Before you read this story, we warn you that it is a very dark, heavy hitting, and sometimes stomach-turning piece. If matters of great sensitivity, such as sexual assault, will offend you or spur emotional trauma, we strongly urge you not to continue reading.
This is the first of a two-part Blueprint series on sexual assault. If you have personally been moved by this piece and would like to share your experience with sexual assault under conditions of anonymity, please feel free to contact the writers of this story at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Karen Rosenberg and Lisi Burciaga, Editors-in-Chief
// It could be a local politician. It could be your boyfriend. It could be your girlfriend. It could be your very own mother. Your grandfather. Maybe a teacher, a pastor, a close friend. There are no limitations on whom it can be when it comes to sexual assault.
The timeless tyranny of sexual assault can force its hands upon anyone. The epidemic discriminates against no one by gender, race, or any other demographic. No one is exempt.
It happens in Thailand, in Bangladesh, in Norway, in Zimbabwe, in Brazil, in Ireland. It happens right here at Acalanes.
Survivors often remain in the shadows, afraid of what might surface if they come forward. Disbelievers live in a state of relative luxury having never faced the trauma of this violation. They instill fear in the eyes of victims, diminishing what remains of their faith in humanity and their hopes for justice. They place the blame on the prey rather than on the predator, giving power to those who think they can lead a life without consequences.
While some may easily conceal the ramifications of their physical and emotional scars, enabling them to overcome the upheaval, others face the fact that they will carry this burden through the rest of their lives. The stark reality is many will never recover as the pathway to healing is a long, slow climb often requiring professional help, support from loved ones, and a process of self-reflection.
What some may see as victim’s truth, others dismiss as fabricated allegations in search of 15 minutes of fame, whether it’s in the victim’s house, with the victim’s own family, or under the national spotlight akin to the Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh situation. As a result of these fears, survivors–the victims, the prey–often blend into workplaces, homes, schools, and communities. They are masters of disguise.
In order to disrobe the reach of sexual assault and misconduct as it pertains to Acalanes, a microcosm of a worldwide problem, Blueprint conducted a survey open to all 1301 members of the student body via a Google Forms link which was distributed through School Loop.
The survey received a total of 331 responses, but due to the sensitivity of the content Blueprint made the editorial decision not to record any names or email addresses of surveyees.
Blueprint defined sexual assault as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. This includes, but is not limited to, rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, or forced sexual acts. Force may not necessarily mean physical pressure. Any type of coercion, physical or emotional, could be called force.”
In forming this definition, Blueprint took reference to California Penal Code (PC) 243.4 defining sexual battery as “Any person who touches an intimate part of another person while that person is unlawfully restrained by the accused or an accomplice, and if the touching is against the will of the person touched and is for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, is guilty of sexual battery.” In addition, PC 240 defines assault as “an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.”
Due to the anonymity of the survey, Blueprint is unable to corroborate the responses, putting limits to the survey data as they may not fully represent the Acalanes Student Body’s experiences with sexual assault. Additionally, the lack of identification would theoretically allow students to take the survey multiple times and or make nonsensical responses.
The survey revealed that 68.3 percent of respondents have been subject to unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, and/or gestures and 84.2 percent reported knowing someone subject to this fate. Seventy-three percent of these incidents reportedly took place on the Acalanes campus.
In addition, 20.5 percent of students claim to have been forced to engage in sexual activity with 11.2 percent of these reports having occurred on Acalanes grounds. A little more than half, 57.1 percent of respondents, know someone who has been forced to engage in a sexual act with 11.6 percent happening on campus.
Blueprint contacted Acalanes High School Union District (AUHSD) Superintendent John Nickerson, who was disheartened by the data mentioned above.
“I wouldn’t say the data is shocking, but I want to believe we are better than that. Those numbers are high, and that’s certainly not what we are seeing being reported to administration,” Nickerson said.
In regards to current students, staff, and administration, these statistics may seem astonishing, but according to several alumni, the Acalanes environment in years passed supports many of the revelations from this survey.
“Truthfully, I think Acalanes could’ve used some more feminist power, especially in the scope of sexual assault and harassment… Rape culture is so ingrained in our society that it’s there. Hence the need for dialogue,” member of the Acalanes class of 2016 and former Acalanes Feminist Club President Dara Feller said.
The term rape culture refers to the normalization and disacknowledgement of sexual assault in various settings.
Coupled with Feller’s remembrance of sexual assault culture at Acalanes, 2017 Acalanes alumna Annika Walker, current Wellesley College undergraduate, and sexual harassment survivor recalls the negative stigma surrounding the matter during her high school experience.
“To my knowledge, very few people talked about sexual assault or rape among students. It seemed to be a distant problem that happened in other places, but not at Acalanes… Talking about these [issues] seemed hush-hush,” Walker said. “I don’t remember ever having a class discussion or even an information session about sexual assault or rape, as serious and real as it is… The culture at Acalanes where students need to appear perfect and unblemished on the surface would have made the students involved eager to hide any issues.”
Nickerson spoke on the prevalence of discussion surrounding sexual assault within the district currently.
“What we have certainly done is ramped up our training with staff so that they have a greater awareness of what they should be listening for, looking for, and what to do with it… I don’t know if we have enough forum among students to come forward with information. There are things that we are working on to create some kind of reporting mechanisms and maybe that will help, but I think clearly we can do more,” Nickerson said.
In congruence with Walker’s claims as well as Nickerson’s presumptions, the Blueprint survey mentioned above concluded that of 331 participants, 58 percent believe Acalanes does not do enough to prevent sexual assault on and off campus.
While both Walker and Feller expressed such a need for improvement, the internet trend dubbed the “Me Too Movement” has aided in bringing much-needed attention to the topic nationwide and on campus.
“I think the Me Too movement and the political climate we’re in has really made us hyper-aware of the situation around consent and sexual assault survivors and support,” AUHSD Director of Wellness Adriana Martinez said. “I think we’re in a place where we’re actually moving towards action and it makes me feel really good to see that, and it’s also something that I wish had happened a long time ago.”
Martinez’s observation rings true on a local level, with alumni such as Walker noting how the movement has prompted survivors to share experiences as well as indulge in the realization that they are not, and never have been, alone.
“It creates an incredible way for sexual assault survivors to speak out in solidarity against what has historically been a taboo issue and it gives protection and strength to those who may not have otherwise felt safe enough to say anything,” Walker said. “Even if survivors don’t share their own personal story, this movement helps them to be able to acknowledge that they are not alone and that the crime of sexual assault is moving towards no longer being swept under the carpet.”
Recent years have cultivated an increased level of nationwide encouragement for sexual assault survivors to speak out on their experiences, bringing the magnitude of the issue to light.
The #MeToo Movement rocked Twitter in October of 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano called upon fellow sexual assault victims to tweet “#MeToo” as a testament to the widespread nature of the issue and to urge society to hold sexual abusers accountable.
While some people view the blossoming movement as a significant step forward, others see the potential for misuse of the campaign.
“I like that survivors are coming forward and addressing the issue of sexual assault,” member of the Class of 2018 and former ASB President, TJ Collins said. “However, some people are abusing the movement for attention, publicity, or to hurt the reputation of another. The #MeToo Movement also brings attention to the survivors and assailants as people instead of bringing attention to the real issue at hand: sexual assault. Celebrities are coming forward, and it seems more like a trend or publicity stunt by them than an actual movement focusing on sexual assault culture or solutions to it.”
Celebrities and average Twitter-users alike tweeted the hashtag over 1.7 million times by the end of November of 2017. The viral call to action set the foundation for an era of addressing and combating sexual misconduct across the nation, now referred to as the #MeToo Movement.
Following #MeToo, the organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH) conducted a national study on sexual harassment and assault, intending to uncover the “facts and figures” behind the Twitter movement.
The study concluded that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men surveyed had experienced a form of sexual assault or harassment at some point in their lives. Among these numbers, 57 percent of women and 42 percent of men reported that the assault took place by age 17. These results hue very closely to those mentioned in the Blueprint survey regarding Acalanes.
The virality of the #MeToo Movement, its lasting resonance, and the numbers it uncovered beg the question of whether or not Acalanes falls in line with the apparent sexual assault epidemic prevalent on the national level.
In presupposing how major this issue is local, Acalanes Principal Travis Bell is not oblivious to the harsh truth that it correlates with the high national rates of sexual assault.
“I’m sure it mirrors our national experience and I’m sure it happens, unfortunately,” Bell said.
Nickerson complies with this assumption noting that although it is typical to assume communities like Acalanes may be sheltered from this affliction, this misconception is not a reality.
“When we see statewide or national statistics, it prompts the thought that sexual assault is likely happening more than we want to recognize in our schools. Even if we think we might be different, we’re recognizing we may not be,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson’s assumption rings true, as many Acalanes students past and present have faced their own incidents of sexual assault. Blueprint spoke to 14 local survivors and has been permitted to quote the accounts of 5 of them, who are named for purposes of preserving anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue as Survivor 1 through 5. Blueprint is additionally quoting Walker, who allowed the use of her name.
“At a certain point, I gave up, stopped moving, went totally limp and lifeless and mentally left my body until it was over. Then strangely, calmly, we got dressed and silently walked back to school. I went straight to class, said and did nothing, and proceeded to do so for the next four years,” Survivor 1 said, recounting a personal incident of sexual assault.
While some students at Acalanes are aware of how sexual assault touches their peers, others are blind to how close to home the epidemic hits.
Some identify a “sexual assault culture” at Acalanes, a term which refers to the minimal awareness of and lack of understanding for student survivors.
“We may not have as much of a risk as many other parts of our world, but what students at Acalanes experience in terms of sexual assault is 100 percent valid and real,” junior Sophia Cooper said. “The people that are willing to share their stories are very brave and need to be given a lot of respect. I think overall it should be discussed more at Acalanes.”
Some attribute the shadowy shortcoming to the high socioeconomic status represented by a majority of students in the Acalanes community. Because students live in an area that is seen as safe and cushioned, many adhere to the misconception that such communities are immune to societal dangers, such as sexual violence.
“I think that because so many students come from wealthy families, they feel overly privileged and are used to getting their way and not worrying about the consequences,” senior Julia Walner said.
Similarly, teachers are not blind to the unawareness of the problem. English teacher Cathy Challacombe partly attributes it to the difficulty that comes with addressing such heavy subjects.
“I think we’re just starting to grapple with it. I think that there is a naive teen ignorance just as there is towards racism and equity and a lot of the other things that we’re dealing with,” Challacombe said.
While staff and students mirror views of the sexual assault culture at Acalanes, some believe that the school does an adequate job of addressing cases of sexual misconduct.
“At Acalanes, I truly believe we do not have a ‘rape culture,’” 2018 Acalanes alumnus and current Duke University undergraduate Dominic Schottland said. “I realize that my view on the ‘rape culture’ may be contrary to many of those at Acalanes, which is why I think it should be discussed more. To say that the faculty and staff normalize and thus encourage sexual assault or rape is just wrong, in my mind.”
Schottland defined rape culture as “a space that encourages sexual assault and rape by not prosecuting it or dealing with claims at all.”
Similarly, senior Lane Altbaum believes the perception of sexual assault culture on campus is flawed because the supposed number of cases involving students exceeds reality.
“I think sexual assault exists on the Acalanes campus, but I don’t think to the degree some people make it out to be. I think those who participate [in surveys that are completely volunteer based] are only those who have been adversely affected. I also think simple yes or no questionnaires in regards to assault wildly misrepresent true numbers, because asking someone if they have been assaulted before can imply so many different things, significant or not,” Altbaum said.
Regardless of the campus statistics, some argue that any degree of sexual misconduct deserves acknowledgment.
“I think the fact that it happens makes it a prevalent issue. Is it happening every weekend? I have no idea. Does it happen too much? In my opinion, absolutely. It shouldn’t happen to anybody,” Acalanes Guidance Counselor Susan Martin said.
Despite the undeniable presence of sexual assault in society, some steps can be taken to combat critics and skeptics from intimidating survivors into silence.
“I think rape culture as a whole is one of those things that’s never going to be all that great or well structured because of the nature of the crime,” Survivor 1 said. “In regards to our own campus, don’t talk about a story that isn’t yours to tell… The facts are likely wrong, and it’s unfair to the person who had to go through this. People will tell people as they are ready, and having that turn into a dramatic rumor really discourages others from coming forward.”
A Tragic Continuum
For Acalanes alumni, exposure to sexual assault culture did not end with their high school careers.
An apparent reason for the prevalence of the issue beyond high school is the increase in freedom and change in social dynamic that comes with college life.
“In college, the issue of sexual assault has increased, as would make sense based on the inherent difference between high school and college,” Schottland said. “Alcohol is much more prevalent while parental or adult supervision is almost non-existent.”
Schottland referred to a Duke University survey which indicated that 40 percent of women and 10 percent of men experience some form of sexual assault during their time at college as undergraduates. The 40 percent value yields twice the national average for female victims of sexual assault.
While these statistics do shed a negative light on the transition from high school to college as it pertains to sexual assault, many alumni report an increased awareness and involvement in targeting the issue among students.
“It’s more talked about in college. We have significantly more freedom of speech,” Feller said. “I’ve held a support group for survivors. Friends of mine have made confessional pages for students to submit harassment stories. I even have friends who have organized walkouts and performances to raise awareness about the issue.”
Despite a positive change in student dialogue, Feller sees a disappointing lack of administrative action in response to sexual assault claims at her current place of study, Chapman University in Southern California.
“Friends of mine are being sexually harassed by artists at their jobs. We have a giant mural on our campus by Higgy Vasquez, who sexually harassed art students who worked on the mural with him. The administration did nothing—they won’t even take it down,” Feller said. “We get silenced for protesting, and my professors have even been threatened for speaking out against Chapman policy. The school system has no grasp on how to deal with the culture.”
In addition to Feller, Acalanes 2018 alumna and current Boston University (BU) undergraduate Kate Gilberd recalls the lack of discussion on the matter during high school in comparison to her time at BU and feels that school acknowledgment at the university exceeds that at Acalanes.
“My college has been a lot more vocal about the importance of providing support than I remember Acalanes was. I don’t think people felt like they could talk about it at all in high school,” Gilberd said.
Neighboring Wellesley student, Walker, utilizes various safety precautions during her time in college to ward off any potential misconduct.
“When we go out, it’s a common routine to make sure that we are with people that we trust, that we know how to get places safely, that we text each other and keep each other updated if we have to separate,” Walker said. “In high school, we were more often around people that we knew and trusted, so there seemed to be fewer times when we thought taking actions like these were necessary.”
A Sinister Form of Gender Bias
A major misconception surrounding not only the #MeToo Movement but sexual assault as a whole, is the gender bias present among victims.
According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (NSVRC), one in three women and one in six men in the United States experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.
While these statistics verify that women are more commonly the victims of sexual assault, this type of misconduct is not gender exclusive.
For sophomore Elisabeth Hamalian, this partisanship seems to have arisen by the notion that “men are supposed to want sex at all times.”
This societal theme has falsely overshadowed both male and nonbinary victims facing the repercussions of undesired sexual behavior.
“I think that the belief that it only happens to women is very close-minded. It shuts down the opinions of those that are not women who are sexually assaulted and almost devalues their experiences,” junior Brooke Westphal said. “All genders can feel violated… I just think that social media and our society highlights men as the perpetrators a lot more than women because women are supposed to be the submissive of the two.”
While gender stereotyping greatly disadvantages male victims, it is also often brought into play when attempting to justify the actions of male assailants with the commonly used figure of speech “boys will be boys.”
For many at Acalanes, this phrase is seen in a negative light, allowing men an easy way out when it comes to typically illegal or socially unacceptable actions.
“It stereotypes what a boy is supposed to be like, it gives those that are under that said stereotype a green card to act in ways they shouldn’t,” Westphal said.
Additionally, in allowing men false justifications for their actions, it pushes women to feel powerless, specifically in reference to sexual assault.
“It is trying to take away the seriousness of an event. It makes an attempt at undermining the victims’ stories,” Cooper said.
Such use of the term surfaced in politics during Senate confirmation hearings when Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this past year of attempting to sexually assault her in high school. He was later confirmed despite these allegations.
The case led to much national contention, one incident being President Trump’s dismissal of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault on Ford with the notion that “boys will be boys.”
“I think ‘boys will be boys’ might just be the most upsetting part about it… When a woman speaks up, especially in a moment when someone is going to be sitting on the highest court of our land, that matters, no matter when it happened,” Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan said. “It is never acceptable to say ‘boys will be boys’ because women have a right to their own bodily autonomy and nobody should violate that in any moment and in any way.”
With such a divisive issue put on a national front, much controversy surfaced, highlighting the presence of sexual assault in the world of politics.
“I think that Professor Ford was courageous. When someone comes forward with any kind of allegations, they must be treated with respect,” former Assemblywoman Catharine Baker said. “The allegations must be looked at fairly with due process but not brushed under the rug. I’m very disappointed in how that was handled, and it was a terrible example of when you put brute politics over people.”
Going hand in hand with the soft-pedaling of male abusers with “boys will be boys” is the common trend of placing blame on female victims of assault for their appearance and behavior.
“When I was in high school, I remember hearing rape culture a lot and it felt almost normalized. Like it is what it is, boys will be boys, and ‘maybe you shouldn’t have worn that, maybe you shouldn’t have gone to that party, maybe you shouldn’t have drunk,” AUHSD Director of Wellness Adriana Martinez said.
Why They Don’t Speak Out/Victim Blaming
Survivors are often reprimanded for their outward appearance at the time of their assault, often hearing that their choice in clothing or makeup may have served as a silent invitation for unwanted sexual advances.
“Someone made a comment about the clothing I wear and to this day, a year later, I still sometimes think that I’m asking for it somehow by exposing skin or wearing tight clothing. It’s not my fault, but yes people try to blame it on how I act, who I am, or how I dress,” Survivor 2 said.
In today’s society, it is common, for women especially, to be scrutinized and categorized based on body type. Survivor 3 shares similar views regarding the link between attire and consent.
“The way someone dresses definitely isn’t consent. If a busty woman is wearing a tank top, she’s just wearing what she feels comfortable and confident in, just as how a flat chested woman would wear a tank top,” Survivor 3 said.
Martin observes this type of victim blaming in both on-campus and general public cases, and cites this behavior as a key reason why many survivors don’t come forward.
“I think we have seen or heard too many horror stories of the victim getting ridiculed or shamed. Like ‘she asked for it,’ or ‘she dressed like that,’ or ‘she was into it at the time.’ It’s those types of scenarios that can keep people quiet,” Martin said.
Public backlash and victim blaming are often the causes which deter survivors from sharing their stories.
For those who participated in the Blueprint survey and responded “Yes” to being sexually assaulted, 83.7 percent responded “No” to ever reporting the incident(s). Despite the shortcomings of the survey, Blueprint has combed through each response weeding out those deemed credible versus pure nonsense.
To those who stated “no” there were overwhelming responses paralleling that of “I felt not much could or would be done about it,” “fear,” “people would judge me,” “I would be blamed for it,” or “no one would believe me” when asked why.
In a similar predicament, one student recounted a previous experience in reporting an assault.
“I’m scared that in the end, it’s going to be blown off. I’ve reported something at Acalanes once and it was just completely tossed in the dumpster,” Blueprint Survey Respondent 1 said. “I don’t want people knowing what has happened to me. I don’t want people to define me by it. So I don’t let them.”
Blueprint Survey Respondent 2 acknowledged fear and victim blaming as the main reason for remaining silent.
“I was always scared that things would be awkward with my family or my friends, and that things would change. And, not only that but if other people besides those close to me found out, I knew I could be subject to blame and that people would say it was my fault,” Blueprint Survey Respondent 2 said.
One student attributed his gender as to why he chose not to speak out.
“I didn’t think it was serious enough to report. Even if I did, I’m a man. Nobody would have taken me seriously,” Blueprint Survey Respondent 3 said.
For Survivor 4, the attention that comes with speaking out was the main cause for remaining silent.
“I never got anyone involved besides my friends. I didn’t want to be viewed differently by anyone. I wanted to go back to being in my own little world with my friends instead of center stage of the circus,” Survivor 4 said.
When an incident is made public, survivors often find their once daily routine difficult to maintain.
“The entire school knew. I didn’t know how to talk about it. Everyone was asking me about it and then I kind of lost my mind,” Survivor 2 said. “I couldn’t be in class anymore. I couldn’t look at anyone because I felt deeply ashamed. I was not good at home at all. I did not communicate with anyone. It wasn’t until the day that I confronted my rapist that I went home and told my mom the entire thing.”
Others keep quiet for fear of being accused of provoking the assault.
“After four years of abuse, those I initially confided in left me thinking it was my fault. That I had somehow forced someone else upon me and begged them to use me. I had given up hope in humanity and couldn’t bear to have another person I trusted tell me I asked for it,” Survivor 5 said.
Due to the near silence surrounding the issue in society, other survivors are faced with the fear of being singled out. With sexual assault often being swept under the rug, it can be difficult for survivors to shake a feeling of solitude in their experience.
The Blueprint survey uncovered that 44.4 percent of respondents claimed to be victims of “unwelcome sexual touching,” while 73 percent reported knowing someone else who has. Of these occurrences, 31.9 percent took place on campus.
Despite the apparent breadth of the epidemic, the lack of social dialogue remains a driving force in keeping survivors silent.
“I didn’t yet get the motivating factors or anything along those lines, so mostly I’d say I was confused. Honestly, this made it kind of difficult for me to really connect with people my age because I felt like I had this insanely heavy weight crushing my chest any time it crossed my mind, and I knew it was something my friends weren’t going to relate to and would probably understand even less than me,” Survivor 1 said.
Martin addresses these hesitancies, and while she encourages survivors to confide in her and other professionals, she acknowledges the roadblocks that often lay in the path to doing so.
“I think we spend a lot of time trying to cover up and pretend things are okay. But I understand that that is a very personal choice and it is a very difficult road,” Martin said. “You are inviting judgment, all this unwanted attention on something that is very personal and private or seems very personal and private. To make it public, I understand why people are not wanting to do that.”
Martin’s suspicion is mirrored in Survivor 5’s internal battle with speaking out.
“I am looked at in the same way as the critics and scoffers of those who accused high powered movie moguls, entertainers, CEOs, and national politicians. I am seen as a fake, a fraud, a lying social agendist,” Survivor 5 said. “Still, I am one of the one in six American women who have been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Despite sexual assault helping shape me in many ways into the person I am today, reaching this point was a long and gruesome journey.”