My story. Or A funny thing happened on my way here…

One day after walking home from a train station on a bright summer afternoon in late June, I could hear birds chirping and kids laughing outside, while inside I saw my own blood smearing on a hallway wall as I struggled to keep a stranger from dragging me into a bedroom.

One day after walking home from a train station on a bright summer afternoon in late June, I could hear birds chirping and kids laughing outside, while inside I saw my own blood smearing on a hallway wall as I struggled to keep a stranger from dragging me into a bedroom.

It’s strange now to tell the story the way it actually happened.

To tell what actually happened to me when I was just a 19 year old college student.

For years, when I would tell the story—that is, if I told it—I would talk about what happened as though it were a comedy. I did not want to make my listener uncomfortable.

So I would tell it as a joke.

Either that, or I would tell it as if it were just this thing that had happened. Like, “One time, at band camp…” It felt easier that way: here, I’m telling you, but you nobody has to feel bad in the process.

I felt it was my job not to make other people uncomfortable.

Even now, talking about what happened feels in a lot of ways like “coming out”—such was the degree of shame I carried for so long. Shame at not having noticed that a stranger was following me home. Shame at having fainted after he began choking me. Shame at having actually begun to give up the struggle. Shame at having opened the door. . . .

See, there’s the real story.

One day, after walking home from a train station, there was a knock at my apartment door. . . .

And I opened it.

I like to think many people would be surprised if they actually understood how little a victim can actually be guilty of that will make her blameworthy in others’ minds. I like to think many people would be surprised.

Here’s a riddle. What should a person do when there is a knock at the door, but there are no peepholes? The answer is . . . it’s a trick question. If you are a woman, you should lie still and make no noise until the knocking stops.

If, instead, you are foolish enough to respond by opening a door in broad daylight, and a man standing on the other side elects to savagely attack, assault, rape, or even kill you, then, well …. really, you asked for it, didn’t you? Opening the door pretty much operated as consent.

I didn’t understand that’s the way things are back before it happened to me. I was only 19, so there was much I didn’t get about the way the world works.

But now I get it.  Today, I am more familiar with the way the world—well, too much of the world—thinks.

Now, I understand that all over the world, sexual violence is frequently, amazingly transformed into a woman’s shame.

The very first time somebody asked me what happened was within days of the assault. Since it was still early days, I continued apply the innocent logic of a child. If asked: “Who do you blame for what happened to you?” in those (first few) days, I naively would have blamed my attacker. See? I thought like a baby.

So when I was, in fact, asked to recount what had occurred, I was wholly unprepared: I told them exactly what happened. I told them that there had been a knock at the door and that I had opened it.

In response, I was met with an unequivocal: “Oh! Well then, it’s your fault.” And in that moment, I got it.

It was my fault.


Today, I do not believe this.

But, after that response, I did. For many years.

And so after that first telling of what happened, I never told the story again in such a way that would even so much as appear to be inviting compassion or understanding.

To the contrary, in my mind, because what had happened was, in fact, my fault—the very least I could do, was to not make other people uncomfortable or feel put upon by my telling them a cringeworthy story about something that, ultimately, I had done to myself.

So I didn’t talk about it.

Or, when I did, I kept it brief. And, light.

And for years, it never remotely occurred to me that anyone else could have been at all responsible for what happened. In my mind, there was one person—and one person only to blame: me.

I will never forget the moment when, sitting in a torts class almost four years later, I learned of a case that stood for the notion that if an apartment complex located in a known high-crime area, makes a conscious decision not to install peepholes in its tenants’ doors, this can constitute negligence.


Too late. By the time I found this out, it was too late: the statute of limitations had long since passed.

Back when it happened, back when I had been assaulted by a stranger, out of the blue, on a clear summer’s day, I had been blamed because I opened the door.

And later, I was blamed because I did not could not remember my attacker’s face.

I know now that having trouble remembering a traumatic event is not uncommon; it is the mind’s way of protecting itself. The mind’s way, perhaps, of saving you from ever reliving that moment when your blood turned to ice because you came face-to-face with a nightmare. Forgetting can be a facet of PTSD, an element of severe trauma.  In short, it is something that can happen to a victim of violence.

But back then, I did not know that. And when it happened to me, I was blamed for forgetting.

How could you not remember what he looked like? Are you covering up for him? You must have known him? You must have something to hide.

During my assault, I had escaped by diving through a closed window, shattering the glass with my body.

The attack took place in a second floor apartment. Yet, my only desperate prayer in the fraction of a second before I hurled myself at the window, was a prayer that the glass would, in fact, break. I genuinely feared it would not give way—that it was some sort of reinforced glass, that it would be like throwing myself at a wall, and that I would remain trapped inside. Trapped inside with a stranger who wanted to rape me.  (Really, he might have planned to kill me, but at that point I hadn’t seen the butcher’s knife.)

The window did shatter when I threw myself into it — but my body did not clear the windowsill. I hung out the window, eyes swollen almost completely shut from the earlier repeated blows of his knees to my face. I saw my blood hitting the ground, two stories down.

But my attacker wasn’t done with me.

I could feel him trying to pull me back in through the window, shards of glass from the shattered window digging into my stomach. On the balcony next to me I saw two men.

Two men, hesitating.

Stepping into their apartment, and out again, then in again—they debated whether to help.

It would be only later that I would reach the only rational explanation I could think of for why they debated helping me—I believe they thought perhaps the stranger was my spouse, and so maybe they were reluctant to get involved in a domestic dispute… Even if that domestic dispute resulted in my death.

For me at least, the most difficult aspect, and the part that has inspired the greatest sense of tragedy in my adult years (in those rare moments when I have allowed myself to reflect on it) was the derailment of my life. The idea that the course of my life was irretrievably altered in a way that was not of my own doing; not of my own volition.

To be sure, some would say that is the very definition of life—it’s what happens while you’re busy making other plans. But the honest truth is that for me the day of my assault will for always be marked as the day my life was veered off track. And the day that cost me months, years (a lifetime) in trying to correct its trajectory.

There’s a line in my favorite movie What Dreams May Come: “The real hell is your life gone wrong.

The coldest truth about getting beat up by a stranger who wanted to rape you is that when it’s all said and done, the world really doesn’t care.

I mean, yes, as a theoretical proposition the world cares: given an alternative, the world would prefer not to elect rapists as community leaders.

But beyond that, there is no real practical import to the notion that the world cares when you become a victim. To the extent that it ever did, the world’s caring is fleeting.

When you don’t show up for work the day after the assault because you are laying in a hospital bed, the world, though it may care, will still fire you from your job as Senior Assistant Manager at Blockbuster . . . because life goes on. And plus, business.

And when your roommate finds a new girl to move in with, she will gently leave your things outside in the garage (to make it easier for you to retrieve them) with a kind note explaining how she didn’t feel comfortable living there anymore, and was able to break the lease, but had to move in quickly with someone else.

And when it is time to go to the police station to help their sketch artist draw a composite of the man whose face you don’t remember, you still don’t have a car. You don’t suddenly get a car: this isn’t Oprah. The world goes on just as it did before. Scared or not, you still have to take buses and ride the train.

Back then, when I was 19, I lost permission to feel safe in the world.

I carry with me always the feeling that if I allow myself to abandon vigilance for one moment, something will strike. That feeling, which kicks whenever I let my guard down, is undeniably compulsive. I am sure that it will never leave me. Trauma has bathed and altered my cells, it may have even changed my DNA. I will never again experience the security that comes from believing that bombs explode only in other people’s lives.

We can end sexual assault.

Letter to Harvard Law School offers guidance on Title IX compliance

Title IX Requires a Prompt and Equitable Response to Complaints.

As Harvard College and Harvard Law School continue working to establish a uniform and compliant Title IX policy, the letter in which the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) laid out its reasons for concluding that the Law School had violated Title IX, is instructive for institutions seeking Title IX compliance—as well as for students looking to determine whether their own rights have been violated.

Title IX’s implementing regulation provides that no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity. 34 C.F.R. §106.31(a)

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.  Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances; requests for sexual favors; and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, such as sexual assault or acts of sexual violence.

(Resolution Letter)

Courts have determined that sexual harassment is one way that a student can, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under an education program/activity. As such, when any type of sexual harassment creates a hostile environment in an academic institution that receives federal funds, it is prohibited by Title IX.

In 2002, students at Harvard Law School filed a complaint alleging discrimination based on sex.  The complaint alleged that the Law School’s policies and procedures did not provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of sexual harassment complaints, including claims of sexual assault.

In particular, and among others, the students alleged that the Law School had violated Title IX in that it:

  • required victims to choose between filing criminal charges or a Title IX complaint;
  • allowed rehearings that delayed the resolution process; and
  • required students alleging assault or discrimination to prove that it occurred with “clear and convincing” evidence.

In investigating the charge, the OCR framed the issue as “whether the Law School provided for prompt and equitable responses to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault, about which it knew or reasonably should have known, and whether any failure to respond appropriately allowed for the creation and continuation of a sexually hostile environment.

Ultimately, although it rejected some of the charges, the OCR broadly concluded that the Law School had, indeed, violated Title IX:

[T]he Law School failed to comply with the Title IX requirements for the prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The previous and current sexual harassment policies and procedures used by the Law School do not, as written and as applied in the two sexual assault cases examined by OCR, comply with Title IX’s requirements.

It is worth noting that last month Harvard issued its statement on the results of the sexual conduct climate survey which found that sixteen percent of Harvard undergraduate senior women said that since beginning college they had experienced sexual penetration or attempted penetration without their consent. (Companion report)

(Image source: The Crimson) The OCR is currently conducting a separate investigation into whether Harvard College, as distinct from the Law School is by its policies in violation of Title IX.

In its Letter discussing its investigation into the Law School, OCR laid out what Title IX requires to ensure a prompt and equitable response.

An institution must take immediate and appropriate action

The OCR Letter makes clear that if an institution knows or reasonably should have known about the sexual harassment occurring, it must take immediate and appropriate action to determine what happened.

The institution has this obligation even if the student did not complain or report the harassment, if the student asked the institution to take no action, or if the student did not refer to what occurred as discrimination per se.

If the investigation reveals that discrimination/harassment took place, then the institution has a duty to take “prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”

These steps can include:

  • requiring that the perpetrator stay away from the complainant until both parties graduate,
  • prohibiting the perpetrator from attending school for a period of time, or
  • transferring the perpetrator to another residence hall, other classes, or another school.

Additional steps the [school] may take to eliminate the hostile environment include counseling and academic support services for the complainant and other affected students.

But it’s not enough just to put a stop to the single discriminatory act — the institution must also fix any hostile environment and undo any negative effects of the discrimination.

An institution must adopt and publish grievance procedures

The OCR stated that to ensure Title IX compliance, an academic institution must adopt and publish a policy that lays out a procedure to quickly and fairly resolve complaints of sexual discrimination.

The policy should be “written in language that is easily understood, should be easily located, and should be widely distributed.”

In evaluating whether the school’s grievance procedures are prompt and equitable, OCR stated that it takes into account the presence of:

  1. notice to students and employees of the procedures, including where complaints may be filed;
  2. application of the procedures to complaints alleging discrimination or harassment carried out by employees, students, and third parties;
  3. provision for adequate, reliable, and impartial investigation of complaints, including an opportunity for both the complainant and respondent to present witnesses and other evidence;
  4. designated and reasonably prompt timeframes for major stages of the complaint process;
  5. written notice to parties of the outcome of the complaint and any appeal; and
  6. an assurance that the institution will take steps to prevent recurrence of any sex discrimination or harassment found to have occurred, and to correct its discriminatory effects on the complainant and others if appropriate.

The institution’s policy must also include, in writing:

  1. a statement of the [school’s] jurisdiction over Title IX complaints;
  2. adequate definitions of sexual harassment (which includes sexual assault) and an explanation as to when such conduct creates a hostile environment;
  3. reporting policies and protocols, including provisions for confidential reporting;
  4. identification of the employee or employees responsible for evaluating requests for confidentiality;
  5. notice that Title IX prohibits retaliation;
  6. notice of a student’s right to file a criminal complaint and a Title IX complaint simultaneously;
  7. notice of available interim measures that may be taken to protect the student in the educational setting;
  8. the evidentiary standard that must be used (preponderance of the evidence) in resolving a complaint;
  9. notice of potential remedies for students;
  10. notice of potential sanctions against perpetrators; and
  11. sources of counseling, advocacy and support.

An institution must inform the complainant of the outcome of its investigation and must take steps to prevent retaliation

The OCR letter makes clear that an institution must provide the complainant details of the investigation’s outcome:

For Title IX purposes, a [school] must inform the complainant as to whether or not it found that the alleged conduct occurred, any individual remedies offered or provided to the complainant or any sanctions imposed on the perpetrator that directly relate to the complainant, and other steps the [school] has taken to eliminate the hostile environment, if the [school] finds one to exist, and prevent recurrence.

The institution must take reasonable steps to prevent and investigate any retaliation stemming from the complaint/investigation:

Prohibited retaliatory acts include intimidation, threats, coercion, or discrimination against any such individual. [A school] should also take steps to prevent any retaliation against a student who makes a complaint or any student who provides information regarding the complaint and take strong responsive action when it occurs.

When [a school] knows or reasonably should know of possible retaliation by other students or third parties, it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.

At a minimum, under Title IX, [a school] must ensure that students and their parents, if appropriate, know how to report any subsequent problems; should follow up with complainants to determine whether any retaliation or new incidents of harassment have occurred; and should respond promptly and appropriately to address continuing or new problems.

An institution must provide non-punitive means for the complainant to avoid contact with the alleged perpetrator and must permit “equal opportunity” for the complainant to participate in the resolution process

In the Letter, the OCR makes clear that an institution must enable a complainant to avoid contact with the alleged perpetrator:

[The school] should notify the complainant of his or her options to avoid contact with the alleged perpetrator, and allow students to change academic or living, transportation, dining and working situations as appropriate.

For instance, [a school] may prohibit the alleged perpetrator from having contact with the complainant pending the results of the investigation.

The OCR also makes clear that any steps that the institution takes to separate the complainant and the alleged perpetrator must not be burdensome to the complainant.

When taking steps to separate the complainant and the alleged perpetrator, [the school] should minimize the burden on the complainant and thus should not, as a matter of course, remove the complainant from classes or housing while allowing the alleged perpetrator to remain.

If an accused student is found responsible and [the school] determines that he/she must be separated from the complainant, it must do so in a manner that minimizes the burden on the complainant.

An Institution must provide adequate training

Finally, an institution has an obligation to ensure that its staff is properly trained on how to respond to and handle complaints of discrimination.

Training for employees should include practical information about

  • how to prevent and identify sexual assault/violence, including same-sex sexual assault/violence;
  • the behaviors that may lead to and result in sexual assault/violence;
  • the attitudes of bystanders that may allow conduct to continue;
  • the potential for revictimization by responders and its effect on students;
  • appropriate methods for responding to a student who may have experienced sexual assault/violence, including the use of nonjudgmental language;
  • the impact of trauma on victims; and, as applicable,
  • the person(s) to whom such misconduct must be reported.