When he forcefully took her frightened hand that summer night, everything changed.
“I felt obligated,” she said. “I was scared. He hovered above me.”
For Cal Poly senior Aimee Williams, this wasn’t her image of a sexual assault.
He wasn’t a “man in the bushes” or a stranger. He was her boyfriend.
“I was dating him,” she said. “He started taking off my pants … I asked what he was doing.”
She remained silent.
In the Cal Poly Sexual Assault-Free Environment Resource room (SAFER) – where the campus attempts to increase awareness and promote prevention of sexual assault and rape – Williams spoke openly of her experience – and her naivete.
Williams, the co-coordinator for the Cal Poly SAFER program, didn’t know she was sexually assaulted for years.
Some blame the media for her ignorance, while others point the finger at the university. Some blame society in general for this lapse in education.
Two controversial decisions concerning sexual assault at Cal Poly furthered the debate. Early into the 2005-06 school year, Housing and Residential Life distributed a pamphlet to freshmen that described sexual abuse as being more prevalent in the greek system and also removed red handprints at the dorms that represented where a sexual assault had taken place.
With the sensationalism of such events, the issues that are more frequently a problem, such as acquaintance rape, get left unaddressed, Williams said.
Acquaintance rape is one of the more common crimes, yet it is often under-reported.
According to SAFER, one in four women on college campuses are victims of rape or attempted rape and 84 percent knew their attacker.
“Usually the examples that are put in the media are the men in the bushes or the person that doesn’t survive the situation,” Williams said.
Students need to be educated on the greater possibility of acquaintance rape, date rape and smaller sexual assault crimes, she added.
There are a number of reasons many of these cases are never reported.
Becca Swanson knows all too well. Having volunteered for the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center of San Luis Obispo and having worked at the Cal Poly Women’s Center for three years, Swanson has repeatedly heard the voices of reluctant victims.
“I recognize we have a problem like any other campus. For every report we get, I know we have 10 unspoken for,” Swanson said. “You get a lot of first-time reports.”
First-time reports represent a population reluctant to speak up.
“To report it, they feel it must be salient,” Williams said.
Tempers flared when words as strong as “rape” and “gang rape” were associated with greek life at Cal Poly.
“If we could press a rewind button, we would not have distributed that flyer,” Vice President for Student Affairs Cornel Morton said.
Despite the retraction, many say the damage by the university was already done.
“It said rape six times in one paragraph,” Interfraternity Council (IFC) President Mike Motroni said. “It’s upsetting to all of us. We want to really show a good side of Greek life and not be perpetrated by stereotypes.”
The lesser assaults typically are left unaddressed. According to the North County Women’s Shelter, 31 percent of teen girls that report forced sex identify their boyfriends as the perpetrators and women between the age of 16 to 24 experience the highest per capita rates of intimate violence.
Removal of the symbolic handprints has caused its own debate.
“I think it’s sad that this is my fifth year and there’s still a discussion whether they (the handprints) should be there or not,” Swanson said. “…At the cost of having students walk by and feeling uncomfortable, it’s worth it.”
According to both Williams and Julia Sinclair-Palm, interim director of SAFER, the handprints represent resistance.
“A hand is fighting,” Williams said. “It means stop. It can also mean the hand forcing you to do something.”
The handprints, along with quarterly dorm powerpoint presentations, ReMEmber Week in April and flyers are ways to educate students on the realities of campus life.
Cal Poly rates consistently as one of the safest CSU campuses in terms of reported rapes, according to Swanson. But it is not exempt from problems.
Between 2002-04, four rapes and one sexual assault were reported on the campus while 20 forcible rapes were reported in San Luis Obispo, the highest amount of any city in the San Luis Obispo County.
But these numbers are misleading, some argue.
“I don’t think people report,” Williams said. “I don’t think SLO could have accurate reporting.”
Especially in regards to acquaintance rape.
“It’s confusing for a variety of reasons,” she said. “It’s not really knowing if it was sexual assault because there’s so many dimensions to it. Many have a hard time recognizing what happened.”
Williams didn’t realize she had been sexually assaulted until participating in the Vagina Monologues – a popular performance spurred by a movement to stop violence against women.
“What happened to me to some people would seem small, but the feeling that someone has control of you, it’s there whatever the extent,” she said.
The incident had a harsh backlash.
“I dated someone my second year,” she said. “I would get scared at anything intimate.”
The monologues made her feel comfortable. Relating her experience with a friend who had a similar experience also helped, she said.
Often victims never get that far.
Legally, it’s even more rare to see representation.
According to Swanson, only two percent of assaults go through the criminal process.
“The district attorney can’t pick up all these cases,” Swanson said. “And it’s almost impossible to call a person ‘a rapist’ if alcohol or an acquaintance is involved.”
A lack of evidence also prevents many victims from moving forward with a case. If a victim does not get an exam within 24 hours, most of the evidence is lost.
“Most don’t know about it,” Swanson said referring to the exam.
That’s where SAFER, SARP and the Women’s Center hope to improve awareness. Society, Swanson argues, isn’t helping.
In 2003, a weekly sex column that ran in the Mustang Daily titled “The J-Spot” set the awareness movement back, she said. The male-written column was criticized for glorifying rape by encouraging males to take advantage of freshmen females under the influence of alcohol.
“Society is the problem, it’s (The J-Spot) a product of society,” she said. “That we’re allowing talk and discussion like this. Societies’ views are portrayed through the media.”
The first 30 days of a freshman woman’s experience in college are their most dangerous, Swanson said.
“For them to read that, it almost feels like you’re being put into your place,” she said.
The article had such a strong effect, a man entered the Women’s Center crying. He was so offended by the article that he admitted he had been sexually assaulted for the first time.
“It glorifies it,” she said. “And you don’t hear anyone saying this is wrong.”
Because of a lack of awareness, Williams didn’t know what was right or wrong that frightful summer night.
She’ll be the first to admit her story isn’t sensational, but it is the most important one to tell.