Seven deadly sins: The reluctant accuser

When faced with quasi-assault from a friend, a young student finds neither college counselors or handbooks have an answer.

By Alexandra Robbins
Published February 10, 1999 9:01AM (EST)

When the guy I wasn't dating grabbed my breast, I had to think for a
second before I whacked him on the head with my book, wriggled out of his
grip and careened out of his room into the safety of a busy dorm hallway.

Stunned, I stood there for a moment as I tried to decide which was worse --
that a "friend" had tricked me into a compromising position that he knew
wasn't consensual, or that I had hesitated in his arms because I wondered
for a moment if maybe I had wanted it after all.

A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology study found that 95
percent of rapes occurring on college campuses go unreported. John Foubert,
president and founder of the National Organization of Men's Outreach for
Rape Education, said that the figure would be similar for sexual assaults,
although he was unaware of a study that focused on that broader category.

Everyone from feminist activists to "Felicity" writers decry these
supposedly cowardly young women who are allegedly too weak to put themselves
through a court or university administrative process and too selfish to stop
the perpetrator from assaulting again.

But some of us never even had a case.

The basic rules are concise and clear-cut. No matter the circumstance, if
she says, "No," she means "No." If she says, "Stop," you'd better stop or you
could be facing jail time. For those of us who remained indecisively
silent, however, there is little chance for retribution. Authorities are
not going to punish an outside party for our own inner confusion.

If it had been rape, the issue of consent would have been easier to define.
If I had struggled, screamed or tried to escape, yet he proceeded with
penetration, I would have had a case. I would have pressed charges.

But I was never looking for a case. He didn't rape me -- he just put his
hand on my breast. It could have been much worse. I was lucky. I suffered
no long-standing emotional or physical damage; only extreme anger at his
gall and at my passivity, and nostalgic sadness at the loss of a former

As soon as we met the first week of freshman year, we became fast friends.
He liked my perverse sense of humor and I liked that he reminded me of my
best friends from high school -- my posse of boys who would drag me with them
to Hooters every now and again just to prove that I was one of the guys.

He and I were from the same city. We were both involved in committed long-distance romances. We talked football. We flirted. Harmlessly.

It doesn't take much to bond during the beginning of freshman year, when
you have the free time to spend several hours doing nothing with the same
person. Starved for friends and yearning to belong, students will cling
tightly to superficial connections if only to widen their blossoming social
circles. That's fine, that's normal, that's healthy. But that's also

According to "Sex Without Consent: Peer Education Training for Colleges
and Universities," a disproportionate number of sexual assaults on campus
"affect first-year women in the first three months of the academic year."

About two weeks into our friendship, he and I were sleepily sprawled
on my common-room couch during a 3 a.m. chat about our respective
long-distance loves. We hadn't seen our significant others since we had
started college earlier in the month, so it was nice to be close to someone
of the opposite sex.

"I have a big problem," he whispered into my ear.

"What's that," I yawned.

"I really want to kiss you right now." He moved closer.

"You're right," I said. "That's a problem." I gave him the
patented platonic pat on the back and pull away two-second hug and said
good night as he left the room.

Afterward, I mused about how it might have been interesting to get
involved romantically with him -- we did have fun flirting -- but I
dismissed the option because I already had a boyfriend.

They don't tell you about this limbo of uncertainty -- the college
counselors, anti-violence educators and rape awareness activists for the
most part stick to the cut-and-dried circumstances that make for easily
defined crimes.

"If you're writing an article on sexual assault," the Sexual Assault Peer
Education spokesperson informed me, "you have to mention alcohol.
You have to mention [the date-rape drug] 'roofies.' And you have to mention rape."

But what happened to me, as what happens to many of the victims of
unreported cases, did not involve alcohol, drugs or rape. It is hard to
pinpoint whether the act even fell under the category of sexual
assault in the first place. While the legal definitions of sexual assault
vary by state, they are fairly similar in their wording: "Second degree
sexual assault: sexual contact (intentional touching of a person's genital
area or buttocks, or a woman's breasts) when there is a) force or coercion
or b) mental or physical unwillingness to engage in such an act."

The problem in cases like mine is that it is much easier to gauge
the mental unwillingness afterward than to sort through feelings during the
few seconds it takes him to make his move. If I was unsure about my own
feelings at the time, how could a court be sure about what really happened?

He had clearly thought for more than a few seconds about how to lure me
into his bed. About 10 minutes after he left my room one afternoon, I
noticed that "The Republic," which I desperately needed to study for an exam
the next day, was missing from its usual spot on the floor. I checked
behind the couch cushions, underneath my bed, underneath my roommate's bed --
no Plato. Soon, I received a call.

"Are you missing something?" It was him. The bastard took my book.

"Give it to me! I need it for the test."

"You'll have to come and find it." He hung up before I could chew him out.

I called him back, but his roommate answered the phone in his thick Puerto
Rican accent.

"Is your roommate in?"

"Oh no, he just ran out the door."

"Good. Is there a Plato book lying around your room somewhere?"

"Let me check. Yeah, the book is in his bedroom."

"I'm coming down to get it."

I ran downstairs to his hall, noticed that the door was open and
barged into his common room.

"Hello?" I figured the roommate had gone to the bathroom, so I could just take my book and leave. I ventured farther into the room.

"You looking for something?" I jumped. There he was, peering at me
from the doorway to his bedroom.

"I thought you weren't here!"

"Yeah, the book is in his bedroom," he laughed in a thick Puerto
Rican accent sounding exactly like his roommate's.

"That was you?!" My heart was pounding, but I couldn't tell if it was because I had just run down a flight of stairs, because he had duped me
into thinking I was talking to his roommate or because the flirting had
seemed to escalate to a new level in weirdness. Hormones can make your heart pound.

He waved Plato in front of me and jerked it back when I swiped for
it. As he high-stepped into his bedroom, I chased him down, now more
frustrated than anything else. When he leaped onto his bed, I lunged for
the book and he pulled me down on top of him as we wrestled. It happened
quickly. With one large arm, he tightened his grip on my waist so that my
back was right up against his stomach as we both faced the ceiling. With
the other arm, he reached across my collarbone so that he could swiftly and
decisively grab my chest.

And I paused before I reacted. Or maybe I reacted by pausing.

I suppose he could have been testing me to see if our relationship could
become more physical. Perhaps he was just being playful. Either way, I
don't know how anything could have remedied the situation unless our college
had adopted the legendary Antioch rules -- "May I put my arm around your
waist?" "OK." "May I touch your breast?" "NO."

The next morning, he overheard me recounting the experience to my
roommate as we walked toward the dining hall.

"Stop being so melodramatic," he sneered.

"Stop being such a prick," I responded.

More than four years later, we still haven't spoken. And while that's what hurt most at first, what hurts now is that it took me so many
months to realize that I hadn't done anything wrong.

Alexandra Robbins

Alexandra Robbins graduated from Yale University in May 1998.

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