Two years after Myers rape, no clear picture of sexual assault

| Student Life Staff

Two years ago last Thursday, a man tailgated into Myers Hall, forced his way into the room of a female student and raped her.

The case—which to most students is now known as “the Myers incident”—is the only case of stranger rape at Washington University in recent memory, and for many students has become synonymous with the problem of sexual assault on campus. Despite that association, the assault is an anomaly that stands apart from every other case of sexual assault on campus in terms of its brutality, publicity and the involvement of a non-student.

Charges were filed in May 2007 against William Harris, a former employee of Subway on campus. After several delays, his trial is set to begin on April 20, but he is in prison on unrelated charges.

In spite of its initial publicity on campus and in St. Louis, the incident has largely faded from view without making a lasting impact on the way most students live their lives or approach the idea of sexual assault.

Despite the attention drawn by the Myers incident, conversations with administrators, faculty and students familiar with occurrences of sexual assault on campus suggest that a larger problem exists beneath the surface, compounded by a lack of open discussion about assaults between students.

Rates of Sexual Assault at Washington UniversitySam Guzik | Student Life

A shock to students

In February 2007, the Myers incident came as a shock to the University community and drew attention to the possibility that violence could intrude on the generally safe campus environment.

“Most people who’d been here for any period of time had not seen anything like that before,” said Don Strom, chief of the Washington University Police Department. “It certainly was a tragic reminder to everyone that we all, in one way or another, are vulnerable to crime.”

Part of the reason that the Myers incident stirred such a reaction was its perpetration by a non-student and the violence of the assault.

Despite not having card access to any residential buildings, the assailant was able to enter and exit both the dorm and the campus. Most details of what happened that day were not released initially, but according to court documents, the victim was penetrated vaginally and orally, in addition to being threatened repeatedly. Her keys, cell phone and wallet were stolen. She was left tied to a chair as her rapist fled the scene.

In contrast to the Myers incident, nearly all sexual assaults on campus are perpetrated by an acquaintance of the victim. Because some students are hesitant to label an experience with a peer as an assault, steps like reporting the incident and identifying the experience as sexual assault become complicated and are rare.

“A lot of those myths are so common and so endemic to our culture and the way our culture works,” said Craig Woodsmall, a psychologist with Student Health Services. “It is knowledge that is transmitted more intangibly. We have to [comprehend] how a culture comes to a shared understanding of these beliefs.”

Due to the pervasiveness of stereotypes about what a “real” sexual assault looks like, victims whose experiences do not match typical rape myths are less likely to report due to the fear of not being believed.

“Most sexual assault goes either unreported or underreported, and it occurs where one party knows the other party and not infrequently alcohol or drugs is a factor during the incident,” Strom said. “I think there’s lots of understandable reasons why it’s underreported, but in some ways, it gives a misrepresentation of the seriousness of the level of that sort of violence on campus.”

Ongoing problems

The University’s student judicial code defines unacceptable sexual behavior as “sexual contact with any member of the University community or visitor to the University without that person’s consent, including but not limited to rape and other forms of sexual assault.”

Based on reports of the judicial administrator and statistical data, most of the sexual assaults on campus do not fit into the violent framework of the Myers incident. Instead, almost all of them are perpetrated by students against other students, and most go unreported and are characterized by the abuse of alcohol—either as a factor complicating the ability to give consent or a tool to overcome a victim’s resistance.

Each of those factors serves to make an experience more traumatic for victims and raises the fear of social consequences within their network of family and friends.

“[Victims] might not feel like people care or that people are doing enough,” Woodsmall said. “They might feel like they’re not being believed or they’re to blame, whether that’s true or not.”

National statistics have consistently suggested that approximately one in four college-age women encounter an experience that meets the legal definition of rape or attempted rape during their college years. Both national studies and a survey conducted at the University in 2004 confirm that the overwhelming majority of those incidents go unreported.

“What goes on at Wash. U. related to sexual assault and relationship violence is pretty similar to what’s happening at other schools nationally,” said Alan Glass, director of Student Health Services. “I don’t think we have more, I don’t think we have less. It’s really consistent.”

Confusion around campus

Despite the clear-cut definition allowed in the University judicial code and Missouri law, the perceived definition of sexual assault varies from student to student based on the circumstances of the case.

Both the University judicial code and Missouri law stipulate that a party under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot give consent, a provision that complicates many on-campus sexual encounters.

Even though both policies are clear on the issue of alcohol, for some students the issue is more ambiguous.

“It’s any non-consensual act,” senior Vir Singh said. “But I think consent is very ambiguous. If someone has been drinking, for instance, consent should be explicitly stated.”

Other students echoed Singh’s comment that alcohol may complicate how to determine if consent had been given.

“If alcohol is involved, it’s a whole different ball game,” freshman Lindsey Shapiro said.

Even beyond the murky issues of consent in relation to alcohol, many students are either unaware of the statistics about the frequency of sexual assault on campus or unconvinced by educational campaigns about the statistics.

Freshman Marc Gallant said he has a difficult time believing the most frequenttly repeated statistic that one in four college-aged women is the victim of rape or attempted rape during her time in college, especially since he does not know anyone on campus who has been a victim or a perpetrator.

“Just from the people I know at this school, I just don’t know anybody who would do that, although maybe I just don’t know those kinds of people who would do that,” Gallant said.

“I think a lot of it has to do with education level and the society you grew up in,” senior Elizabeth Kleinrock said. “Generally, the people who go to Wash. U. don’t come from those kinds of environments.”

The most recent survey of the University student body on the topic of sexual and relationship violence was the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, conducted in 2007. That survey found that 3.5 percent of women at the University reported penetration or attempted penetration against their will in the last 12 months, and 2.9 percent of women also reported verbal threats for sex against their will.

Some students like Singh and freshman Louis Gioia, on the other hand, do not doubt the accuracy of the statistic.

“I guess I believe it, but I don’t really know any people who this has happened to. I think it is possible though, because of the parties [on campus] where women can be taken advantage of,” Gioia said.

In spite of educational programs run by student groups devoted to rape education, the issue of sexual assault has not gained prominence in the campus’ eye as one worth fighting.

“The public’s perception of it isn’t quite what it would be if people knew how often it occurs,” Strom said. “If people knew that, maybe there would be more momentum for sorts of educational programs to help people understand the meaning of ‘No.’”

This is the first in a series of articles examining the issues of sexual assault and relationship violence on campus.