Every year, more than 71,000 American college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, and some 110,000 students reported being too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex.
Wendy Norris, a Denver-based freelance reporter, is a regular contributing writer working on special assignment to Rewire.
Just a month into the fall semester and news outlets are
already reporting dozens of alleged sexual assaults on college campuses across
Every year, more than 71,000 American college students
between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault
or date rape, according to a 2005 Boston University research study. And
upwards of 110,000 male and female students reported being too intoxicated to
know if they consented to having sex.
Yet, experts say the full extent of the problem is largely
underestimated since fewer than 10 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported
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Which makes the national rape and non-consensual sex
incidences among college students all the more shocking.
To Jane Curtis the challenge is not to convince young people
not to partake in drinking but to heighten LGBT and straight students’ personal
knowledge about risk-taking behavior and awareness of non-alcoholic campus
Last year, Curtis, who heads the University of
Colorado-Boulder’sAlcohol and Other Drugs Program, convinced school
officials last year to take part in AlcoholEdu, confidential online alcohol
awareness for incoming freshman that integrates information about sexual
A Boston-based public health company developed the program
in 2000, and today reaches more than 500,000
students at 500 American colleges and universities each year — or about 20
percent of the total private nonprofit and state-backed four-year degree
granting schools. The modules also anticipate the students’ educational needs.
As respondents reply to questions, teetotaling students take a different
curriculum than those who admit to some, heavy or binge drinking. Curtis notes
that the online segments can also be customized to embed information and links
to campus-specific resources.
The sexual assault section begins in chapter two. The module
runs the gamut from reading student-generated questions in an advice column
format, busting common myths, discussing consent and boundary-setting, and
providing tips on how to intervene in situations that could lead to unwanted sexual
In just its second year of implementation at CU-Boulder,
more than 3,500 students, or nearly 70 percent, of first-year students
participated in the voluntary program this semester. And Curtis said it’s
already having a dramatic effect.
"There is a greater understanding that the person who
is sexually assaulted is less responsible for the event," said Curtis
since students learned that both perpetrators and victims have frequently
consumed alcohol prior to the incident and that giving true consent is unlikely
when under the influence.
She also noted another encouraging trend: 260 students asked
to get more information from student organizations advocating for sexual
assault prevention on campus.
To Nathan Wickstrum, AlcoholEdu is decidedly not like D.A.R.E.,
the anti-drug and alcohol program ridiculed by kids as a modern-day
"Reefer Madness" scare tactic favored by local police departments.
Instead, it’s geared toward interactive game-savvy young people with a blunt,
no holds-bared reality television sensibility.
The Ojai, Calif., native and CU-Boulder freshman was
impressed with the sexual assault module. "It was one of the main focuses
of the program. They [explained] very specific forms of it and how to be okay
before you do anything with anyone," said Wickstrum who participated in
the program before he arrived on campus in August. "When we got to school,
we covered it again in an actual class setting and most kids were taking it
Obtaining thoughtful responses is critical to the
science-based Web tool because it feeds the world’s largest database on college
student drinking behavior.
Those responses, segmented by campus respondents, are
provided to schools to improve specific policies on alcohol use and enhance
personal safety for students.
Based on first year data, CU-Boulder is already expanding
alcohol-free student activities, like the Sobriety Weekend Challenge,
coed-intramural sports and events that integrate students into the Boulder
community at-large, that challenge the campus party culture that frequently
lead to risky situations.
Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”
She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.
In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.
Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.
When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.
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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.
The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.
Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.
Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. collegecampuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.
It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.
I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”
Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”
But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.
But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:
I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.
From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.
Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.
Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.
Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.
She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.
It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.
Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:
I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.
Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.
In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.
Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.
What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.
In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution. But I know firsthand that using this model can still cause violence to sex workers, because we don’t need treatment.
I am a native New Yorker and a product of its foster system. I’m currently a community organizer at the Red Umbrella Project, which works to build power with cis and trans women who are impacted by the criminalization of sex work in New York City.
In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Rather than jail time, judges offer defendants guilty pleas where, in exchange for attending multiple sessions at a “prostitution diversion program,” the defendant is granted an Adjournment in Contemplation for Dismissal, or ACD. After a probationary period, the charges are dropped, though local law enforcement retains a record of the arrest.
This system was modeled after the drug treatment courts, and it is spreading to states such as Illinois and Michigan. It aims to treat defendants as victims rather than criminals. But I know firsthand thatusing this model can still cause sex workers harm, because we don’t need treatment. Instead, we need meaningful engagement to give us the tools to create a better environment for ourselves on our own terms.
As a child, I was in foster care, trying to transition out on my own. I had the first of my three babies when I was 13. My foster mother would provide for my children with the money she got from the state, but not for me. I appealed to the foster agency to provide stipends for me to pay for clothing, but I was denied: The social worker that visited us felt that I had enough clothing, though most of it no longer fit me. So I began to take care of myself.
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Starting at the age of 15, whenever I needed clothes, school uniforms, or school supplies, I engaged in sex work. I engaged in sex work to keep my phone on, to have a way to reach mychild-care provider. I engaged in sex work to pay for basic things, like bus fare for when school was out, and for my personal care items.
In addition to being a teen mother, I was going to an alternative high school where they accept teens 16 and older who are deemed at risk or failing at “normal” high school. Passing or excelling was never actually a problem for me, but I didn’t get the grades I deserved because of my unexplained absences. No one could believe that a 16-year-old with two kids and pregnant with her third was capable of handling such a workload, so I was able to enroll in this school. There, they had a learning-to-work program. I was allowed to work 15 hours a week, making $7.25 an hour—still nothing compared to what I needed.
When I graduated from high school, things became even harder. I didn’t have the basic essentials I needed to be done with foster care and live on my own and I wasn’t able to get a job during the summer.Still, I was able to enroll in college in the fall.Meanwhile, I continued turning to the only thing I knew would make ends meet, which was sex work.
In August 2013, the day I was supposed to pick up my college schedule, I was arrested for prostitution. I never did the thingsthe police accused me of, like agreeing to sexual acts or taking money for sexual services, but they arrested me anyway. After 23 hours in jail, I finally saw a public defender. She prompted me to take a plea, so that I could get my six sessions of “treatment” and an ACD. I was 17 years old at the time. While in holdings, I was unable to use the bathroom because of the unsanitary conditions. Shortly after being released, I was admitted to the hospital for five days because of resulting health problems.
Later, my mandate was changed to ten sessions and an immediate ACD, instead of having to wait six months after completing the sessions to have my charge cleared. The whole process almost ended my journey to college before it even began.
I had missed my final opportunity to register for classes. I went to the school—I begged and pleaded to start on time. But to get back into school, I was forced to disclose my hospital record stay, as well as my arrest papers. The students working in the administration department, which was in charge of making decisions about how flexible to be about latecomers and scheduling them, now knew I had been arrested for prostitution. I also received a very long and uncomfortable “talk” from the school board about how I got to this place, in which they asked how I could manage what I had going on while I attended school. I had to divulge very personal, embarrassing, and sensitive information in order to save my semester.
And the court-mandated sessions didn’t help me. They entailed showing up to the “diversion program” and speaking to a woman who I believed really did want to help me but just didn’t understand the situation I was facing. Oftentimes I had to lie and say that everything was fine when it really wasn’t, just so I could return as quickly as possible to sorting things out on my own, as I usually did. If I didn’t lie, it could’ve extended my sessions—more time I didn’t need to waste.
As a teen mother, we are expected to fail and I wasn’t going to be that. I was going to be educated and financially responsible for my children. But it was impossible to do that trying to be everywhere at once.
It took me a couple of months to finish the court-mandated sessions at all, because I was trying to balance the program along with school, studies, and the life that comes with being in foster care like meetings and visits from social workers. I lived in Brooklyn, my college was in Staten Island, and my program was in Harlem. From my house, it usually took around two hours to get to school, and that travel included a bus, a train, a ferry, and a campus bus that only operated during the week. So on weekends, I could be subjected to the unreliable Staten Island MTA bus services as I tried to get to my Saturday classes. If I went to college and failed to do the programs, the police would arrest me. They would put a warrant out for me and then arrest me possibly with my kids watching or with my college peers watching. But it was physically impossible for me to get to school and try to go to my programs too. Eventually, I just had to drop out of college—the one thing could have helped me in the long run.
The treatment program the courts provided was not a good fit for me. I didn’t need to be treated for sex work. That isn’t an illness. All the sessions did were occupy my time in ways that weren’t at all useful. I really needed that time for more important tasks. The sessions hampered my ability to create a better environment for myself and my children so I wouldn’t have to rely on sex work.
They didn’t give me what I needed, either. They gave me options that didn’t fit my situation, suggesting that I just stop sex work and my life would be magically improved. Stopping sex work for me means not being able to make money. All the odds were stacked against me. Nobody was hiring a 18-year-old parent of three young children with a full college schedule.
It wasn’t until after I was finished with the programs and the court that the damage was really done.I had dropped out of school. I had to postpone my journey out of foster care. I was living off part-time work at Payless, still barely meeting the needs of my children and myself.
However, thanks to the Legal Aid Society, I was referred to the Red Umbrella Project for voluntary job assistance and training. The Red Umbrella Project and similar groups center people like me and our needs in a way that most programs ignore. They offer the things that we really need, like real job assistance that includes comprehensive resume writing and networking, housing resources, leadership opportunities, and health resources. My colleagues and I at the Red Umbrella Project pay attention to each member and also understand that one size doesn’t fit all models. But most importantly, we take care of each other as a community, not just as clients.
All I ever wanted to do is show everyone that teen mothers can be successful. Without an alternative, I made choices that I needed to do in order to take care of myself. It shouldn’t have taken me getting arrested and violated by the police and courts to hear my needs. There are bigger problems that needs to be addressed that aren’t, because this whole system was created without the input of the people filtering through it. Without our voices, it will continue to inflict harm and violence to us, the people that are supposedly “victims.”