"The Rape Was Bad, But Being Denied Justice Was Also Horrible"

The following is an excerpt from Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors by Anne K. Ream. Reprinted with permission of Beacon Press.

The More Things Change: Beth Adubato

The 112,000 signatures on the 2013 Change.org petition delivered to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—a petition demanding that the federal government hold universities accountable for failing to protect students from sexual assault—were more than just names. They were a bundle of outrages, some of them decades old.

The women and men who signed it were calling for American universities to do things so basic, and so seemingly obvious, that the real shock was that a demand for action was needed at all: Take rape charges seriously. Investigate them swiftly. Stop asking women who have been raped by a fellow student to “take a semester off.” Start recognizing that when a popular young man commits sexual assault on campus, it is not a misunderstanding, a youthful indiscretion, or an infraction. It is a crime.

The signers included college students who had been raped by a classmate and then denied justice by school administrators, university alumnae who had experienced similar violence and institutional failure decades earlier, professors grown tired of seeing their schools fail rape victims, and parents who had experienced the heartbreak of sending a child to college and seeing her come home a crime victim.

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People signed the petition to the Department of Education in anger and sadness. But mostly, they signed the petition with stories: This happened to my roommate. This happened to my daughter. This happened to me, last month. Last year. Too many years ago to even remember.

Beth Adubato, an assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology, owned one of those stories. She was nineteen years old when she was raped while a student at The College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Attending William and Mary had been Beth’s dream since she was a girl. She was a straight A student, and school was everything for her. “I was born on the same day as Thomas Jefferson—one of the earliest graduates of William and Mary—so for my college application, I wrote a really feminist essay about how I was going to be like him, someone who changed the world,” Beth recalls.

She remembers the day she arrived at William and Mary, during the 1980s, as one of the happiest of her life. “Everything was new,” Beth says. “Everything was beginning.”

Beth became an active and engaged student. “I worked on campus, I lived on campus, I loved the William and Mary life.” She was nineteen years old when a fellow student raped her. He was a popular lacrosse player Beth had met at a Friday night fraternity party. They spoke briefly, and when he offered to walk her home at the end of the evening, she remembers politely saying no. “I thought he was cute and nice, we all did,” says Beth. “Maybe it was my sixth sense, but I told him good night and left with a girlfriend.”

Later that night, he entered through the dorm-room door that Beth had left unlocked for her roommate and raped her repeatedly. A day later, it was discovered that someone had broken the building’s exterior card-key lock.

The details of that night remain clear to Beth. She wishes that they didn’t, but knows that there are some things she will never be able to forget. Yet Beth’s memories of the days that followed are what most unsettle her.

“The rape was bad, but being blamed and denied any sort of justice was also horrible,” Beth says. “It’s that ‘wrong on top of a wrong’ that gets to you.”

Two days after she was raped, Beth gave a statement to the William and Mary campus police. The officers suggested that she might be “crying rape”—she later learned that was what her assailant was saying happened—and asked Beth why she didn’t fight back or scream. “It was a Friday night, the dorm was mostly empty, and he was a 265-pound athlete,” Beth says. “To me, it made perfect sense that I didn’t scream. But not to them.” The campus police also suggested that the rug burns on Beth’s back could have been the result of “bad sex.”

During her examination at the campus health center on the Monday following the rape, Beth recalls that the doctor was “perfectly nice and promptly told me that my transferring from William and Mary would be for the best,” Beth recalls. If she stayed, the school could offer her counseling at the hands of a graduate student in the psychology department.

Beth didn’t transfer—physically—but she says that, in a very real sense, she ceased to be a student at William and Mary after she was raped. The university’s decision to abandon its investigation of the lacrosse player who had raped her—a determination made by the then-dean of students—was devastating for Beth. She was confident that evidence and student witnesses could have corroborated her testimony that she had not chosen to go home with the student who raped her, but William and Mary was intent on “moving forward.”

Beth wishes she could have done the same. Instead, she was ostracized by William and Mary students who had previously been her friends and treated like a troublemaker by people who didn’t know her at all. A handful of lacrosse players followed her when they saw her between classes, a way of intimidating Beth without technically doing anything wrong.

Beth began to avoid people and parties—“anyone Greek, anyone athletic, anyone ‘popular’”—and felt sick with anxiety when she went to her classes. “You know when you are a pariah, and I was,” says Beth. “You feel it emotionally, and you feel it physically. I was literally sick to my stomach from nerves.”

It did not take long in this environment for Beth’s personality to change. “I was so depressed that I stopped caring about school,” Beth says. “My post-rape self did not resemble my pre-rape self, or my high school self, at all. I withdrew completely.”

One of the hardest lessons Beth learned during that time was about the limitations of loyalty. After she was raped, several of her closest female friends distanced themselves from Beth but continued to speak to the lacrosse player who had assaulted her. Beth had been a good student and had what she believed were solid relationships with her professors. Yet they, too, made it clear that they didn’t want to hear Beth’s story.

“People will do anything to pretend someone they think they know wouldn’t commit rape,” Beth says. “He was a popular athlete at a school that loves its lacrosse players. Very few people—not the dean of students, not my friends, not the other students—wanted to admit that he was also a rapist.”

So complete was the failure of those around Beth that the one example of someone defending her stands out in her memory, even now: “My friend Lee almost punched a guy in his fraternity, someone who was talking me down, even though that guy was a foot taller than he was,” says Beth. “It was the only time someone stuck up for me.”

The following year, Beth moved off the William and Mary campus. “I tried to create a whole new life for myself—working off campus, taking dance classes, immersing myself in theater. And I made a new set of friends,” Beth says. “It was coping in one way, but it also interfered with my academics. I couldn’t go to school and be terrified at school. You just can’t do both.”

Two semesters short of graduating, Beth left William and Mary and returned to Montclair, New Jersey, her hometown. She does not see the decision to leave as much of a decision at all. She was struggling emotionally, academically, and physically at William and Mary. “I could not stay another day. I’m pretty amazed,” she says, “that I stayed as long as I did.”

Unaware of why the daughter and granddaughter who had once excelled had become “such a failure-dropout,” Beth’s family was limited in its sympathy. “I blame myself for that, because I needed to ask for their help, to tell them that I had been raped,” Beth says. “But I was so ashamed and depressed that I just didn’t have the words.”

Beth’s sympathy for herself was limited as well. “I probably needed to get myself in therapy or to a good rape crisis center, confront what had happened.” Beth says. “But instead I drifted for a long, long time. People would say, ‘Oh, where did you go to college?’ or ‘Beth, didn’t you go to William and Mary?’ How do you say, ‘Yes, college was great. And then I was raped’?”

It took Beth more than a decade to re-enroll in school. In the interim, she worked a series of lower-paying jobs, got married, and had her daughter, Allegra, “the single most amazing gift to come during that time.” But the idea of being back on a college campus remained daunting.

“That really says something about what rape does to you,” Beth says, “because my whole identity, my whole life, had been about excelling at school. And I was not ready to go back.” But time was healing, and the gravitational pull of earning her degree proved powerful. So in the nineties, Beth applied to Rutgers University, a school close to her home and the life she had built for her daughter. She had been accepted at Rutgers years earlier, when she decided to instead attend William and Mary, so it felt right to her. “I was hopeful again,” Beth says. “I had my daughter now, and I wanted to be a good role model for her. And I knew that I had a lot to offer.”

During the application process, Beth was contacted by Lydia Rodriguez, a Rutgers dean who was reviewing her application. Dean Rodriguez was perplexed by Beth’s grades from the semester in which she had left William and Mary.

“I had asked for a medical withdrawal from William and Mary during that last semester, but the administration never bothered to tell my professors,” says Beth. “Unbeknownst to me, there were five F’s on my school record. When Dean Rodriguez saw that I had gone from being an A student to failures across the board, she knew that something must have gone wrong. And she had the decency to reach out to me about it.

“I told her the whole story, about being raped, about what had happened after, about why I left school,” Beth says. She remembers Lydia Rodriguez growing very quiet over the phone and then saying, “Beth, you should never have to tell that story unless you want to tell it. Those grades should have been expunged with your medical withdrawal.”

A few days later, Beth received a second call—she believes it was probably prompted by Lydia Rodriguez—from the dean at William and Mary who had, years earlier, declined to pursue the investigation into the lacrosse player who had raped her. He had since been promoted and taken on an even larger administrative role at the school. Somewhat to Beth’s surprise, her former dean apologized to Beth for what had happened years earlier. And then he told her that he had gained a “better understanding” of what she’d gone through after his own daughter was raped.

Beth’s feelings about that call are nuanced. “Hearing his voice on the phone brought me back to that horrible meeting all those years back, when he said, ‘William and Mary is not taking this case further,’” says Beth. “And it was practically re-traumatizing to hear from him again.

“On a human level, I know that he was trying to connect, to tell me that he finally ‘got rape’ because it had come close to home,” Beth continues. “But you shouldn’t just care when it happens to your daughter. You should care when it happens to any of us.”

Beth says that receiving her undergraduate degree from Rutgers in 1996—she went on to receive her PhD in criminal justice from the school a few years later—was “quite possibly the best day of my life. Rape took all of those years from me,” Beth says. “But I looked out at my daughter during my graduation—she was five years old at the time—and just thought, ‘Yes. We’ve got our lives back.’”

While she was an undergraduate at Rutgers, Beth began to speak out about having been raped years earlier. She was taking a criminology class when a much younger student expressed the opinion that so-called acquaintance rape was something that women usually made up. Beth remembers feeling so compelled to speak that her story practically told itself. “I was furious—I had to speak up,” Beth says, “because those beliefs cost college women their lives.”

The classroom conversation that followed her disclosure that day was made possible at least in part by an “amazing” Rutgers University criminology professor, Todd Clear. “He wanted the students to think about rape in a ‘real-world’ way, and there I was with my real-world story,” says Beth. “He encouraged me and supported me after I spoke. But he also made sure that the other students knew that my story was not an uncommon one—it represented a real criminal justice problem.”

Beth is convinced that talking about her rape outside of the classroom is just as vital. “My daughter and her friends, they all know that I was raped during college, by the cute, popular guy everyone admired,” Beth says.

“I’m a mom, so of course I want to teach them to be careful,” Beth says. “But I also want to teach them to support other girls and women, to never pre-judge, because no one claims to be raped on a lark.”

A new generation of college activists understands this all too well. The drivers of the Change.org petition delivered to Secretary Duncan in the summer of 2013 call themselves Know Your IX. A loose collective of hundreds of rape survivors and their allies from over fifty universities, Know Your IX is using federal law and the media to force administrators to respond to reports of campus rape. Named for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that colleges that receive federal funding investigate and resolve campus rape and sexual assault charges or lose federal resources, Know Your IX is facilitating change on a national level.

Individually, Know Your IX members are speaking out about being raped and denied justice—at Yale, Amherst, University of Southern California, and dozens of schools in between—and filing a series of lawsuits that put teeth in such claims. Collectively, they have become a national anti-rape force. By the end of July 2013, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had received forty-eight complaints regarding Title IX violations related to campus rape and sexual abuse, more complaints than it had received in any full previous year.

Members of the Know Your IX collective say that their present-day successes are informed by past stories like Beth’s. “These stories are not new,” says Dana Bolger, an Amherst senior and Know Your IX cofounder who helped create the Change.org petition. “When you realize that you are part of a long line of college women who have stories like yours, going back into the seventies, eighties, nineties— you know you have to act,” says Dana.

Rates of rape and sexual assault have been largely constant over the last forty years: every credible study points to the fact that between one-quarter to one-fifth of college women will experience rape or attempted rape before graduating.

“These violations have occurred because the consequences for universities failing to do the right things were not seen as steep enough,” says Stacy Malone, the executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, the first nonprofit law center in the nation solely dedicated to serving the legal needs of sexual assault victims.

“A new generation of survivors is using the web to connect and information-share, to make legal demands in coordinated ways,” says Stacy. “When they use social media to say, ‘This happened to me at my school, and here’s what I did to fight back,’ it’s really powerful.”

Beth Adubato loves seeing all of that power. A professor at the New York Institute of Technology, she says the best part of her job is spending her days with students who make her feel “hopeful about the future.” But when she learned about the Change.org petition to Secretary Duncan, she felt a unique sort of awe and gratitude.

“I knew that what William and Mary was doing was wrong,” Beth says. “But it took me years to understand that what they did was actually illegal. I didn’t know enough about my rights to even grasp that they had been violated. I don’t think I’d even heard of Title IX. Seeing over one hundred thousand people signing on and saying, ‘This is not OK?’ That’s a fantastic feeling.”

But the thrill Beth feels about the progress being made is tempered by a single, painful fact: sexual violence on college campuses still occurs at an alarming rate. Beth knows that the right university response to a student who has been raped can be “life changing.” She just wishes that such a response wasn’t necessary in the first place.

“You dream of a world without rape,” Beth says. “But it’s hard, some days, to believe that it will ever happen.”


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