is that rape?’

Drunken sex and sexual assault are not new on college campuses. But some students and observers say the social landscape that surrounds the issue is changing, partly as the relationship between men and women changes.

Some young women said they consider it their responsibility to protect themselves against sexual assault and consider themselves equal players in sexual decisions. Several said they believed at least some rape reports arise from morning-after regrets.

Sometimes, “it’s sort of the easy way out for not taking responsibility for your actions,” said Baier, a 19-year-old sophomore in public relations from Mill Creek, Wash.

But they also talk about defensiveness among men on the subject, a knee-jerk skepticism about any sexual assault between people who know each other or are in a relationship.

“If you even bring up the subject of rape (with men), it’s just, ‘If you have sex, it’s your fault,’ ” said Kayley-Jean McNamara, 20, a junior in public relations and psychology.

Students say that, more than in past generations, some college women are similar to men in terms of hard drinking and sexual openness. One counselor called it the “Girls Gone Wild” phenomenon – referring to the videos of partying young women embarrassing their parents.

WSU has taken steps to combat student drinking and the school’s party image in recent years, and several students said they thought there’d been a lot of progress. Still, they said drinking is a mainstay of Pullman social life.

“Everyone is always like, ‘Pullman, there’s nothing to do but drink,’ ” said Jayme Stocker, a 21-year-old senior in broadcasting from Sammamish.

Stocker and several other students affiliated with Pullman’s Greek system were among those who sat down for interviews last week.

Though they tended to say they were surprised by the figures in the new study, all had some familiarity with instances counselors would define unambiguously as rape or coerced sex. Students sometimes – though not always – considered the cases more of a gray area, though.

“I think the line or definition is not clear. Students don’t know what’s considered date rape and what’s not,” Stocker said. “If you don’t remember consenting to it, is that rape or is that not rape?”

Experts say it’s rape if someone is legally drunk – you can’t give legal consent to sex if you are – and it’s rape if someone is passed out.

In practice, many people who are assaulted are unlikely to consider themselves rape victims. The new WSU study indicates that of the women who experienced what the law would define as rape – forced intercourse – just one-quarter called it rape. The most common term they used was “unwanted experience.”

Jill Griffin, chairwoman of the school’s Commission on the Status of Woman, said it’s distressing how much drinking was involved.

“We’re supposed to be a dry campus,” she said.

Griffin said that could create an obstacle for students who want to report a sexual assault. Several sorority members said they’d known cases where a woman went to student conduct officials to complain about a sexual assault, and the Greek chapters involved got in trouble for violating rules on alcohol.

That puts women in an extra bind, McNamara said. In addition to other difficulties of the legal and student conduct systems, women who report an attack at a drinking party might get their friends in trouble.

“The consequences of going through with reporting a rape are way worse” than not reporting it, she said.

Elaine Voss, director of the school’s Office of Student Conduct, acknowledged that drinking offenses discovered through sex-assault reports are sometimes punished.

“It’s really a tough one,” she said. “Our first and primary consideration is the victim and what’s happened with her. However, we can’t just ignore behavior” that violates school rules and places students in jeopardy.

‘Something gone wrong’

Don Lazzarini is a former district attorney who coordinates the UI’s Violence Prevention Program with Russo.

When he talks about rape, he places it on a continuum of male behavior that starts with wolf whistles and locker room talk – the beginning stages of the “progressive lowering and objectifying of women,” he said.

And he said that occurs, to some degree, among all ages of men – not among all men, but at all levels. He also said there is a lot of social acceptance for the binge drinking that shows up in so much sexual assault – such as keggers or ladies nights at bars.

“It’s a social problem,” Lazzarini said. “Something has gone wrong when society thinks it’s OK to have males providing a lot of alcohol to females” and then raping them.

Russo and Lazzarini work at the UI campus on a Department of Justice grant to combat sexual violence. They’ve implemented mandatory orientation on sexual assault for incoming students and have formed a men’s group dedicated to opposing violence and other issues.

Russo said it’s important for young people to learn to talk frankly about sexual boundaries and the idea of making sure you have consent for sexual behaviors – even including a kiss.

Some students acted puzzled or laughed when it was suggested that they ought to ask for a kiss first.

“It’d be nice to think so,” said Dan Forsmann, a 21-year-old junior from Cottonwood, Idaho. “But I can’t see it happening.”

Others said they didn’t see any problem with it.

“I don’t think it’s so unrealistic to say, ‘Are you cool with this?’ ” Kinney said.

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