Sexual Assault On Campus: A Bigger Problem Than It Seems

Following Angie Epifano’s account of rape in the Amherst College student newspaper, Swarthmore survivors have claimed that the college’s handling of sexual assaults mirrors Amherst’s horrific mistreatment of Epifano. Administrators and counseling sources say that in the past year and a half there have been major changes in the ways in which the college deals with allegations of sexual assault and that the current process reflects these changes.Two current students, survivors of sexual assault perpetrated on Swarthmore’s campus, described their experiences of seeking support from confidential counseling services or from administrators as re-traumatizing. At every step of the process, both survivors were endlessly questioned as to the legitimacy of their rapes, discouraged from reporting their assailants, and blamed for their assaults.One survivor (Student 1), a current senior who was raped during her freshman year, said that the assault was so diminished by her friends and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff, and that she was so heavily discouraged from reporting her rapist, that she never even made it to the administration. She was warned that her attempt to bring her rapist to justice would be a drawn-out and fruitless struggle. “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to say anything because I had been told that no one would believe me, that even if someone did I’d have to fight at every step, and that it would be so emotionally draining that even if I got the result I wanted I’d be too miserable by then to feel like it mattered,” she said. “So I was silent.”

As at Amherst, Student 1 was made to feel — by both the CAPS counselor and her friends — that she was to blame for the rape. “I was asked if I had led them on, if I’d been drinking, if I’d given consent and forgotten,” the survivor said. “I was told that I shouldn’t complain because after all, hadn’t I gone out to get some?” Student 1 was asked to repeat exactly what had happened and if she was sure it was rape so many times that she could not remember what had actually occurred and what she had adopted into her narrative.

Student 1 was also made to feel guilty as a method of discouraging her from reporting her rapist. “I was reminded that my rapist was a good person and asked if I really wanted to accept responsibility for destroying their life,” she said.

Another survivor and current student (Student 2) initially sought counseling services to help her deal with the trauma of the event and was encouraged to speak to a member of the Dean’s Office about her assault. Director of Worth Health Center Beth Kotarski, who is in charge of primary support for survivors of sexual assault, said that CAPS counselors would only encourage a survivor to report their assault if the assailant seemed to be a repeat offender and posed a danger to the community.

According to Student 2, the administrator constantly questioned the legitimacy of the rape. “They told me that sometimes what one party thought was assault was really just a big misunderstanding,” Student 2 said. When Student 2 attempted to explain the ways in which her assault felt completely different from simply going too far in a consensual hookup, she was told by the administrator that, “Many people have disembodied sexual experiences and that doesn’t make them rape.”

Like Student 1, Student 2 was also asked how much she had had to drink on the night of the assault, as though this diminished the seriousness of the sexual assault or was at all pertinent to its legitimacy. “After I answered the question, [the administrator] actually started laughing and told me ‘that’s a lot for a small person like you,'” Student 2 said.

Student 2 said the administrator also questioned her about her level of sexual experience and inquired as to why exactly Student 2 was so sexually inexperienced. “I was accused of making up an assault because I supposedly could not admit to myself that I actually wanted sex that night,” she said. Student 2 added that the administrator attributed her relative lack of sexual experience at the time to her religious views. Student 2 was frustrated that she was asked to justify highly personal choices, and that “I’m not ready for sex” did not seem to be a satisfying answer for the administrator.

The confidentiality of various college resources was not explained to Student 2, and she was told that she had to either report the assault or tell the college that it was not assault. When she chose the first option, Student 2 was accused of changing her mind as a result of being swayed by her friends.

Additionally, Student 2 was strongly discouraged from taking disciplinary or legal action against her assailant. When she stated that she did want to take action against the person who had assaulted her, Student 2 was “highly encouraged” by the administrator to sit down and have an informal chat with her assailant and the deans about what had occurred.

“It is beyond me how survivors could be expected to say exactly what happened to them just a few days later,” Student 2 said. “I was basically accused of being a liar because, in the weeks after my assault, I was able to move past my initial feelings of confusion and guilt enough to see that what happened to me was a crime and not my fault,” she said.

Student 2 did say that she eventually received the help she needed from administrators, and that her perpetrator no longer attended the college, for which she was enormously thankful. Student 1, who never reported her assault, had to wait for her rapist to graduate, and struggled through the impossible task of avoiding the assailant on Swarthmore’s relatively small campus.

When asked to comment on the experiences of Student 1 and Student 2, Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator Sharmaine LaMar said that she could not do so without a sense of when the incidents occurred, since in the past year and a half the college has undergone a close examination of its policies, practices, and types of resources available to students and resource personnel. “I believe that the experiences today would show that we’re being very supportive,” LaMar said.

As stated in a letter from President Rebecca Chopp and Dean Liz Braun, emailed to the entire college about a month after Epifano’s story broke, over the last year the college has intensified its efforts to create an effective procedure for dealing with sexual assault.

Braun echoed LaMar’s response, framing the email from Chopp and Braun in the context of the changes in how the college deals with allegations of sexual assault. Braun said that since she had arrived, she had been working closely with Chopp in collaboration with students, faculty, and staff towards improving the college’s policies. “The letter that President Chopp and I sent to the community was not meant as a response to the Amherst incident, but rather was meant to continue to raise in our community’s consciousness the seriousness of this issue,” Braun said, adding that she and Chopp wanted to encourage the entire community to participate in creating a culture of zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual misconduct at Swarthmore.

Braun said that changes in recent years have included revising policies and procedures related to sexual assault; moving primary support for sexual assault survivors to Kotarski and Patricia Fischette, a post-graduate clinical fellow who works in CAPS, both confidential reporting services; expanding community-wide educational efforts such as workshops, presentations, and creating organized lists of resources for survivors (a wheel of confidential and non-confidential resources, complete with contact information); sending a reminder of the college’s policies and resources to the entire community once a semester; adding additional training for all CJC members for cases related to sexual assault; and changing the ASAP workshops based on community feedback.

Kotarski and Fischette have been instrumental in retooling the college’s approach to issues of sexual assault. Together, they have worked closely with Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team (SMART) members and sought to implement a greater degree of education and discourse about sexual assault on campus, especially around the area of consent. Fischette said that she and Kotarski want the conversation around sexual assault to continue throughout the year and not to be simply a one-time discussion at the beginning of the year in mandatory Acquaintance and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) workshops for new students. “This needs to be a recurring thing that happens monthly in some kind of activity, panel, presentation or discussion. We’re trying to move towards making this conversation at the forefront of the campus community,” Fischette said.

The two have also tried to recenter the process of sexual assault around the survivor. Kotarski said that unlike at Amherst, a counselor at Swarthmore would never attempt to tell a survivor that their experience was not one of sexual assault. She said that it was crucial not to re-traumatize survivors by asking them if they were sure the incident was truly rape or questioning the survivor about their clothing, drinking or other actions prior to the incident. Fischette agreed, and said that she and Kotarski, when called upon for help, intend wholly to return control to the survivor over the process, since the experience of sexual assault is one of completely losing control and being violated.

Braun and LaMar stressed that they would welcome feedback from all members of the community, including those who were dissatisfied with current policy. “If any survivor, or truly any student believes that they are not treated fairly, appropriately, or sensitively, then that’s something they should let me know about, because we’re always interested in improving the way we approach these very serious and traumatizing types of incidents,” LaMar said.

Though administrators and counseling sources say that there have been major shifts in the college’s process of dealing with allegations of sexual assault, it remains to be seen if the changes in policy and proliferation of resources and educational efforts will result in a process that prevents the recurrence of such deeply troubling stories as those of survivors of sexual assault at Swarthmore.


  1. “Director of Worth Health Center Beth Kotarski, who is in charge of primary support for survivors of sexual assault, said that CAPS counselors would only encourage a survivor to report their assault if the assailant seemed to be a repeat offender and posed a danger to the community.”

    Et tu, Beth?!??!

  2. Beth would never EVER say something like that. That is such a manipulation of words. As a SMARTeam member and someone who is working behind the scenes on issues of sexual assault, I can say that we are working extremely hard to ensure that survivors feel safe on this campus. Yes, there are things we can work on, but this article completely reworded Beth’s words since this is something we always talk about in meetings. Confidential resources would never pressure a survivor to report their assault.
    2 years ago, the way that sexual assault was handled at this school was completely different. Other people were involved, the SMARTeam was not as prevalent, ASAP was different, and various other things. This article does not take into account the hundreds of things we have been trying to do. Why doesn’t it say how at the Halloween and GenderF party, SMARTeam members and sober brothers and sisters had trainings and were at a space at the top for people to talk to them if they felt unsafe/ needed to be walked home? Why doesn’t it talk about the SAFER Campus training we had last year to work on policy? Why doesn’t it talk about SwatSurvivors?
    As a student who interviewed for this and has been working really hard to change sexual assault policy on this campus, I am extremely disappointed that it did not take into account the student voice of those of us who are doing a lot to change the way that people perceive sexual assault at Swarthmore. I’m glad that we’re talking about this, but we cannot establish that the only dynamic is students being sexually assaulted and the administration not doing anything about it. We are really, REALLY trying to do a lot on this campus, and I don’t want the people reading this article to think that this is the way that Swarthmore deals with issues of sexual assault now.
    My heart goes out to the two survivors in this article. They were extremely strong for even talking about it to the Phoenix. But times are changing, and I am so sad that people feel so unsafe. We are really working hard to make people feel safer, and as a survivor myself, I know how difficult it is to talk and how it feels to think you are unsafe. But I hope that the people who read this article know that this article is not a completely factual representation of Swarthmore at this point in time.

  3. Although the article was superb in bringing to light the horribleness of sexual assault, I’m deeply concerned by its tone of rape claims only needing to be substantiated with the alleged victim’s word and not with evidence (for example, actions of the administration to question if said incidents were truly rape or remembered correctly are implied to be insensitive in the article). Rape claims need to be treated as any other claim of crime whether it be kidnapping, assault, or theft–the evidence of the two cases of the accuser and the accused must be weighed according to the evidence and if the alleged victim’s claims can’t be supported by evidence–even if the victim is RIGHT in her claims of abuse–then the administration cannot further proceed in prosecuting the case. And if the evidence is indeed in the favor of the victim, then the administration should relentlessly pursue justice in order that the attacker can be served due retribution.

    • John, Wouldn’t in be lovely is what you suggest is possible? But guess what, in the world we live in, it’s not. Let me assure you that rape is falsely reported at a rate less than every other crime, due to the fact that we live in a culture full of people convinced not to believe in rape claims. Study after study has shown that. Do you know that a rape kit costs an average of $800 to $1200? Do you know that even if you pay all those fees and subject yourself to a humiliating and invasive barrage of tests, there’s still only a 50% chance that your rapist left enough biological material to prove anything, let alone that the sex was not consensual? Do you realize that those tests don’t work if the victim has showered, changed their clothes after their rape? Do you realize that if it was assault and not rape, the likelihood of any conclusive physical evidence drops down to almost nothing?

      By saying that a victims words are not enough, you are contributing to a culture that silences us, that says that our words are not worth as much as those of our rapists.

      • Of course it’s a grave injustice when a victim has to watch her attacker go scott free if no evidence is available. And of course evidence is sometimes difficult to obtain. But that’s the case in a whole host of crimes (prosecuting cyberstalking is notoriously difficult). And if the evidence-based method is tossed, what alternative is there?

        Jane: “He was stalking me!”
        Dick: “No I wasn’t! I’m innocent!”
        Jury: “Well, OBVIOUSLY Dick is guilty. Get him to jail.”

        • I’m so glad you’re paying attention to about ten percent of the information there John, Maybe if I space it out more?





          Rape is NOT like stalking. Stalking is not institutionally supported. It is not like cyberbullying, which is difficult to prosecute because it is too recent a creation to have effective laws on the books about.

          You are trying to make this into a “rational,” “objective” argument, but you cannot do that with a subject like rape. You have NO IDEA what it is like to have been effected by something like this. I am sure that you’re not doing it intentionally, but the way you are going about your argument is reinforcing the idea that rape victims are not to be trusted. You are being a rape apologist. I suggest you consider your words better and listen to those with a better knowledge of the subject.

    • You’re right. False accusations of rape are rampant across this campus. I’m glad you’ve articulated the real problem…

    • As a survivor told me, someone walking in to report an allegation of sexual assault has thought about it. It is all she has thought about, it has made it impossible for her to focus on her schoolwork or her friends. It has become preoccupying and she has been so afraid to speak about it that she hasn’t. Someone walking in to report it knows exactly what the consequences are, and knows exactly what her experience was. She is not a fickle girl who has changed her mind about having sex with someone. She is not vindictive. She is not doing this to get back at her attacker, but because seeing him around this campus where it is impossible to avoid anyone is killing her.

  4. As Student 2, I am concerned that one of my answers to a question I was posed was slightly misunderstood, and that it may have made a rather important difference. I said that I was seeking counseling and was encouraged (by a well-meaning friend) to talk to an administrator. I regret any ambiguity there. Never, ever did I say nor mean for people to think that CAPS pressured me into either reporting or not reporting my assault. While I clearly cannot speak to others’ experiences, for me, CAPS has been truly wonderful, and my counselor has been nothing but affirming and supportive. I am thankful to the Phoenix for soliciting my voice, but wish a bit more of the nuance of my experience had come across in print (not to speak of the range of survivors’ experiences out there.) As I told the reporter, the love and support of some of the people around me, certain administrators included, was what got me through this trauma. I also have friends on the SMART team, and I know that they have been working incredibly hard to help people feel as safe as possible on this campus. In no way would I want to undermine the great dedication that a number of individuals at Swarthmore bring to bear on the difficult issues surrounding sexual assault or the substantial changes that I know have been made since the events I alluded to here. I hope that other survivors reading this article realize that there really are people who care and resources genuinely designed to help them. I applaud Anna Gonzales and the Phoenix for raising awareness of this serious matter, and I hope that this conversation will continue to help us move forward together as a community.

  5. Dear John,

    Yes, telling someone that they remembered their rape incorrectly is insensitive. Yes, telling someone that what what they experienced wasn’t rape is insensitive, that they misunderstood what was done to them, that it wasn’t rape because they were drinking too much, because they were sexually inexperienced, because they were sexually experienced, because because because. All of these things are insensitive. Period. That doesn’t mean that people should be prosecuted without evidence. It just means we shouldn’t be assholes.


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