In College Rape Disputes, Is the Woman the Victim Even When She's the Perpetrator?

A messy encounter at Washington State University.


Candy29c / wikimedia

Most of the sexual assaults—and alleged sexual assaults—that occur on college campuses are perpetrated by males. But not all of them.

A Washington State University student was accused of luring an intoxicated student to a private dorm room, making sure no one else could get in, and committing sexual acts on an incapacitated victim. This victim was male. The perpetrator, "Rose," was female.

She recently told her story to BuzzFeed News. The story, written by a reporter named Ema O'Connor, was remarkably sympathetic to Rose—to an extent that causes me to wonder whether reversing the genders in rape disputes would always have a similar effect.

The incident happened in January of 2014, during Rose's second semester at the university. She found herself playing a drinking game with a male student she had a crush on, and a bunch of his friends. Both Rose and the male student consumed far too much alcohol, but the male was in significantly worse shape, according to the university's investigation, which concluded that he had been too drunk to meaningfully consent to sex.

Rose led him back to her dorm room, where they engaged in various sex acts (mostly oral sex, according to accounts). The male student tried to leave at various points, but Rose pleaded with him to stay. Eventually his friends came looking for him, concerned that he wasn't aware of what he was doing. He finally escaped from Rose and hid in a closet.

It was Rose's first sexual encounter. The BuzzFeed article notes that she is overweight and was not particularly popular with this group of students. In the days following the encounter, some students made fun of the male for having sex with Rose. Others told him he had been taken advantage of. A residence advisor found out about the incident, and the campus's Title IX authorities were alerted. As is often the case in these disputes, it's not clear that the victim saw himself as such at the outset of the investigation. Rose was forced out of her dorm immediately—before the investigation had even commenced—in order to create a safe space for her alleged victim.

Rose filed a counter-accusation—not because she actually thought she had been raped, but "to prove a point." The university dismissed her complaint, reckoning that she wasn't as intoxicated as the male student, and as such, should have known what she was doing was wrong. She was ultimately expelled for sexual misconduct.

This is a tricky dispute, and the BuzzFeed story treats it that way. Obviously, Rose was naïve, and shouldn't have engaged in sexual acts with a black-out drunk person. And she shouldn't have bullied him into staying with her. But do these actions make her a rapist? Was she actually a threat to public safety? Should she have been expelled? It doesn't seem to be the case that she defied a direct request from the male student to cease all sexual activity. If she's guilty, she's guilty because of affirmative consent: in the university's view, her victim was incapable of consenting, even if he appeared capable to Rose.

I think a reasonable person could conclude that Rose's bad behavior was not serious enough to merit formal disciplinary measures. But if the genders were reversed, would the perpetrator be seen in such a sympathetic light? Consider that the BuzzFeed article details all the consequences that the perpetrator—not the victim, but the perpetrator—has suffered. O'Connor writes:

Rose, who asked to be identified by her middle name, is now 21. She was at WSU on a scholarship and was on track to graduate this May as prelaw with criminal justice and political science majors. She was recently laid off from a minimum-wage retail job due to cutbacks.

Rose applied to WSU's neighboring school, the University of Idaho — which would accept the third-party scholarship she is on — but said she was rejected because their public safety board said her disciplinary record was "a risk."

And here I was thinking that we were supposed to shame and denounce people for sympathizing with perpetrators of sexual assault. We have just witnessed an all-out media attack on everyone perceived as remotely sympathetic to Brock Turner—anyone who mentioned the fact that his life is ruined, or that he will never be an Olympic swimmer, was derided as a victim-blamer. (Admittedly, Turner's failings are far more serious than Rose's, and he was rightly convicted of sexual assault.)

In any case, If Rose's victim, or the victim's friends, really believed he had been sexually assaulted, perhaps someone should have called the police. The Turner outcome demonstrates that rape disputes can be handled by the police in a manner that achieves some justice for the victim, particularly when there are witnesses to the crime.

On the other hand, if the male student didn't see himself as the victim of a crime, perhaps it wasn't the university's business to reclassify a messy encounter between a bunch of drunken teenagers as a sexual assault.

(Related: Brock Turner Case Proves That Activists Are Wrong About Campus Rape Trials)