Olivia Ortiz was 17 when she arrived at the University of Chicago five years ago. She was bright and studious and aspired to live a life of the mind—a common aspiration among U. of C. students. She says now that she was sheltered; she’d attended a mostly female charter school in Phoenix and knew little about boys. She did know a bit about sexual harassment after working one summer at a movie theater. She made a game of dressing grungily enough to avoid getting hit on by customers, yet not so grungily that her boss would send her home.
During Orientation Week she attended the mandatory presentations on campus safety, which included a comedy program called Sex Signals, meant to educate students about rape prevention. Her classmates laughed nervously at the part about anal sex. The student orientation leaders jokingly passed out rape whistles—because who, in the history of college rape prevention, has ever actually used a rape whistle?—and earnestly told first-year students to avoid going south of 60th Street.
In the fall of her second year Ortiz began dating a fourth-year. He was her first boyfriend, the first guy she’d ever kissed. At the beginning they had a discussion about sexual boundaries. Ortiz was firm.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want contact with your genitals, I don’t want you touching my genitals. I’m not comfortable, I’m not interested.’ He did it anyway. He made me touch him where I didn’t want to.” (The Reader e-mailed him twice requesting an interview; he did not respond.)
Ortiz felt uneasy. “Something’s wrong here,” she remembers thinking. Near the end of the school year, in the spring of 2012, Ortiz confided in a friend, Mich Elliott (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns). Ortiz knew Elliott had had a similar experience the year before.
“My boyfriend had admitted he touched me several times when I was asleep,” Elliott says. “One time, he put his finger in my vagina.” Elliott wasn’t sure how to handle this revelation at the time. “I looked up the exact, legal definition of rape,” Elliott remembers now. “I just googled ‘legal definition of rape, Illinois.’ It was specific about unconsciousness, and there was penetration. I ‘got to’ call it rape.” (Elliott’s former boyfriend also did not respond to the Reader‘s e-mailed request for an interview.)
Elliott hadn’t reported the boyfriend—”I didn’t know what that would accomplish”—and was in fact still dating him, so felt in no position to offer advice, only information. “This is all very bad,” Elliott remembers telling Ortiz. “I told her about the clear-cut penetration thing. I said, ‘That’s rape, in the legal definition.’ ”
One night shortly after that conversation, Ortiz says, she had too much to drink and fell asleep at her boyfriend’s apartment. There, Ortiz says, he held her down, put his finger in her vagina, and then ejaculated onto her stomach. “It was the most graphic assault,” she says. “I hadn’t used alcohol before. He was sober. He was supposed to take care of me. It was very terrible. I woke up feeling very gross, just terrible.”
They broke up shortly afterward. “I realized there were so many things wrong,” Ortiz says. “I didn’t know what to do.”
She told her campus job supervisor and mentor, who called the university’s sexual assault dean on call. At the U. of C., the deans on call are the first responders to any sort of disciplinary issue. They’ve received training from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault and are supposed to provide support to students and advise them about further options.
The sexual assault dean on call referred Ortiz to Susan Art, then the dean of students for undergrads. At a meeting the following day, Ortiz described to Art in detail what had happened, and Art told Ortiz she had three options: she could file a report with the university police, the university could bring Ortiz’s now ex-boyfriend in for a disciplinary hearing, or Art could do an informal mediation between Ortiz and her ex.
At the time Ortiz didn’t realize that filing a police report wasn’t the same as pressing charges. A police report merely documents that something happened; pressing charges sends that documentation on to the legal system. She didn’t file a report with U. of C. or Chicago police. “I was raised Mexican-American in Arizona,” she says. “I was taught to fear the police, to fear that the police were going to deport me and my family.” The hearing process, she thought, would be long and arduous. And by now it was already finals week and the day before graduation. She chose the mediation. She didn’t quite know what to expect from it, but she thought it would be a quick way to resolve the situation before her ex-boyfriend graduated. They each met with Art separately, and then they met all at once.
“So it was him, me, and my boss, and Dean Art sitting around a table discussing what had happened,” Ortiz recalls. “It was the worst moment. I was crying. I was terrified. She was placating to me, chastising to him.”
Ortiz now believes that the mediation was unfair to her ex too: she had a support person there, but he had none.
After the mediation, Art told Ortiz that the university didn’t consider her complaint sexual assault.
Art has since retired and did not respond to the Reader‘s request for comment by e-mail or through the university. While university officials were willing to discuss the school’s policies, they said in a statement: “In view of the limitations imposed by federal law that protects student privacy, the University cannot comment on administrative processes concerning individual students.”
Ten days later, Ortiz had a follow-up meeting with Art. In the interim she’d gone to the student counseling center where, she says, her counselor asked her what she expected from sleeping in a man’s bed. “I was feeling bad,” she remembers. “I felt like I was being a burden.” She asked the dean if she had asked her to do too much. “She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. My job is to mediate disputes between students.'”
That was the moment when, for Ortiz, everything started to change. “I realized this was not being treated with gravity,” she remembers. “It was being treated like a roommate dispute.”
It would take the better part of a year for Ortiz to find the words to explain why she felt so uneasy. Since then, though, the conversation about rape on campus, both at the U. of C. and nationally, has grown exponentially into a full-fledged social movement. In a sexual misconduct climate survey conducted at the U. of C. last spring 11 percent of undergraduate students and 16 percent of undergraduate women reported they had been the victim of a sexual assault. The Association of American Universities released a study of 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities just this week, which estimates that 16.5 percent of college students have been assaulted at some point during their college career; those numbers are higher for women and transgender students, at 26.1 percent and 29.5 percent respectively. Ortiz, Elliott, and other student rape victims/survivors have become, in Ortiz’s words, radicalized. And many universities, including the University of Chicago, have been working hard to keep up.
This week is the U. of C.’s Orientation Week for the class of 2019, when the university will put into practice some of the ideas and theories students and administrators have been discussing over the past two years. If the true indication of how much knowledge you’ve absorbed is your ability to pass it on, this week will be the first test of how much the University of Chicago has learned.
For the past three years the UChicago Clothesline Project has been collecting stories from rape victims in the U. of C. community through anonymous online submissions. Each story becomes a T-shirt, hand-painted by a volunteer. The group displays the shirts several times a year as a public art project.
“We want to give survivors a voice,” says Veronica Portillo Heap, one of the project’s directors last school year and herself a survivor.
“Survivors always have a voice,” corrects her codirector, Sydelle Keisler, also a survivor. “They’re afraid to use it. We want to help amplify their voices, to give them more agency.”
Ortiz and Elliott joined the project in its first year.
“That was the first time I’d been in a room with self-identified, out survivors other than me and Olivia,” Elliott recalls. “It was one of the first times I’d talked about it out loud. It went, in my eyes, from a nonissue on campus to us having an exhibit. It was a total transformation.”
The Clothesline Project has now accumulated about 175 shirts. The display has grown from a dozen shirts hanging in front of a bulletin board in the Reynolds Club, the student center, to a full-fledged clothesline, made of PVC pipe and twine, that stretches across the courtyard outside.
The project held its spring installation during a cold and blustery week in late May, to coincide with the university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week. It was a sad and sobering display that encapsulated many rape victims’. experiences and feelings. About half the stories came from the writers’ years at U. of C.
My rapist graduated. I’m still here.
Some were about childhood assault or abuse.
I was raped 10 years ago. I just said it aloud last month.
Most of the writers were women who had been abused by men, but some of the victims were men, and some of the abusers were women. Many of the rapists weren’t strangers but people the victims already knew. Oftentimes victims weren’t believed by the authorities.
The cops refused to arrest. They said it was a “learning moment.”
Their rapists felt they’d done nothing wrong, they wrote. This sometimes made it hard for the victims to accept what had happened. Some felt they didn’t have the right to complain.
I was assaulted while doing fieldwork abroad. This happens so often. I’d heard of and seen so much worse. I consider myself lucky. (“Not a big deal.” “Cost of doing a PhD.”)
Some of the messages were empowering.
Breaking the silence made me a stronger woman. Raise hell and fuck shit up because rape is never OK.
But the majority dealt with feelings of shame, worthlessness, and betrayal by people and institutions they trusted.
This university failed me and covered up my assault.
Fuck you, Dean Art.
“The university and perpetrators don’t want that stuff up,” Keisler said, looking out at the shirts flapping in the wind. Three university tours had passed the display so far that day. “Survivors are told not to talk about it, especially not publicly. This is a form of resistance.”
It’s also part of a national movement. The UChicago Clothesline Project started not in response to something that had happened at the university, but in response to an essay published in the Amherst College student paper in October 2012 by Angie Epifano, a former Amherst student.
Epifano’s story began in the spring of her freshman year, when an acquaintance raped her in his dorm room. She described her subsequent depression and panic attacks in harrowing detail, relaying how college administrators refused to let her change dorm rooms to avoid her rapist, dissuaded her from seeking a disciplinary hearing, and told her she was too emotionally volatile to think clearly. After Epifano finally withdrew from Amherst, she learned that the college was notorious among victim advocates for the administration’s indifference to sexual assault. In the past school year alone, a lawyer told her, there had been at least ten assaults on a campus of 1,800 students; most of the rapists went unpunished. Epifano was appalled both at the scope of the problem and at the college’s seeming to care more about its reputation than it did about its students.
“Why can’t we know what is really happening on campus?” she wrote. “Why should we be quiet about sexual assault?”
Epifano’s essay went viral and had almost an immediate effect. In an open letter to the campus community, Amherst president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin wrote that the college’s response to sexual assault survivors “must change, and change immediately” and organized a series of open meetings to discuss revamping the college’s policies.
At the U. of C. the story became a call to arms. In an op-ed for the student newspaper the Maroon, fifth-year student Christina Pillsbury wrote how Epifano had inspired her to tell her own story about being raped in high school. Before, she’d been too ashamed to tell anyone and afraid that her rapists would retaliate. She wondered how many other students felt the same way, and how many had experiences like Epifano’s. What if they shared their stories too? And what if university administrators responded, and let student rape victims know they cared and could help?
“We as a community could then begin to eradicate the oppressive shame inflicted on us and challenge the system that put it there in the first place,” she wrote. “If we all tell our stories, we can then attempt to address what stopped us from telling them before.”
The more the students involved with the Clothesline Project talked, the more they realized that the lack of discussion about rape on campus was not just about shame. It was also about how little they’d been told about the university resources available to them. Until Ortiz’s work supervisor called the sexual assault dean on call, for instance, Ortiz and Elliott had thought that was something you could only do if you’d been raped at a frat party or by the proverbial stranger hiding in the bushes—the two most prevalent rape narratives—and had sustained some sort of injury and needed to go to the hospital. The other university resources, they felt, were more about preventing rape from happening than dealing with it when it actually happened.
There had been student activism around this issue before. In the late 90s a coalition of students met with the administration with a list of demands for improving sexual assault prevention and response, including better-trained administrators and a single office designed to handle rape allegations and coordinate investigations. But when those students graduated, the discussions stopped. In 2010 the student body voted on a referendum to reform the sexual assault policy; once again, a student committee met with the administration. The same week Epifano’s essay went viral, Maroon reporters Joy Crane and Hannah Nyhart published the first installment of a six-part investigation into how the reforms were progressing.
“If you’re raped, you’re not smart. The culture here is so wrapped up in being smart it can’t comprehend that happening.”
The results were not encouraging. Rape isn’t an easy crime to investigate or prosecute. It largely takes place in private, with no other witnesses besides the accuser and the accused. Often there are no signs of physical force or injury. Many times drugs and alcohol are involved, and memories are hazy. Sometimes, in cases like Elliott’s or Ortiz’s, victims don’t recognize it as rape because it doesn’t fit the standard story (frat party, bushes). Sometimes victims don’t report the crime until long after the fact. And many times victims blame themselves—they shouldn’t have been drinking, they shouldn’t have been in that room alone with that person, they somehow should have known.
Ortiz observes that there’s another variation on this line of thought that’s particular to the U. of C.: “If you’re raped, you’re not smart. The culture here is so wrapped up in being smart it can’t comprehend that happening. One of the biggest struggles I’ve had intellectually is that I’m data- and proof-driven, and in a just world, this couldn’t have happened.”
The 1990 Jeanne Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding (that is, most colleges and universities, even private schools like the University of Chicago) to disclose to the Department of Education the number of criminal offenses, including rape, reported to campus security or local law enforcement. In 2012 the U. of C. reported five forcible sex offenses. Ortiz’s complaint was not among them.
Because of the nature of the crime, critics find Clery data incomplete. Even administrators are skeptical. “We recognize, obviously, that Clery is an important data point, but we also know there are limitations because of the way Clery’s geography is defined,” says Michele Rasmussen, the university’s dean of students since summer 2013. The Clery Act requires schools to report crimes committed within specific geographic parameters; the university says it investigates no matter where a crime takes place. “We tend to address what we see in front of us rather than Clery,” Rasmussen says.
Still, despite these flaws, Clery remains the only publicly available data about crime on campus. And from a marketing standpoint, it’s not in the university’s best interest to have high Clery numbers. “The schools that ignore the problem have fewer reports and look more safe, whereas the schools that encourage victim reporting have more reports and look less safe,” legal scholar Nancy Chi Cantalupo wrote in a 2011 article for the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.
“The university wants to get across the message that it doesn’t happen here,” Portillo Heap says. “Universities care about their brands. It’s not in their best interest for alumni to know.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five women and one in 16 men is assaulted during college; nearly 90 percent of those rapes go unreported. (And because these rapes are unreported, these are by no means exact statistics and are therefore controversial.) A survey by the Center for Public Integrity discovered that the most common reason college rape victims didn’t report was “institutional barriers,” including discouraging administrators and unclear procedures. Other victims have said they didn’t report because they were afraid of being mistreated or not believed.
For their investigation, the Maroon reporters talked to university staffers who laid out the disciplinary hearing procedure and counseling options, as well as students who had used those procedures and resources. Staff believed they were offering students acknowledgment and support. And though students appreciated a few of the changes and improvements, such as the sexual assault dean on-call program and an active campus survivors’ group, they didn’t completely agree. They thought the process was confusing, and some resented that those students accused of assault seemed to have more access to information about the case than the victims did.
Ortiz was among the students interviewed. She told the reporters about her experience with Dean Art and allowed them to use her real name. “I can’t win either way,” she says now, explaining her decision to speak out. “If I don’t talk, I suffer. If I talk, I suffer. I might as well talk.”
In the article the reporters quoted an official university policy statement that read, “Mediation and/or informal resolution are not appropriate, even on a voluntary basis, in matters involving allegations of sexual assault.” In other words, because Ortiz’s complaint had been sexual assault, Art should not have offered mediation as an option.
This was news to Ortiz. Art told the reporters that she was unable to comment on the case, but after the article was published, she sent Ortiz an e-mail saying that she remembered things differently and suggested that they meet to discuss the incident. Ortiz wasn’t sure how to respond and didn’t. Her parents, however, told her to see a lawyer.
That February, Ortiz met with Jennifer Escalante, a lawyer at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. Escalante explained to her that the university had violated her rights under Title IX. Until then Ortiz had thought the 1972 law (coauthored by then U.S. representative Patsy Mink, a U. of C. Law alum) referred only to sports. She learned that it also meant she had the right to reasonable accommodations and services—such as a disciplinary hearing instead of informal mediation—so she could continue her education. Although the U. of C., like all universities that receive federal funding, has a Title IX coordinator on campus, Ortiz didn’t know such a person existed.
“It was hard to hear that my school had betrayed me in that way,” Ortiz says. “It was like the way [Elliott] had validated what had happened. Here’s the paradox: It’s good to be validated, but it was about a horrific thing.”
Ortiz also learned that a university operates under a different standard of justice than the legal system. Illinois has more victim-centered laws than many other states—it defines rape as “sexual penetration by force or threat of force or an act of sexual penetration when the victim was unable to understand the nature of the act or was unable to give knowing consent.” More than half the states don’t bother with the consent part, only the part about force. Nonetheless, in criminal court, the prosecution still needs to offer proof beyond all reasonable doubt that a rape occurred, either by force or lack of consent. Consequently, only 2 or 3 percent of accused rapists ever spend a day in jail.
In 2011, Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, issued a 19-page letter that laid out guidelines for colleges and universities to handle sexual assault and harassment complaints in compliance with Title IX. Among its requirements was that all universities that receive federal funding (including the University of Chicago) apply a “preponderance of evidence” standard in sexual assault disciplinary hearings. Meaning, the charge needs to be supported by the majority of evidence instead of beyond reasonable doubt. A student found “responsible” for sexual assault wouldn’t be sent to jail; instead the university would decide on the punishment.
“Some students just want to be able to go to school and finish their degree and move on,” explains Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago nonprofit that works with victims and petitions for changes in the legal system. “They’re not interested in a long, drawn-out process; they’re not interested in the criminal legal system either. Oftentimes the person who perpetrated the harm is someone the victim knows and cares about. Their first thought may not be ‘I want this person to go to jail.’ They just want to be left alone and they don’t want to be retraumatized every time they turn the corner on their campus.”
That might have been a satisfying solution for Ortiz. She had wanted someone to acknowledge that her boyfriend had assaulted her, and that it wasn’t normal or right. She wanted someone to support and believe her and take her seriously. Instead, she realized, Art had treated her complaint not as a crime but as a difference of opinion that could be resolved through mediation.
In April 2013, Escalante filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on Ortiz’s behalf. The final question on the form asked, “What would you like the institution to do as a result of your complaint—what remedy are you seeking?”
Escalante wrote: “Ms. Ortiz would like an acknowledgement from the University of Chicago that she reported a sexual assault and it should not have been classified as a dispute between students remediable by an Informal Mediation. . . . It appears as though her case was treated as sexual harassment and not sexual assault and perhaps there should be explicit procedures in place at the University to ensure proper categorization for sexual assault to ensure that a situation like hers can be better handled.”
Based on the complaint and also the Maroon article, the Office for Civil Rights decided in June 2013 to investigate Ortiz’s case. That September she met with an OCR attorney for a five-hour interview. She was told the investigation would take six months. In January, OCR informed the university it was expanding the investigation to include the university’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures, including interviews with faculty members and students besides Ortiz. The university said in a statement that it was “committed to complying with Title IX and places the highest priority on protecting the safety of members of our community. The University has been fully cooperating with OCR’s inquiry.”
As the Clothesline Project grew and the student movement against sexual assault began to organize, Ortiz, Elliott, and another student, Yun-ke Chin-Lee, decided to form their own group for survivors that would offer emotional support and practical advice, including making legal terms understandable to college students. Unlike the support group at the student health center, it would be open to all students, not just women. They called it the Phoenix Survivors Alliance, a nod to both the notion of rising up after a catastrophe and the mythical bird on the university logo.
Their first project was a guidebook. “We talked about what consent is, what different kinds of abuse are, common feelings, ways to help, legal avenues, disciplinary avenues, counseling, on- and off-campus hotlines,” remembers Elliott. “It was totally comprehensive.”
They realized that much of the advice about rape prevention put all the responsibility and onus on the potential rape victims: don’t walk alone at night, don’t drink too much, kick him in the balls.
Over the years the university had adjusted its Orientation Week programs, placing more emphasis on consent and the need for students to look out for one another, especially at parties where people were drinking. But the activists felt education needed to go farther.
“In the Sex Signals discussion, they gave you a scenario where a guy assaults a girl,” Keisler says. “Then they ask you to raise your hand if you think it’s his fault or her fault or both. And so many people said both, because she’s drunk. And I was like, fuck! These are my classmates! They’re validating that this is an OK question to ask in an orientation discussion. It was disconcerting.”
Instead of teaching students “Don’t get raped,” the activists thought, maybe the university should change its message to “Don’t be a rapist.”
But what is a rapist? Rape is a monstrous crime—and yet so common. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 80 percent of the time, a rapist is someone the victim already knows. If you’re a college student, your rapist could be living down the hall from you, or sitting behind you in an econ lecture.
Statistically speaking, a male college student runs a greater risk of being raped himself than of being falsely accused of raping someone else.
“We want to believe that you can see or identify someone as being a rapist or being someone who could potentially cause you harm from the very beginning,” says victims’ advocate Sharmili Majmudar. “It’s very frightening to think that someone who is charming or well liked—or someone you would like to go out on a date with, or somebody you’re attracted to and want to have sex with—that someone like that could assault you.”
Ortiz doesn’t think her ex-boyfriend would have considered what he did to her an assault. “He was a self-proclaimed feminist,” she says, “read the New York Times, a good liberal.”
Psychologists, lawyers, and sociologists have been trying to figure out rapists for decades. Freud thought they had inadequate mothers. Second-wave feminists believed they had a general hatred of all women. Evolutionary biologists have theorized that rape is an unfortunate side effect of the male biological imperative to scatter their seed. A widely cited study at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that most rapists are serial predators who deliberately identify likely victims and plan their attacks. When on trial, accused rapists have defended themselves by claiming it wasn’t rape, it was miscommunication.
Rape victims, of course, see things differently. “We hear from survivors that they were crying, that they were screaming, that they said ‘no,’ that they pushed the person away, or they begged them to stop, or they just laid there and didn’t engage at all,” Majmudar says. “Those are not the activities of someone where there’s a communication issue.”
Majmudar and many others believe that ultimately rapists rape because they value their own sexual gratification over the will of another human being.
Ortiz believes that is why her boyfriend assaulted her. She doesn’t think he had a system or strategy for preying on women. “My ex was very sexually inexperienced,” she says. “It was a tool he used against me. He’d say, ‘I want to experience this with you.’ He said he’d feel bad for having urges because he was a feminist. He complained about blue balls.”
Elliott says their boyfriend used similar language. “He ‘couldn’t help but do this,'” Elliott remembers. “Not that he was blaming me, but he couldn’t help himself. I didn’t consent to any sex we ever had.”
Recent studies have shown that adolescence—and all the hormonal surges and impulsive behavior this implies—can last until the mid-20s. And while not all men are rapists, the majority of rapists are men. Over the past ten years a useful term has emerged to explain why young men feel they can act on their impulses: rape culture.
“The culture teaches boys to take what they want and define themselves by how many women they sleep with,” explains Kate Harding, author of the new book Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—And What We Can Do About It.
“They see sex as something women withhold that men have to find a way to get. They don’t allow young women sexual agency. Nobody tells them, ‘Someday you’ll grow up and find a girl who wants to have sex with you, and it will be great.’ No one ever says to them, ‘Women are human beings, just like you.’ ”
Rape culture, Harding says, does acknowledge the horribleness of rape in a way, mostly by denying that it ever happens the way a victim claims. Victims are lying bitches: either they asked for it and then regretted it afterward, or they just made the whole thing up. The perpetrator becomes the victim. The worst thing that can happen to a man is being accused of rape.
As with many statistics involving rape, the frequency of false rape accusations is hard to pin down. Most experts estimate it’s between 2 and 10 percent. False reports tend to fulfill all the classic rape stereotypes (a stranger, violence). It’s a clear-cut case, a prosecutor’s dream—and the opposite of most actual rape cases. Statistically speaking, a male college student runs a greater risk of being raped himself than of being falsely accused of raping someone else.
Rape apologists—such as the hundreds of thousands of Internet commenters on any story about rape—often argue that a sexual assault accusation can ruin a young man’s life, particularly when the accused is a young, upper-class white man. These comments ignore or minimize the lasting effects an assault can have on the victim. For example, assault survivors are more likely to suffer from depression and PTSD and to abuse drugs and alcohol. The effects of trauma don’t always appear immediately. Sometimes they’re delayed for months or even years.
Ortiz knows this firsthand. “Going to class became harder and harder,” she wrote in an essay in the Maroon in June 2014, two years after her assault. “I could barely finish my assignments. My extracurricular participation grew nonexistent. I was slowly morphing into an unrecognizable creature, rife with sadness, disgust, and caging emptiness.”
Ortiz had previously taken medication for anxiety and had shown symptoms of bipolar disorder, though she wasn’t formally diagnosed until this year. After the assault she’d started drinking more, and the pressure of filing the complaint made her start to feel suicidal. In April 2013, she checked herself into the psychiatric ward at Lakeshore Hospital, where she was diagnosed with PTSD. When she was released a week later, she had a meeting with Marianne West, the associate dean for undergrads, about taking a leave of absence from school.
In an e-mail a few days later, West wrote, “It seems the wisest course of action to dedicate yourself to the [intensive outpatient] process and continued individual treatment so that the issues which have caused so much psychic pain can be alleviated.” West wrote that Ortiz wouldn’t be allowed to return to school without medical clearance from a psychiatrist at the student counseling service.
Ortiz attempted to go back to school in fall 2013 and again in fall 2014 but withdrew both times. Leaving the U. of C. for another school wasn’t an option, she says: “My transcript is so riddled with bad grades and withdrawals, I don’t think I’d be able to transfer.” Ortiz asked the school to reimburse her for tuition from the quarters she withdrew. Through its lawyer, the university told her it would consider her request after the investigation had concluded. Still, she’s determined to finish her education and graduate from the U. of C. Meanwhile, she says, her ex-boyfriend has graduated and moved on. She resents that too.
“They’re not punished by the school,” she says of men like her ex. “They let them graduate. They make it easy. For me, it’s been hard.”
This is a problem far greater than university rules and regulations. The solution requires a shift in thinking, a completely different way of looking at sexual assault and why people do it. The student activists realized they would have to include the entire campus in the conversation they’d been having largely among themselves. And the university administration agreed. In summer 2014 and again in 2015, it announced major revisions of its sexual misconduct policy.
One of the first things the university did was to centralize the complaint process for sexual misconduct in one office instead of several and to make it more transparent for all the students involved. In September 2014 it hired Jeremy Inabinet to be the new associate dean for disciplinary affairs, charged with receiving and investigating all reports and accusations of sexual misconduct. (Inabinet had spent the previous seven years doing similar work at Loyola.) He’s also become a regular and visible presence on campus, meeting with individual students and student groups, asking for feedback on the new policies, and holding a public Q&A session during Sexual Assault Awareness Week.
When complaints come in, Inabinet says he’s careful to explain all the options to students—he has a checklist to ensure that every student gets the exact same information. He’s careful to emphasize what each option entails, for example, that informal mediation is only for a case of sexual harassment, not assault. If a student decides to go through the formal complaint process, both the complainant and respondent meet separately with Inabinet so they can speak freely, and at the end of the investigation, going into the final hearing, both are privy to the same information: written statements and Inabinet’s final report based on interviews with the complainant, respondent, and witnesses.
“We want everybody to hear everything that’s going into the decision making,” he says, “so they have an opportunity to respond, comment, add information to it themselves . . . so that there’s no confusion about what’s being used to make the decision in that case.”
A student can also file a concurrent police report, but most choose to do only one or the other.
As suggested by the 2011 Department of Education letter, the standard of justice in a university hearing is preponderance of evidence, not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. The committee in a disciplinary hearing is composed of faculty, staff, and students, all trained in how to examine evidence. The first thing they look for, Inabinet says, is whether sexual activity occurred. Then they try to determine whether force was used and whether either or both the accused and accuser were incapacitated. When there’s force, or when the victim is incapacitated, there can be no consent; therefore, it’s an assault. “But if there’s no force, there’s no incapacitation, then you turn to consent and you look at the words, the actions that were done,” Inabinet says. Then, in what amounts to a major shift in the way these cases are handled, “The burden’s placed on the individual obtaining consent.”
The investigations, Inabinet says, usually take about 30 to 60 days from initial complaint to hearing.
Had this system been in place back in 2012, Ortiz might have had an easier time filing a complaint with the university. The case would have required a disciplinary hearing instead of a simple mediation. She might have felt that someone was listening to her and taking her complaint seriously.
But maybe punishment shouldn’t be the only consequence of a disciplinary hearing. “There should be an education program,” says Keisler, the student activist. “Anyone who is found guilty of committing sexual violence on a college campus should be required to complete intensive consent training.”
Education can also, in theory, prevent a rape from happening. The first step is writing a clear definition of consent. The second is making sure everyone understands it. The third is making it so much part of the culture that consent becomes a matter of course. “You shouldn’t have to be on the defensive,” Elliott says.
The university’s updated policy on harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct went into effect in July. It discusses romantic and sexual relationships between students and faculty and any other campus pairing where there’s an unequal power dynamic and explains the parameters of confidentiality. And crucially, it has a lengthy explanation of consent: what it is, what it is not, and why it should not be automatically assumed. It also explains that silence and lack of resistance doesn’t necessarily constitute consent.
“Because people are not telepathic,” it reads, “consent is best obtained through direct communication.”
Though the students are happy the university is starting to listen and change its policies, they find it hard not to be a little cynical about the reason behind the changes.
“This stuff worries them, the reputation thing, how it affects the name,” says the Clothesline Project’s Portillo Heap. “They love the brand. They spend a lot of resources maintaining their image. It’s a PR problem.”
They’re also a little cynical about the timing.
“They sent out an e-mail that said they were changing the policy because they were a proactive institution and committed to students,” Ortiz recalls. “I said, ‘No you aren’t, you’re just doing this because of the investigation.'”
She told the Maroon that she’d been the student who filed the complaint. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the school taking the credit for my and other activists’ work.”
University administrators say that they’d been working on changing the policy even before the Office for Civil Rights investigation. “The University of Chicago has actually been addressing these issues consistently through policy changes and updates and the creation of brand-new policies since the early 2000s,” says Michele Rasmussen, dean of students for the university. “This has been a consistent thing.”
Overall, though, the student activists are pleased with the new policy. Last May, just before finals, members of the Phoenix Survivors Alliance staged a protest at the administration building and presented a list of demands to Rasmussen and two other administrators. They wanted the university to provide more comprehensive consent education during Orientation Week and to post online the rights of sexual assault victims and a semiannual report of the results of disciplinary hearings. They also wanted the university to create a community response team to work on ending sexual violence, and to include students (in particular victims and activists) on committees that deal with the assault policy.
Though Rasmussen didn’t speak with the students the day of the protest—an administrative assistant told the protesters that she and the other administrators were in meetings—she did e-mail them the next day to set up a meeting the following week. “I’m grateful to the students for keeping us on our toes and helping us with the process and the changes we’ve made,” she says.
The university is setting up a new website for students that will include information about resources and policies, an online form for reporting an assault, and annual disciplinary statistics. Over the summer a few students had a conference call with Inabinet to discuss orientation. The university will still be using the Sex Signals program, and there will still be a discussion of bystander intervention. But, says Inabinet, “A big goal that we have in orientation, one of our key takeaways for students, is for people to know that it’s not OK to assault other people and if you do things like this, it will be handled. Rapes are committed by rapists, right?”
For the first time, grad students will have a live orientation instead of just going through an online module, which will provide more information specific to the U. of C.
“It includes the information we wanted,” Portillo Heap says of the orientation program.
“The burden’s placed on the individual obtaining consent.”
“The university is taking a stand on it, commenting on it,” adds Simone Brandford-Altsher, a member of the Phoenix Survivors Alliance and one of the students on the phone call with Inabinet. “That’s good. They’re addressing more of what happens than being raped by a stranger.”
But while the activists say they like and trust Inabinet, they’re still suspicious of the administration, and they’re not sure how much the other administrators listen to him. They wish the committee that wrote the policy had included a student activist or survivor. “Our conversations with the administration were not about policy,” Portillo Heap says. “They were about communication and handouts. Outreach is important, but I wish we had a seat at the table.”
There’s also the question of the response of their fellow students. During Orientation Week last year, a group of anonymous “Concerned Citizens” created a Tumblr called the Hyde Park List. The site listed the names of five current students and one graduate and classified them as “Code Red,” the most severe offenders, or “Code Orange.” Although the page’s creators did not explain the list’s exact meaning, this was widely interpreted as a list of rapists. The site’s creators later claimed was not the goal at all.
“This is absolutely not a rape list,” they wrote in a subsequent post. “We are not accussing [sic] the individuals on the list of sexual assault, or even sexual harassment. We are not claiming to be judge, jury, and executioner. The individuals on the list are individuals we would warn our friends about, because of their troubling behavior towards romantic or sexual partners.”
Tumblr took the page down for harassment after less than 48 hours, but then reinstated it. A few days later a group calling itself the UChicago Electronic Army hacked into a university Web server and took over the Web page of MODA, a student fashion magazine.
The hackers’ stated objective for what they called “The Real Hyde Park List” was “keeping the Hyde Park community safe from people who publicly accuse other people of committing varying levels of gender-based violence without any proof whatsoever.” They wrote:
“As always, the UEA decided that all of the feminists, SJWs [social justice warriors], Tumblrfags, privilege checkers, humanities majors, and everyone else who faps to the word “triggered” needs to be reminded who’s boss around here. Hopefully the Class of 2018 is paying attention, because otherwise the UEA is going to have to rape harder—err, commit additional acts of gender-based violence.”
The rape threats were followed by a list that contained just one name and a picture: Ortiz’s.
Ortiz says the university offered her a campus police escort; still, she felt unsafe. “I became agoraphobic and ended up in the hospital again,” she says. “My parents brought me back [to Phoenix].”
When asked if she had anything to do with the original Tumblr, Ortiz declined to comment.
The university never identified the people behind either site. It issued a series of statements, the first of which reinforced its commitment to preventing and addressing sexual misconduct. The second addressed the websites in particular: “The University has been made aware of several independent websites on which anonymous, unsupported allegations have been made against University students. In each case, the University has contacted the operators of those sites and asked them to remove this content.”
Both sites went dark after less than a week.
The aforementioned U. of C. sexual misconduct survey found that of the undergraduate women reporting sexual assault, 80 percent said it had been violent. A third reported being touched, fondled, or rubbed. And 85 percent of the undergraduate women and 74 percent of the men reported that since they’d been at the university, someone had made sexist remarks or jokes about women in their presence.
“I feel like they’re not telling anyone anything survivors haven’t known,” Elliott says. “But here are some numbers. Maybe they’ll take my story more seriously. I’m irritated by the fact that a survey was necessary to make people believe it was an issue.”
Keisler wasn’t surprised by the survey results, either. “I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t experienced sexual violence, or coercing or pressuring, or dancing too close to you,” she says.
Rasmussen, meanwhile, is waiting for the complete report before she draws any conclusions from the data. “We won’t know much in detail until the full report comes out,” she says, “and that will give us what we need to do more nuanced analyses and really do a deep dive into how this can inform our next steps in terms of education, awareness, campaigns, training, and so on.”
Nobody’s sure yet what form these next steps will take. Changing a conversation and overhauling something as deeply ingrained as rape culture is not an easy thing.
But Elliott, who remained on campus for six months after graduation working at the Institute of Politics, is cautiously optimistic about the future: “On campus, things are getting better. That’s not nothing. I definitely feel like things are changing. My first year, there was no Clothesline Project, no Phoenix Survivors Alliance, no student advisory board for sexual violence, no student socioeconomic diversity alliance. Awareness goes a long way.”
Members of the Phoenix Survivors Alliance have been meeting with the university’s housing department. They’d like the conversation about sexual assault to continue in the dorms after Orientation Week is over and students are more comfortable with one another. “It’s like a class,” explains Simone Brandford-Altsher. “If it’s important, they don’t give it to you all at once.”
Ortiz returned to Hyde Park in July for what she hopes will be her final year of college. After a skirmish with her lawyer over the exact meaning of the medical leave policy, the university agreed to allow her to reenroll without having to reapply. She’s still awaiting the results of the Office for Civil Rights investigation. Though the office has tried to finish investigations in 180 days, on average it’s been taking three years. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, told education reporters that the office is understaffed and has in the past two years received an unprecedented number of complaints. As of May, it was still working through its 2011 caseload.
Since Ortiz filed her complaint at least two other U. of C. students, including Portillo Heap, have filed complaints of their own, and so OCR is looking at them all together. (Portillo Heap’s, filed in June, is about inadequate Title IX training and education for university employees; she recently learned that OCR plans to investigate.)
Ortiz sometimes feels her role as an activist was thrust upon her, but she doesn’t regret it. “I feel like it’s my job to talk about these things,” she says. “Whether I like it or not, it’s my reality. One of the peculiar things about the violence I’ve experienced is that the movement and the media have been more focused on how to fight schools than how to fight rapists. I still have that to grapple with.”
She’s been encouraged, though, by the large number of antirape activists she’s met online, especially Angie Epifano, the Amherst student whose essay changed everything. “It made me feel as though I’m not alone,” she says. “Social media has empowered different voices to be heard. It’s caused a terrible backlash [against rape victims and advocates], but voices are heard. We can collaborate in a constructive way. This is defining millennial feminism.”
When she graduates, she plans to go to law school and become a specialist in Title IX law. And she’s waiting to see what happens when the student activists go out into the world and the current rape conversation moves beyond college campuses.
“I’m really excited to see what happens,” she says. “My chapter will be coming to an end when this investigation ends. Things will be less and less recent. That’s a good thing. You lose the perspective of someone who’s just gone through it. But it won’t be just the people who started the movement.” v