The night I remember was during my freshman year. I went into my dorm lounge after a night of working to find that my then-boyfriend had come back from a party drunk. Worried for him, I followed him up to his room to make sure he would be okay. I lay on his bed, intending to stay with him until I knew everything would be alright. Our relationship was on the rocks at the time, and we talked about how we could go on together. Suddenly he said to me, “Dry-hump me, or leave.”
“What?” I was shocked.
“Dry-hump me, or leave,” he repeated. At eighty-nine pounds, I was much smaller than him. He easily grabbed my hips and pulled me on top of him, crushing my groin against his. I tried to fulfill his request, but stopped after a while. I just couldn’t do it — my heart was not in it. When he noticed I had stopped, he climbed on top of me and finished the deed himself while I lay under him. “I’m finished,” he said, and then asked me to leave.
We broke up shortly after that incident, but after a while we eventually reconciled and often interacted with each other in the same friend group. Last spring, I found out that the room I had picked in the Senior Housing Lottery was across the hall from his, but I thought nothing of it since we were on good terms.
That is, until I received an email from him during the summer. In the email, he accused me of sexually assaulting him that night and stalking him by deliberately picking a room near to his. He then threatened to bring this case to the CJC unless I switched to a different room.
This past summer was one of the most emotionally and mentally trying that I remember. It was a blur of emails and meetings with Public Safety, and difficult conversations with my parents. In defending myself, I had to relive experiences from that turbulent relationship, which was an emotional upheaval in itself. Intimate details of the relationship, which I thought would be private forever, became closely scrutinized by strangers. I was frustrated and scared. None of these accusations made sense to me. I never expected an accusation like this from a person I once cared about so deeply. What is more is that I simply could not understand — how was I a sex offender even if I was not the one to initiate sexual activity? Even if I did not, was I still guilty just because my ex was drunk? Was I guilty, based solely on a technicality?
“In the state of Pennsylvania, you cannot give consent if you are drunk,” said Joanna Gallagher during our meeting in Ben West. “But it wasn’t like that!” I protested. “He asked me to do those things!” She and the Public Safety officer looked back at me, not knowing what to say.
And that was the thing that frustrated me while talking with Public Safety. While my accuser decided not to go to the CJC, and I never suffered punitive action from his accusations, I always felt the actions taken by Public Safety were biased towards my accuser. The no-contact directive put in place between us was directed at me, even though I requested it be mutual. Eventually, under pressure, I was the one who had to switch out of my room. Furthermore, even though Public Safety personnel I spoke with agreed that I was not “guilty,” there was no way to officially declare me “innocent” without going through the intensive process of a CJC hearing.
“Isn’t there some other way you can make it clear I didn’t do these things?” I asked. I didn’t want the stress of going through a hearing, and had been advised against doing so.
“But even without a hearing, no one is saying you did anything,” replied Gallagher. “It’s okay now — you’re not living in the same dorm, you’re not contacting each other. There is no judgement on you, or him.”
It didn’t comfort me. Even though no more proceedings would take place, and no one was declaring me a sex offender, I still felt I was forced to hang in some grey area between guilty and innocent. I wondered, does every case that doesn’t reach the CJC just leave off ambiguously like this? Is there no way to be seen as guilty or innocent without extreme action? Even though I believe that I am innocent, there seems to be no way to truly prove it to people around me, because there is no room in the College’s process to do so without an all-out trial.
I am not saying, by any means, that more sympathy should be leveled towards sex offenders on campus. If anything, I believe sexual assault is a crucial issue on college campuses around this country, and that sexual assailants should get the punishment they deserve. But I do want to caution against colleges taking blind action in response to these cases, without realizing the careful research and handling that is required. I believe the influx of media attention has rightly forced colleges like Swarthmore to reform their policies on sexual assault, but I worry that their execution of these changes isn’t being carried out in a comprehensive, informed way. While it is true that the statistical odds of wrongful accusation of sexual assault are low, those low odds do not negate the fact that people are wrongfully accused, and the legal systems at colleges and around the country should be better equipped for that possibility all the same. If the College takes a solely reactionary position in response to sexual assault, it will leave many holes in its system and open itself up to future problems. Among those problems are people like my accuser, who will take advantage of the system and retaliate against other students.
Furthermore, there is a tendency to make out these cases to be black and white — to demonize those found guilty of sexual assault, or even those merely accused of assault. Full and whole-hearted consent is very important, but it simply may not be a reality in an environment where drunken party hookups happen all the time and both parties’ consent is rendered vague. I want to remind my peers not to jump to judgements even in cases as emotional like those involving sexual assault. In the United States, people should not be declared guilty upon being accused. I hope Swarthmore will keep these perspectives in mind as it makes future reforms to its sexual assault policies and judicial proceedings.