May 1, 2006

Survivors' Stories

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About 20 students consult Gannett Health Center’s victim advocate about rape and sexual assault each semester.

Because the crime is among the most underreported, this number represents a fraction of the incidents that occur within the Cornell community.

Four women – all students and survivors – decided to share their stories and concerns to shed light on this deeply personal issue.

“The national statistics are hovering around one in four, one in five [for the number of college women who experience sexual assault and rape before graduation],” said Nina Cummings, victim advocate at Gannett, citing a study done by Mary Koss, University of Arizona, in 1987 which has been confirmed repeatedly since then. “I have to consider that that is what’s going on here [at Cornell], which means that what I see and what the police see is only the tip of the iceberg.”

As a sophomore, Laura Taylor ’07 went to a fraternity party, drank some, danced some and eventually went back to the Collegetown apartment of a male student.

When they got back to his apartment, Taylor told him that she did not want to have sex. He just kept going.

“I froze, which I now know is a really common thing for women to do,” Taylor said. “It’s an experience that you’ve heard about, but it is so out of the ordinary, that you think – I can’t believe this is happening to me. Your body freezes up.”

It wasn’t until the next day that Taylor began to think what she had at first labeled a “bad hookup” might be rape. She called the Advocacy Center, an Ithaca organization that offers support, advocacy and education about sexual assault. The woman answering the counseling hotline said yes, it was rape.

“Deep down you know what happened to you, but you want to deny it so you try to convince yourself that it’s something else,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s experience is statistically the most common, because she knew the man who raped her, alcohol was involved and she did not go to the police.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with only about 30 percent of cases reported to the police, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1992 – 2000.

Cornell students can report sexual assaults that occur on-campus, including in buildings affiliated with the university like residence halls, fraternities and sororities, to the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) or to the judicial administrator; sexual assaults that happen in Collegetown or anywhere else off-campus are reported to the Ithaca Police Department.

Eight sex offenses were reported to the CUPD in 2004. Eleven were reported in 2003 and zero in 2002.

Mary Beth Grant, judicial administrator, said she sees an average of three cases each year. Eleven rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse cases have been reported to the J.A. since July 1, 2003.

“Confounding the issue is whether or not the people are known to each other – that tends to decrease the reporting – and the involvement of alcohol, which also tends to decrease the level of reporting,” said Capt. Kathy Zoner, CUPD.

Sixty-seven percent of sexual assaults against women happened between “nonstrangers,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey.

“Alcohol is huge on this campus in terms of being present in situations where women are taken advantage of,” Cummings said, citing her personal experience with Cornell students. “Seventy to seventy-five percent of the time the perpetrator, the victim or both have been using alcohol.”

Only one of the four survivors interviewed for this article was assaulted by a stranger in a situation where alcohol was not being consumed. She is also the only one who reported her rape to the police.

During September of her freshman year, Anne Giedinghagen ’07 went for a late-night walk around Beebe Lake to de-stress while studying for her first-ever round of Cornell prelims.

She did not see her attacker until he hit her. Then, after striking, choking and raping her, he got up and left, leaving her lying on the ground.

“I laid there for a few minutes in shock and then I got myself re-clothed and walked back home,” Giedinghagen said. “I walked past a couple blue light phones but it didn’t register, it didn’t click. When I got home I really wanted to take a shower, but I remembered not to, so I went … and got one of my friends. I don’t remember if I told her what happened or if she just figured it out because I was so out of it, or the way I looked, bleeding and dirty.”

Giedinghagen’s friends brought her to Cayuga Medical Center, where she was given an exam by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a nurse specially trained to work with sexual assault survivors.

The next day, Giedinghagen spoke with Cummings, who reported the incident to the J.A. and the CUPD.

In the next few months, she also spoke with counselors at the Advocacy Center.

“It was helpful, mostly in overcoming that initial shock and figuring out ways to cope,” Giedinghagen said. “But also in realizing that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t anything that I did, because I felt so, so guilty when it happened.”

Jane Smith (name changed at her request), a graduate student, has never sought services or counseling for her rape, which happened at a middle school house party when she was 13-years-old. Her attacker was another middle school student.

Smith doesn’t remember the details; but she knew she had been sexually assaulted by the way she woke up.

She didn’t tell anyone she had been raped until three years later. Her mom responded with a personal story – she was sexually assaulted at a party while she was in college, and she told Smith that she never told her husband, Smith’s father.

“It was horrible because she expected me to keep her secret,” Smith said. “And although I didn’t really think about it this way then, it added credence to the idea that we, as survivors, needed to be ashamed as though we’d done something wrong. It also brought home how prevalent this is.”

To combat the perception that survivors should be ashamed to talk openly about their experiences, Taylor shared her story with the Voices and Faces project, a movement to publish women’s stories with their names and photographs.

“There’s this implicit, subtle feeling that people have about rape and sexual assault, that it is a shameful secret,” Taylor said. “Not only does it prevent people from recognizing how prevalent it is, it also makes it very difficult for survivors to get in contact with anyone else and to get the help they need. … It shouldn’t be shameful or have to be a secret at all.”

Who to tell, how to tell and when to tell are all issues that survivors face. Cummings and the counselors at the Advocacy Center offer support to survivors and their loved ones as they navigate the aftermath of sexual assault.

“Part of it is – how often do you want to talk about the worst thing that has ever happened in your life?” Giedinghagen said. “There’s also still a stigma attached to it. Like it’s considered bad manners to bring it up. Like, oh, why would you want to talk about that, why would you say that? It makes people uncomfortable, which it should.”

Julia Donahue ’07 hasn’t told her family that she was raped at a beach party during summer vacation when she was 15 years old. She has confided in friends and written anonymously about it in a student publication.

Details of her experience are fuzzy, but the physical trauma which landed her in the hospital for emergency surgery and the health repercussions she has dealt with since are not.

“I was in the hospital for a couple days and it took a month for me to recover physically,” Donahue said. “The whole thing was very invasive because… there was such a physical trauma associated with it. My mom would ask, ‘what happened to you? Tell me what happened to you.’ and I would say ‘I don’t know.’ … She obviously knew I was lying, but then I also feel like she got the idea that I didn’t really want to talk about it.”

Medical students and doctors were brought in to look at Donahue because her case was so unique and traumatic, making her experience invasive and scary, she said.

Not having an absolute and clear memory of her assault will make it harder if she does decide to tell her parents what caused her physical trauma, Donahue said. She’s not sure if she will ever tell them.

Dealing with family members’ reactions can be difficult.

During the months before Taylor told her parents, talking with them on the phone was hard because she couldn’t be honest about what was really causing her bad days.

When she told them it was even harder.

Her mother cried. Her father, a lawyer, wanted her to prosecute. But it was her brother’s reaction that was the most difficult, Taylor said. Her brother was so angry at her attacker that he wanted to know where the attacker lived so he could beat him up.

Taylor decided not go to court. She might have considered going to the J.A., but because it happened in Collegetown and not on-campus, the J.A. did not have jurisdiction over her case.

“It was not a firm case [because] I didn’t have any marks or bruises, I didn’t have any evidence,” Taylor said. “Also, it would have been a total ‘he said-she said’ case. And I did not need my sexual history to be put on trial. Unfortunately, that’s what happens in most rape cases; the women are attacked.”

Giedinghagen did not get a good look at her attacker, and so prosecution was not really possible. If she had had any idea who he was, she might have considered it, she said.

“A lot of survivors do immediately get asked, or told, you have to go to the police, because that’s all that we as a culture know to say in response to people who have had something terrible happen to them,” Cummings said. “And when people don’t report, it immediately casts doubt on their story. We’re not a very empathetic culture. Try to imagine what it would be like – with a backdrop of disbelief and shame – try to imagine what it would be like to try to prosecute.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop
Sun Staff Writer