It’s a polarizing term that can haunt both the victims of sexual violence and the University administrators responsible for investigating their allegations.
Rape culture describes factions of society or societal institutions, including many universities, which practice victim blaming, trivializing or even condoning rape and other forms of sexual violence and harassment.
Ed Act Now, a national student group of survivor-activists, is working to stop sexual violence and institutional abuse, and the group has collected over 100,000 signatures on a petition on change.org.
The petition urges the Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan to hold colleges and universities accountable “for complying with federal law about protecting survivors of sexual assault…”
Jasmine Lester, an ASU alumna who graduated from Barrett, the Honors College with a degree in psychology and an LGBT certification in December 2011, said she is one of these survivors. She spoke Monday at an Ed Act Now demonstration in Washington, D.C, about her experiences with sexual harassment and institutional abuse at ASU.
Jasmine’s Battle Begins
Lester said she was on a study abroad trip when one of her professors began flirting with her while the two were out at a bar.
“As she was pouring shots down my throat and feeling me up at the bar, she started telling me that she would like to make out with students, but she can’t because the administration is watching,” Lester said. “It was really weird for me.”
She said her professor told her that there were issues with other professors becoming sexually involved with students on previous trips and that ASU administrators were trying to crack down on these alleged sexual encounters.
Lester said she turned in an assignment, an end-of-semester journal of her experiences on the trip, in which she expressed her attraction for the professor.
“She was really excited about it, and she emailed me to tell me about how wonderful she thought my journal was,” Lester said.
She said later that summer the professor contacted her requesting that she be her teacher’s assistant for the upcoming semester. Lester said she was hesitant and tried to decline because of what she felt was a “weird dynamic” between the two.
However, the professor said she had been thinking about Lester and her interests and ultimately convinced her to help her teach a class about a play with which Lester was very familiar.
“It was a terrible semester, because she was leading me on in very subtle ways and then trying to make me feel like it wasn’t happening,” Lester said. “If I would do something that she didn’t like, she would blow up at me and tell me that I was betraying her. It was terrifying.”
Lester, who was around 20 years old at the time, said a picture of her professor ended up on thedirty.com at the end of the semester, and she was blamed for it.
She said she received a letter from the office of Student Rights and Responsibilities that “sounded very decided that I was guilty of it” and threatened disciplinary action.
Lester, whose father is a dean at the University, said she got her parents involved and went to the SRR to declare her innocence.
“When I went in to meet with them, they said, ‘(Your professor) thinks you put her on thedirty.com, and she thinks you are stalking her and trying to send her messages,’” she said, “And their evidence was stuff that she printed off my Tumblr page.”
Nothing on her Tumblr specifically mentioned her professor’s name, even though her professor may have inferred it was about her, Lester said.
She said ultimately the University didn’t end up taking any disciplinary action against her, but an administrator at the Honors College told her that she just needed to “get over it.”
“They dropped the allegations after I went in with my parents and asked them, ‘Don’t you think it is weird that a professor was spending her time on my Tumblr page?’” she said.
Lester said she realized the magnitude of the problem when a Barrett faculty member, who was familiar with the study abroad trips and who was opposed to the sexual relationships between students and teachers, began telling her stories about professors who would get their students drunk on the trips, sleep with them and then deny it the next morning.
Lester said some of her friends had also experienced multiple romantic passes from their Honors College professors, both on the trip and after, even despite expressing that they had no interest. She said her friends did not want to come forward for fear of academic or social retribution.
Lester then decided to file a sexual harassment complaint against her professor and began working with Kamala Green, the University’s Title IX coordinator.
“She is the definition of incompetent,” Lester said. “Her job must be to make sure people don’t file complaints, because she discouraged me for almost a year.”
Lester said Green made it nearly impossible to schedule an in-person meeting and told her that she didn’t want to investigate something that had already been investigated.
When Lester asked how the University investigated, Green told her that her professor voluntarily came forward to tell the SRR that nothing happened between the two on the study abroad trip, Lester said.
“Kamala told me that because (my professor) had denied any inappropriate behavior when they investigated me, they wouldn’t do any further investigation of the professor,” she said.
Lester said she stayed persistent and was allowed to file a complaint, but after 60 days of investigating, the University found no wrongdoing on her professor’s behalf.
“When a teacher has that kind of power over their student, it’s hard to say no, and that compromises consent,” Lester said. “I was way too scared to ever question my professor, because I had a pass/fail for those credits, and I was afraid of retaliation.”
She said that as a result of the situation, she became vilified in the Honors College and has been labeled as crazy and delusional, even despite having been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the situation.
She said she believes that the University does its best to protect its professors and its funding, even if it comes at the cost of victimizing its students.
“Forget about squashing scandals and think about all of the students you are sending into classrooms and off to foreign countries with sexual predators,” she said.
Where there is smoke, there are fire extinguishers
Kamala Green said in an email that she is out of the office for the week, but added, “Just for clarification, when my office is made aware of Title IX complaints, they are taken extremely serious.”
ASU spokeswoman Julie Newberg said in an email that the University “investigates all reported sexual assaults and encourages students to seek help in the event of an incident of sexual assault, date/acquaintance rape or relationship violence.”
“ASU provides support services for every student who experiences any form of sexual violence, including sexual assault and other forms of unwanted sexual experiences. ASU offers various reporting options through the ASU Police Department, and Student Rights and Responsibilities,” she said.
ASU had nine cases of sexual assault (forcible sex offenses) reported to SRR in 2012, while ASU Police had 19 forcible sex offenses reported in 2012, according to the email.
ASU alumnus Benjamin Lang graduated from Barrett, the Honors College in 2012 with a degree in global health and a minor in women and gender studies. He worked with ASU Wellness as a consent educator as well as with several student organizations to provide information about rape, sexual violence and harassment at ASU.
Lang said in his third week at ASU, he witnessed one of his Honors College professors playing footsie with a student who was “clearly not interested” and realized that this was a problem that needed to be addressed.
He said in his experience universities too often promote an environment which blames the victim for drinking too much or dressing a certain way instead of saying, “Hey, let’s just not rape people.”
“ASU as a whole and especially Barrett, which is a very tight-knit community, should be overwhelmingly welcoming to sexual abuse reports and victims,” he said. “It’s not at all, and the way allegations are handled is disappointing, disgusting and terrifying.”
He said he understands that the University would not want to ruin any of its professors’ careers based on stories or rumors, but he believes the investigators should not take sides.
“I understand that they want a valid case and don’t want anyone getting in trouble based on stories or rumors,” he said, “but where there is smoke, there is fire, and after so many numerous reports, it becomes irresponsible for investigators to keep protecting the professors and ignoring these complaints.”
Mission impossible, or mission accomplished?
Lester said she was excited to put ASU on the national radar of colleges who are not doing a good job at protecting its students and complying with Title IX rules.
“In a perfect world, the Department of Education would actually enforce Title IX instead of just telling administrators, ‘Do you promise you will take care of this’ and then never look at it again,” she said.
She said she hopes the Department of Education will start punishing universities and pulling funds for those that are not complying with Title IX.
“You are not eligible for federal funding if they can prove that you are covering up rape culture,” she said, “and I want ASU to be punished for doing exactly that.”
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