Editor’s note: some of the names in this story have been changed out of respect for maintaining the individual’s personal privacy.Nothing bad could happen. They’re my friends, Vanessa thought.
Upon returning to her Vermont home, the college sophomore decided to spend part of her winter break mingling with her hometown friends.
Most of the time, she said, small town Vermont didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment on cold winter nights.
One evening, she met with a handful of friends at an apartment and planned to kill time the only way they could think of – playing drinking games.
Vanessa knew she couldn’t handle excessive amounts of booze, but the self-proclaimed “lightweight” didn’t want to appear weak in front of her friends. Instead, she sat down and chose to go for broke, hoping to show off her college-trained drinking skills to her peers.
Several drinks later, she found herself incredibly hammered.
Vanessa lost control of her body to the drunken spins, falling quick and hard out of her chair. Her friends carried her off to the bedroom and laid her down on the bed, hoping to sober her up with sleep.
Vanessa said she remembers coming in and out of consciousness, waking only to the sound of her friends occasionally opening the door to make sure she was all right. But as the night wore on, they stopped checking.
Vanessa says she eventually blacked out, falling into a deep, drunken, paralyzing, sleep.
It was during this time, she thinks, that her friend Mike snuck into the room and made his move.
Vanessa woke up in incredible pain, pinned to the mattress as Mike laid his body’s weight on top of her.
Dazed and disoriented, Vanessa began to cry. Hearing this, her friends barged into the room, ripped Mike off of her and dragged him out of the room.
Through the haze of confusion and tears, Vanessa noticed her pants had been removed. Mike’s extreme and excessive use of lustful force had left her bloodied and sore.
The reality of rape
Vanessa’s story is more common than many realize. Her traumatic tale recently came to light in a random and casual conversation among a small group of her Castleton State College friends. Out of the five girls in the group, four were victims of sexual assaults similar to Vanessa.
This came as a shock, as well as a relief, to those in the group, as they realized they were not alone in their experiences.
According to One in Four, a national not-for-profit organization that battles against sexual and domestic abuse, one in every four college women are sexually assaulted. But for several reasons, such incidents often go unreported.
“Rape is the most unreported crime because girls are afraid to tell people,” said Robert Burge, a Castleton junior and member of the campus’ One In Four advocacy group.
“They have it in their minds that they did something wrong, like they didn’t handle the situation right.”
One in Four, a group made up specifically of males, aims to change the way men may view violence against women.
Burge and the Castleton chapter of One in Four believe it is the negative stereotypes often associated with reporting sexual assaults that lead victims to maintain their secrecy.They don’t want to become subject of ridicule or blame.
“A lot of times a victim of sexual assault is dealing with a lot of shame and guilt,” said Miche Chamberlain, director of the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter.
Chamberlain said that many victims of rape would rather maintain their silence, trying to continue life the best they can instead of rehashing the past and getting the authorities involved.
“They don’t want to move foreward,” Chamberlain said. “They just want it to be over with.”
Castleton Director of Public Safety Bob Godlewski said that while Castleton has had fewer reports of alleged sexual assaults than many other colleges, only two in this school year, he admits that the problem is a universal occurrence.
Even at small, seemingly safe schools like Castleton, there are incidents that go unreported, he said.
Godlewski said Castleton investigates every lead they can whenever a report or tip involving a campus sexual assault is unearthed. But he said rumors aren’t always true, and more is needed to prosecute than simple hearsay.
If the victim of an assault or a reliable witness doesn’t step forward, little can be done in the way of prosecuting those responsible, he said.
“In the end, you have to have the alleged victim want to proceed,” Godlewski said. “It becomes a very frustrating endeavor that’s not taken lightly by anyone on this campus.”
Changing the MENtality
Robert Burge finds the concept of campus assailants getting off without punishment equally infuriating.
“It makes me very angry,” Burge said, adding that he knows of students on campus who have been accused by others of committing sexual assaults, but the victims never reported it. “I see him all the time. That guy is still around campus, still at parties, still dancing on ladies at The Dog – it’s disgusting.”
Burge believes women often are forced by their assailants into silence, threatened with violence should they decide to come forward.
He worries that the campus’ social cliques are protecting those who commit acts of sexual assault, adding that their social status on campus may lead them to believe they’re untouchable in the ways of prosecution.
Others think that the severity of the issue just doesn’t resonate with everyone.
“I feel like there’s a lot of people – particularly men – who don’t understand the gravity of rape,” Castleton Community Advisor Laura Olson said.
Olson recalls watching a video in a Castleton Race and Gender class that dealt with the traumatic experiences of rape first hand.
As the film ended, Olson remembers watching a male classmate lean over to his female friend and tell her that the woman in the video deserved to be raped because of the way she was dressed.
“I couldn’t believe after watching all the horrors of that video that someone would be that sick,” Olson said. “I feel women feel pressured to agree with the consensus. It sucks.”
Fellow Castleton CA Greg LaMoy also couldn’t understand why the subject of rape was treated as such a joke among some people.
“More guys need to take a stand against the jokes and stigmas attached to rape,” LaMoy said. “It’s not cool. It’s not funny. It’s cruel and it needs to be stopped.”
Culture requires a change of attitude before real progress can be made in preventing sexual assaults. The best way, Olson and LaMoy said, is by making the issue hit home with people, as some feel it doesn’t affect them directly.
“It’s a pretty big deal for me,” LaMoy said. “I know several girls who have been sexually assaulted but haven’t reported it. It’s surprising — a lot of my friends had their own personal stories.”
“Rape is just as much a man’s concern as a woman’s,” Olson said. “How would you like it if your girlfriend was raped?”
Keep on keeping on
A few years have passed since that night. Vanessa is now a senior at Castleton State College and is anxiously awaiting her graduation ceremony on Saturday. She says she rarely spoke of the incident until fairly recently, when she felt it was time to come to terms with what happened.
“I felt incredibly violated and humiliated,” said Vanessa, recalling the aftermath of the night in detail. “I didn’t want to tell anyone.”
Part of the reason for her secrecy, she said, stemmed directly from the reactions of some of her close friends, who she told initially after the incident in hopes of finding compassion.
While most friends were supportive, wanting to “kick the crap out him,” Vanessa noted that a few of her male friends thought she was to blame.
“I’ve had multiple people tell me it was my fault, that I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation,” she said. “I had one guy who I thought was my friend . . . I really needed someone to talk to, so I told him, and he told me that I wanted it to happen and that it was my fault.”
That’s what kept Vanessa from contacting police, feeling they wouldn’t take her seriously because she was drunk during the assault.
Vanessa also said she didn’t want to overburden her parents at the time, so she didn’t tell them what happened.
“I felt they had enough stress already and I didn’t want to add to it,” she said. “But I also didn’t know if they’d look at me differently.”
But as years went on, Vanessa finally mustered the courage to open up about her past.
“Keeping that kind of secret begins eating away at you after a while,” she said, adding that she told her parents what had happened on her birthday this year.
Since telling her parents, Vanessa has also sought help from a counselor and has begun the process of recovering mentally from the ordeal. She admits, though, that the incident left lasting effects.
“It has definitely screwed me up in some ways. It’s harder for me to trust people,” she said. “I was in Huden last semester and all of a sudden just got panicked. If someone had touched me on the shoulder I would have just ran out.”
Even still, Vanessa has high hopes for the future, and has felt her stress load decrease significantly since she came out with her story. She advises women in her situation to do the one thing that they’ve been dreading since their own assaults – talk about it with others.
She said that by dealing with the memories head-on and with the help of others, she was able to begin putting the pieces of her life back together. Her experiences, she said, also gave her a great deal of power.
She hopes that by telling her story other women can avoid a similar travesty from happening to them, or how they can begin to cope with their past.
“After I told my family, it was like a huge weight off my shoulders,” she said. “I think I suddenly realized, yeah, it was a shitty situation, but I can’t let it control my life. It’s been constantly on my brain since it happened and I’m tired of it being like that.”
“I want to deal with it and move on so I can start living again,” she said.