A witness to sexual assault faces an uncertain path. Although #MeToo has fostered chants of “we believe survivors,” there’s no corollary applicable to witnesses. There’s no movement to protect the rights and safety of witnesses who have the courage to come forth.
Some years ago, my son came forth as a witness and became the target of bloody retaliation by the alleged perpetrator. After sitting on this for a decade, I contacted the President of his college to say, “I hope you are handling sexual assault claims more sensitively now.”
When my son was a college senior, he was interviewed by campus security in connection with a sexual assault claim. He told them that he observed the victim, whom he knew, as she was leaving the building where the alleged assault had occurred. Normally, she was emotionally together, and her clothing was meticulous. After the alleged assault, however, she was emotionally distressed with her clothing in disarray. One detail stuck in my son’s mind: she was holding her underpants in her hand and stuffed them into her back pocket. It sounded like campus security pressured my son to say more, but he held the line: “That’s all I can tell you.”
Using a narrow concept of “witness,” many would question how my son could even be considered one. “To what can he even attest?” they might ask. “He didn’t observe the alleged assault nor what led up to it.”
To that I’d say: my son witnessed the victim’s emotional state and physical appearance shortly after the alleged assault. He knew her and could see that her emotional state and the condition of her clothing differed from her usual. She was barely able to hold it together. Her clothing was in disarray and might’ve been torn.
And then, there’s that detail that stuck in his mind and mine, too.
A few days later, my son attended a party where the alleged perpetrator was present. That individual and two of his buddies “escorted” my son against his will into a back room where they worked him over. Six feet four inches tall, fit, and capable of defending himself, my son could’ve taken any one of them. However, he believed that, if he fought back, the situation would escalate and, with three against one, he almost certainly wouldn’t stand a chance. So he kept his arms straight at his side and took whatever they dished out. He didn’t even raise his fists to break direct blows to his face. His strategy worked—the situation didn’t escalate—but he was beaten and bloodied. Badly enough that he called and told me. My first thought was that the perpetrator’s attacking my son without provocation was consistent with and added credence to the victim’s claim of sexual assault.
The next day, I called a university official and told her: (1) My son had been interviewed by campus security as a witness to a sexual assault; (2) Whatever he told them and the very fact that they interviewed him was supposedly in confidence; (3) Three days later, the alleged perpetrator and two of his buddies coerced my son into a space they controlled and beat him up badly; and (4) Somehow the perpetrator learned my son talked with campus security.
The official asked me, “Who was sexually assaulted?”
I said, “I don’t know and it’s none of my business.”
She asked, “Where did this assault supposedly take place?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t a witness. And that’s not what this call is about.”
“Then who was the student who allegedly committed the assault who you claim beat up your son?”
I said, “That’s not the point. My issue is the failure of campus security to maintain confidence and my son’s getting beaten up as a result.”
She asked, “Where was your son when he supposedly was beaten up?”
“At a party off campus, in a house owned by the college, where the perpetrator was present. I can’t give you an address.”
“Then can you tell me the names of the security officers who interviewed your son?”
Deflated, I said, “No, I can’t.”
The official said, “There have been no reports of any sexual assaults at this college over the past two years. It will remain that way. You and I have nothing further to talk about.”
The official ended the conversation without asking for my son’s name—the one piece of information I had to offer—and made no offer to talk with him either.
I didn’t know how to interpret her behavior. Perhaps the assault hadn’t yet been reported by campus security. Perhaps the official was doing damage control and wasn’t going to admit anything to me. Or, perhaps she had her head in the sand and wished to remain that way. Whatever the interpretation, she chose to maintain a policy and practice of public denial.
What mattered immediately to me was that campus security’s having interviewed my son somehow reached the awareness of the alleged perpetrator. Had campus security breached my son’s confidence by revealing to the alleged perpetrator that they had interviewed him as a witness? Had they broadcast a witness list on the grapevine? If so, what was their motivation? Or, had the perpetrator pressured the victim into revealing the names of anyone campus security was likely to have interviewed? Or, had another student observed the interaction between my son and campus security and told the perpetrator my son had talked?
My son didn’t seek charges of assault and battery against the alleged perpetrator and his two sidekicks for several reasons: (1) there were no witnesses, except that by telling others (including me) we all became witnesses to his condition and state of mind immediately after being assaulted and battered; (2) the university official with whom I had spoken offered him no support; (3) feeling betrayed by campus security, he had little incentive to place his trust in them again; (4) he feared the perpetrator would escalate violence even further against himself and the victim; and (5) he may have suffered from a misguided macho belief that he should be able to handle what the perpetrator vindictively doled out.
The bottom line: when any observant bystander crosses a line and assumes the risks attendant to being a witness, no matter what the ostensible offense, there can be a price to pay. Therefore, it is important to provide all reasonable protections to witnesses, who can pay a bloody price for speaking up, especially when the accused is hostile.
Three years ago, it came to my attention that many colleges—even small private institutions—had begun to overcome deep patterns of denial about the risks and realities of sexual assault faced by their students. They were starting to acknowledge publicly that sexual assault was a problem on their campuses. They issued statements to the effect that sexual assault would not be tolerated, articulated an intolerance for rape culture, took actions to minimize risks of assault, and clarified how sexual assault claims were to be processed.
Riding this tide of apparent change, I decided to reach out to the new President of my son’s college about my son’s experience as a witness a decade earlier. I urged the President to make sure that campus security appropriately deals with sexual assault and makes prompt handoffs to local police. I urged him to ensure that no parent is ever blown off the way I was; to make sure no witness gets beaten up the way my son was; and to provide ombudsmen to advise and comfort witnesses. My son knew I wrote the letter and said he was glad.
Within a week, I received a letter from the President of the college. He claimed that the college had developed clear protocols and takes sexual assault seriously. However, he offered no response to campus security’s apparently breaching my son’s confidence as a witness and his having been beaten up by the alleged perpetrator as an act of retaliation. He also didn’t address my being blown off by a university official, who made no offer to talk with my son.
The same day, my son received an email from the new Dean of Students, who requested the opportunity to talk by phone. My son later characterized their conversation as “an hour-long apology.” My son pressed to find out what had changed. The Dean said that campus security was still involved in handling initial claims of assault, including interviews with witnesses, but now makes rapid handoffs to the local police. He acknowledged that when my son was in college the campus security was writing its own rules; since then, the college established protocols and trained security to follow them.
My son got the impression that the situation for witnesses had improved only marginally. It was clear the college lacks what he would like to see: a safe haven for conversations between witnesses and ombudsmen. Assuming campus security hands off claims to the local police, then witnesses are protected or aren’t, depending on local practice. This doesn’t preclude the college’s putting in place initiatives to deter retaliation against witnesses and to support witnesses who experience actions intended to silence their voices. There’s no evidence the college intends to take such actions.
As they were ending their conversation, the Dean told my son he wanted to investigate a few issues further and promised to call my son back. My son never heard from the Dean again. After this conversation, I wrote again to the President and never heard back.
Months after the Dean’s unfulfilled promise to call back, I asked my son, “Would you do it again?”
“What exactly?” he asked. “Go back in time and do what I did then? Or if I witnessed a sexual assault now, would I step forward as a witness?”
“What would you do now?”
“I assume you mean would I talk to the police.”
“Yes, that’s my question, ‘Would you step forward and talk with the police if you witnessed a sexual assault?’”
He nodded. “Yes, without hesitation.”
“Why take the risk?” I asked.
“Getting beaten up makes me even more certain that, if there were a next time, I’d step forward as a witness.”
“Because the stakes are clearer now,” he answered.
“Stakes?” I asked.
“The stakes of remaining silent. That guy and two of his friends beat me up to coerce my silence. That makes me mad. It also makes me think of how someone like him might try to coerce the silence of someone he assaulted. And who knows what he’d resort to, to shut someone up.”
“But now you’re married and you have a two-year-old son. Aren’t the risks even greater now than they were then?” I asked.
“What kind of a father would I be to my son, what kind of husband would I be to my wife, if I looked the other way?” he answered. “To me, the moral risk is greater, now that I have an inkling of the extremes to which some perpetrators go to intimidate and suppress. Knowing what I know, if I didn’t step forward, I would be complicit.”
“Complicit with what?” I asked.
“With everything he’s already accused of doing, anything he might do to intimidate and suppress, and whatever he might get away with in the future because I didn’t act,” he answered.
“You ask a lot of yourself,” I said.
He shook his head. “No more than I’d expect of you.”