Sexual assault in the U.S. has finally begun to receive increasing attention over the past few years, particularly on college campuses. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, because rape and sexual assault is incredibly underreported, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 6 American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape, totaling 17.7 million woman. 3% of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape, totaling 2.78 million men. Sexual violence is most common among younger populations, with 44% of victims of rape under the age of 18 and 80% under the age of 30. A recent study, preformed on several college campuses across the nation, found that 1 in 4 female respondents reported experiencing some form of sexual assault while in college.
Whenever I read these statistics or encountered sexual assault survivors in my daily life, a part of me used to wonder—how on earth could so many people get away with rape and sexual assault? The holes in our judicial system when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault are frankly ludicrous, but the fact is—sexual assault isn’t always an invisible crime. As several new stories have shown, people other than the victims and the perpetrators often know about sexual assault. In the 2012 Steubenville rape case, where a high school student was raped by two football players, news quickly spread around the school. So, how are so many people getting away with sexual assault and rape? How can people excuse this behavior or continually interact with someone they know preys on people in this manner?
I always wondered. And then, before my senior year of college, I found out.
One of my friends attempted to rape a girl at a party. Rather than hold him responsible for his actions, nearly all of my friends allowed him to pretend like nothing had happened and pressured the girl to play along.
(All names have been changed.)
A few weeks before my senior year of college started, a group of my closest friends and I gathered for a back to school party at my friend, John’s, house. Because we were all drinking, everyone spent the night. Several hours into the night, I went to check on Amy, who had too much to drink and who had gone to lay down. To my horror, John was in bed with her, in the process of removing her clothing. Amy was unconscious; John obviously was not. Although I was able to prevent anything further from happening, the fact remained that he had assaulted her. Given that I had to request help from male friends in physically removing John from the room, others saw evidence of John’s crime. And although Amy had been largely unresponsive throughout the ordeal, when she awoke later, she did remember protesting. When I took her home very early the next morning, the whole episode seemed so obviously cut and dried—John had, at a minimum, attempted to sexually assault Amy. It never occurred to me that others might interpret the incident differently.
I was wrong.
That morning I received a call asking if Amy remembered what had happened the night before. A friend recommended not mentioning the attempted rape, if Amy didn’t remember anything. “Why bring it up? It’ll just worry her.” Apparently, some of my male friends had talked about what happened and decided that covering up John’s crimes was less of a hassle than facing up to the truth.
Another friend, Claire, called later in the day, ostensibly to check on Amy’s health. Halfway through the conversation, however, she said, “Well, you know it wasn’t really John’s fault right? Amy had been flirting with him all night.” When I pointed out that Amy hadn’t spoken to John at all that night and had been unconscious during the attack anyways, so what happened earlier was immaterial, Claire blithely continued, “Well, you know, with her accent, everything she says sounds flirtatious.” When John’s actions couldn’t be ignored, apparently they could be justified through amazing mental gymnastics.
As the weeks went on, this tendency to ignore or justify John’s actions only got worse. Rather than accept responsibility for his actions, John began to tell people that I was attempting a character assassination against him. Even those of our friends who had seen John’s actions for what they were, refused to acknowledge the incident. Any attempt to bring the attempted sexual assault up, even by Amy, was basically ignored. This incident overshadowed much of our senior year and strained all of our friendships. Amy essentially cut off contact with all but a few people. I was ultimately told I couldn’t hang out with our mutual friends when John was present—I was punished for my refusal to let John’s behavior pass uncontested.
After we graduated, I attempted to broach the subject with a few of the people involved, to see why they had allowed John such latitude. I wanted to know why they had continued to be friends with someone who had refused to acknowledge he had sexually assaulted someone. And I wanted to know why they hadn’t backed me, when I refused to let John act like nothing had happened.
Ultimately, most said the same thing—they hadn’t wanted to deal with the trouble that came with acknowledging a friend committed sexual assault. Some of them regretted ignoring it. Some people pointed out that they had felt torn because they hadn’t really known Amy well, but had been friends with John for years. Others felt that they had made the best of a bad situation—John was never going to own up to his actions, so why bother to press the issue when everyone would be graduated in a year? One person claimed that Amy and I were more mature, so it’d been easier to make us adapt then to address John’s issues. (One still claimed that Amy’s accent was too flirtatious and I had somehow misunderstood John underdressing someone who was unconscious.)
I think holding John responsible for his actions would have made a difference.
By allowing John to act like he hadn’t done anything wrong, they enabled his behavior. Every time they went drinking with him, they implicitly said, “We trust you enough to drink with you.” Every time they went back and spent the night at his house, they said, “We trust you. We don’t think you’re going to rape someone. Or if you do, we’re going to help you cover up for it, just like last time.” And they undermined every sexual assault victim we knew, because they chose to ignore a case of sexual assault.
Prior to this, I had always wondered, how could so many people get away with rape? And what I discovered amongst my own group of friends, people who I had once considered to be some of the most considerate, compassionate, and informed people on the planet—it’s surprisingly easy to get away with sexual assault. People find it hard to confront tough issues, when it’s your friends making thing hard.
I wish I had some kind of great takeaway—some great educational lesson about how we can better teach people to hold their friends responsible for their actions. But to be honest, I couldn’t even convince my own friends to hold John responsible for what he did. If we want to stop sexual assault, yes we need to change the culture and we need to change the judiciary, but we also need to find a way to empower people to hold their friends responsible for their actions. Apparently that’s harder than you might think.
 RAINN. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Who are the Victims? https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims
 RAINN. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. Statistics. https://rainn.org/statistics
 Richard Perez-Pena. “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus.” New York Times. Sept 21, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/us/a-third-of-college-women-experience-unwanted-sexual-contact-study-finds.html
 Andrew Welsh-Huggins. “Steubenville Rape: Grand Jury Will Decide Whether More Laws Were Broken In Ohio Football Rape Case.” Huffington Post. June 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/15/steubenville-rape-grand-jury_n_3083841.html