Amherst College administrators have been scrambling to repair their sexual misconduct policies after former student Angie Epifano wrote a widely shared op-ed last week in the student paper about her campus rape experience. After nearly a year of trying to deal on her own with the trauma of being raped in a dorm room, Epifano reached out for help:
Eventually I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor. 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.
The counseling center and deans continued to neglect Epifano’s report of rape and instead focused on how unstable she seemed. Eventually, the school placed her in a psychiatric ward and then restricted her academic options. Fed up, she transferred.
Since the Amherst Student published Epifano’s grueling account, several students have come forward with their own experiences of rape. This Tuesday, Dana Bolger, a senior at Amherst, shared photos on an Amherst student blog of sexually assaulted students holding up signs with the comments they received from the Amherst community after their assaults. The signs quote deans saying, “You never took your case to trial, so you don’t actually count as a rape survivor” and “Take a year off, get a job at Starbucks, and come back after he’s graduated.”
It is not difficult to see how an institution that accepts misogyny as just another part of campus life might come to dismiss its own students’ rape charges. Bolger reported earlier this month on an Amherst fraternity shirt that says, “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847” alongside an offensive image of a half-naked woman tied to a spit. The boys who created the shirt received no punishment. In the fall of 2010, the Yale fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon famously paraded around campus yelling a pro-rape slogan, “No means yes!” Miranda Lewis, a student at Yale, wrote on Slate that the problem of campus misogyny is “pandemic across many groups on campus” and that “the first to respond has been the student-run Yale Women's Center, not the president or provost's or college dean's offices, or any other official part of the university.” When President Obama gave a commencement speech at Barnard instead of Columbia this year, the outrage from Columbia students turned into heinous sexism on Columbia’s student-run blog. The New York Times reported that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, said his students’ reaction was “completely understandable.” Even Barnard’s president, Debora Spar, downplayed the online commentary, describing it to the Times as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.”
The problem, of course, goes beyond just school administrators. When Epifano was at the psych ward, she says that a doctor told her, “I really don’t think that a school like Amherst would allow you to be raped. And why didn’t you tell anybody?” It takes a lot of bravery to report a sexual assault, but when an administration has a track record of not adequately punishing sexual misconduct, it makes sense that victims choose to stay silent. (And they do: In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity reported that 95 percent of campus rapes go unreported.) According to the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, 70 to 90 percent of disciplinary actions toward sexual assault cases are minor sanctions like writing an essay on sexual violence or drafting an apology letter. Epifano’s rapist graduated scot-free. How disheartening that, in a worst-case scenario, he would need to write a research paper.