What Part of No Do You Still Not Understand?

Photo by Jack Gould

When Serena K. was an undergraduate at UCLA last year, she found a good friend in her boyfriend’s roommate. In fact, she and “B.,” as she calls him now, shared so much common ground that they stayed close even after she dumped the boyfriend.

“We’d talk on the phone at least once a week and go out to clubs or dinner together,” says Serena, now 22. On his birthday, she organized a party for him at a pub and invited all his friends. Serena got drunk at the party. So did nearly everyone else. When the group decided to head back to B.’s place to spin records — “they’re all DJ types,” says Serena — she joined them. “I was too drunk to drive home,” she admits, and then — realizing her story might inspire a chorus of “What were you thinking?” — quickly clarifies: “On two previous occasions, at least, B. spent the night at my place when he’d had too much to drink, and nothing ever happened. Absolutely nothing.”

When they got to B.’s, Serena felt like she was about to pass out. Since the living room couch was occupied by friends, she asked to sleep in B.’s bed, trusting that he’d wake her so she could move to the couch when everyone went home.

“That’s when I started getting weird feelings,” Serena remembers. “Not 10 minutes later all of his friends left. He turned off all the lights in the house and he came into the bedroom. Then B. started trying to kiss me. I kept saying ‘no’ and turning toward the wall. He kept trying anyway, but he wasn’t getting anywhere with me, and I was passing out, so he stopped.”

When she woke up sometime later, “he was jerking off, and trying to pull my hand over to his penis. This had to have happened at least three times. Each time I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. Let me sleep,’ and I turned back toward the wall.

“I’m sure you know what it’s like when you’re so drunk you’re passing out — it’s hard to move. It didn’t even occur to me to leave the bed because that would have meant climbing over him and navigating a dark house, and that felt impossible. I remember I just kept saying, ‘God, B., just let me sleep. I’m passing out.’ A half an hour later I woke up and he was on top of me, and pulling down my pants. I tried to push him off but was so tired and weak I just couldn’t.

“I’m trying to remember if I cried,” Serena says. “I don’t think I did. I think I was just in shock.”

A few days later, Serena called B. “I need you to know that I didn’t want any of that to happen,” she told him, “and I tried so hard to make that clear to you, and I feel really taken advantage of.” Invoking the anti-violence rally slogan of the ’80s, Serena says she asked him, verbatim, “What part of ‘no’ did you not understand?”

B. claimed he was drunk and stoned, “But I think he did come to realize, in some small part, the gravity of the situation,” Serena says. “He apologized and said he felt horrible. I told him I really wasn’t sure if I could ever talk to him again; he said he understood.”

Like many young women who find themselves in Serena’s situation, Serena didn’t report the incident to the police. “I felt it was a messy, unclear situation in some ways,” she says. “And he did feel remorse — he and I were good enough friends that I could tell that. And I also felt that the best way for me to deal with it was simply to cut off all contact with him.”

A few weeks ago, the situation got worse: Serena found out that B. had given her human papilloma virus (HPV), more commonly known as genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease that isn’t serious in itself, but has been linked to cervical cancer. “I actually called him, after much prompting from my friends, who said, ‘Who cares what happens to him, but think about his future girlfriends.’ I was shocked that he immediately said, ‘Oh yeah, I have that,’ but would not admit to having given it to me.”

When Serena told me her story, she refused even to use her assailant’s first name, but never asked for anonymity herself. Later, I had qualms about publishing her story with her real name attached and wrote her an e-mail to ask whether she really meant for me to use her name. “I guess anonymity would be better,” she wrote. “Funny — I protected his privacy, and not my own.”



Flashback to another time and another young woman, a friend of mine. I’ll call her Karen. She was raped in much the same manner as Serena — this time by an ex-boyfriend of one of her friends. It was 1985.

“I was drunk and I blacked out at a party at his house,” she recalls. “When I woke up in the morning, I was bleeding — he was a big person, in every way, and when he had sex with me I wasn’t ready — I wasn’t wet.” In the morning, she took a shower in his bathroom, reality still dawning on her, while Van Morrison’s “Moondance” played on the radio, a song that to this day makes her leave the room. “I was in incredible pain, and I confronted him and said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we were both drunk.’” She regrets that she did not storm out the door in anger. Instead, she made him breakfast.

The next day, she saw the nurse practitioner at her college. “She said, ‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’” says Karen. “I told her I didn’t really know. And she said it again — ‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’ And I told her what I did know — that I’d been drunk, that someone had sex with me while I was blacked out, and that he injured me. The amazing thing is, I considered that my fault.

“Neither of us had words for what really happened,” Karen says now. “I’d never heard the term ‘date rape.’ I completely assumed that because I’d gotten so drunk it was my fault. I even thought it was my fault that I was bleeding. It wasn’t until a few years later, when a woman came to campus and hosted a ‘speak-out’ — remember those? — that I realized what had happened to me. Everybody got up and told their stories about being raped or assaulted by someone they knew. And as I heard the stories, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me. That’s what happened to me.’ So I stood up too, and told my story. And that was the first time I’d talked about it since the week it happened.”


It all started with Mary Koss. In 1985, after conducting interviews with more than 6,000 college women and men over a three-year period, the University of Arizona psychiatry professor published a report in Ms. magazine on the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. The results startled everyone: One in four women had been victims of rape or of attempted rape; another one in four had been verbally coerced into having sex or had been touched sexually without their consent. Most jarring of all, 84 percent of women who had been raped knew their attackers. Well over half the assaults happened on dates.

Thus was the world introduced to the notion of acquaintance rape, along with a muddle of stories about women who thought they’d said no and men who didn’t hear them, about all-night drinking parties ending in sex that left one partner bruised and the other bewildered, and about intimidation tactics once categorized as a peculiar sort of foreplay now reclassified as coercion. The resulting shift in our thinking was shattering and permanent, and it has dogged romance ever since.

Consider its epic effects on the culture: Without Koss, Desiree Washington might have slinked meekly back to her family after Mike Tyson raped her in his hotel room; women pilots might still be running the gauntlet of groping men at annual Tailhook conventions; William Kennedy Smith’s name might have stayed on the society pages. And nobody would be accusing Kobe Bryant of anything worse than unnecessary roughness — or adultery.

Funded by a $267,500 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Koss’ Ms. Campus Project on Sexual Assault survey posed 10 questions, including: “Have you given in to sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because you were overwhelmed by a man’s continual arguments and pressure?” And “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man used his position of authority (boss, teacher, camp counselor, supervisor) to make you?” If a woman answered yes to any of the first seven questions, Koss concluded that the woman had been a victim of unwanted sexual contact, attempted sexual assault or sexual coercion. If she answered yes to any one of the last three questions — “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” plus two more involving physical force — Koss considered the woman raped.


It may seem axiomatic now that any man who drugs a woman or physically forces an unwilling partner is a rapist, but when Koss’ data was repackaged and presented in Robin Warshaw’s 1988 book, I Never Called It Rape, it provoked thousands of women to reassess their sexual histories. No longer were the ranks of rapists populated only by strangers attacking lone women in dark alleys; using Koss’ definition, women retroactively came to understand that sex without consent — be it on a first date, with long-term boyfriends, or even with their husbands — was rape.

The introduction of the term “date rape” into the national vocabulary also sent a chill through the ragged pockets of the sexual revolution, which had already grown cold under the specter of HIV. Although it didn’t extend beyond most states’ legal definitions of rape, Koss’ distinctions were blamed for further confusing men about women’s desires, for reducing sex talk to dull, falsely egalitarian terms or rendering women as passive victims.

“The new definition of rape,” wrote Stephanie Gutmann in a 1990 article for Reason, “gives women a simple way of thinking about sex that externalizes guilt, remorse, or conflict . . . Assuming the status of victim is in many ways an easy answer — but not one befitting supposedly liberated women.”

Since Koss and Warshaw, men and women, in college and beyond, in relationships and single, have been portrayed as picking their way carefully along a narrow wall between consent and resistance, between a man’s libido and a woman’s responsibility for her own well-being. A man fears he may only find out the next day that the woman he had sex with wasn’t willing; a woman worries she’ll wake up with a hangover and the queasy realization that the friend who allowed her to sleep it off at his apartment interpreted her need as an invitation to sex. A woman gives her consent up to the moment of penetration, then withdraws it; her partner thinks she’s playing a game, but later finds out she was serious.

Scholars and pundits have not always done their best to alleviate the confusion: On one side, there was Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, who claimed in 1993 that Koss’ statistics were all wrong. “If I was really standing in the middle of an ‘epidemic,’ a ‘crisis,’” she wrote, “if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped — wouldn’t I know it?” And “If verbal coercion constitutes rape, then the word rape itself expands to include any kind of sex a woman experiences as negative.” (Actually, it’s Roiphe who got it wrong: Neither Koss nor Warshaw called verbal coercion rape. They called it coercion.)

At the other extreme was Antioch College in Ohio, which in 1994 introduced a script for couples to follow to ensure consent before every sex act — even if the relationship had been going on for 10 years. Those conditions would probably have little effect on date rape — couples lucid enough to follow any script were probably in the clear on the consent issue, anyway. More likely, men and women who adhered to the code lost their desire for sex altogether.

By bringing date rape into the public parlance, Koss and Warshaw didn’t so much turn women into victims as identify the already victimized — there’s no reason to believe that having one’s vagina forcibly penetrated by an acquaintance’s penis was any less horrifying before the two women gave the practice a name. Still, it wasn’t long before the date-rape debate unraveled into a debate over the extent of a woman’s responsibility.

“It didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that going alone to Tyson’s room at 2:30 a.m. was an imprudent thing to do,” wrote Karen Grigsby Bates of the 18-year-old Desiree Washington in a 1998 article for Salon. Similar remarks have already worked themselves into the discussion of Bryant’s accuser: Bryant has had the luck (or misfortune, depending on your vantage) to be accused of sexual assault in an era less panicky than the one Roiphe was reacting to. He cheated on his wife in a climate of sexual mayhem gone so wild that scarcely anyone even flinches anymore at the subject lines of e-mails promoting “hardcore ass-fucking.” The woman who accuses him belongs to a generation so confident in its sexual safety that college-age women display themselves proudly at Daytona Beach orgies and Lake Havasu exhibition fests, keep detailed online journals about their sex lives and even post suggestive pictures of themselves on SuicideGirls and Friendster.

Such permissiveness can only be tolerated where women are assumed to be sufficiently in control of their personal safety, to know how to make their boundaries clear and their objections heard, and where men are expected to listen. This is why so many people — women, in particular — doubt Bryant’s accuser: It’s hard to accept that women who cry date rape have not in some way simply exercised bad judgment. Unless she’s been rendered inert by a debilitating drug such as gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) or Rohypnol (“roofies”), a woman should simply have made herself clearer or been better able to defend herself. And even after a drugging incident, she might be blamed: A Florida company, Drink Safe Technologies, Inc., last year introduced a line of coasters on which suspecting females can test their drinks for illicit substances. Their slogan: “Drink Smart, Drink Safe!”


“Date rape is definitely an issue with my friends,” says Katie, a 20-year-old Claremont College student who describes herself as an “outspoken proponent of anti-rape campaigns” on campus. As militant as she is against rapists, however, Katie seems sure she herself is not at risk. “I took an intense 20-hour self-defense class called ‘Model Mugging,’ designed to teach women how to defend themselves in a variety of situations,” she says. “I almost never drink at parties, and when I do, my drink never leaves my hands or my sight as a precaution against rape drugs.

“I also rely heavily on instinct. If someone approaches me whom I don’t feel comfortable with, I am quick to remove myself from the situation.”

The same goes for a recent UCLA grad, Joycelyn. “I have a very sensible group of friends and acquaintances who are not prone to ‘blind’ dating or online dating,” writes the 21-year-old, whom I contacted through her personal ad on an online dating network. “We usually meet new people through our friends, and as such, there is a network protecting the prospective daters within our group. For example, no one is going to try anything stupid as far as rape because the mutual friends will hear about it.”

“To me, if you put yourself in a situation knowing what the situation is, you shouldn’t call it rape,” says Maria, a second-year political science student at UCLA. “If you’re getting wasted yourself and one thing leads to another, then the next day you can’t call it rape.”

Their male peers tend to agree: Rape is wrong, they say, whenever and however it happens, but a woman should not be absolved of all responsibility.

“Generally, date rape means drugging a girl to rape her,” says John Bowley, a 19-year-old student at the Musicians Institute. “When drugs like GHB are involved, a girl is fucked from the start. Otherwise, if the girl’s not willing to fight back, then she isn’t putting any effort into her self-preservation. There is just no reason why these women shouldn’t carry Mace.”


“Man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability are as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the primal act of sex itself,” wrote Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 treatise on rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Very little has happened in the last 30 years to suggest she was wrong. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice under Janet Reno released a study called “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” remarkably similar to Koss’ work, only far more explicit. Written with enough detail to be either comical or erotic, depending on your bent, the report defines “sexual contact” as “touching; grabbing or fondling of breasts, buttocks, or genitals, either under or over your clothes; kissing; licking or sucking; or some other form of unwanted sexual contact.” It distinguishes “completed rape” from other forms of sexual assault. And it found — almost exactly as Koss did — that 27.7 women out of every thousand had experienced either a “completed rape” or an “attempted rape” over a period of a little under seven months — suggesting, then, that 5 percent of college women experience a sexual assault in a calendar year. “Over the course of a college career,” the report read, “which now lasts an average of five years — the percentage of completed or attempted rape victimization among women in higher educational institutions might climb to between one-fifth and one-quarter.” In other words, close to one in four.

Last year’s Justice Department statistics show that out of the 215,820 women who reported having been raped, only 28 percent had been assaulted by strangers. A full 57 percent were raped by men they called friends.

The statistics have not come down, but at least the decades of vigorous public debate have mitigated the shame that kept victims quiet. Serena may not have told the police about her trauma, but she has told parents, friends, family and even co-workers. Two of her friends have been unsympathetic. “They say, Serena, c’mon, you slept at his house! They’re the ones who think of themselves as the most strong, direct and clear,” she says. “And they think I must have not been so strong, or so clear, because if I was it leaves open the possibility that it can happen to them.”


Most of her friends, though, have rallied to her side. “I’m surrounded by supportive family members and friends,” she says. “And we’re dealing with it. We really are.”

That openness is probably the biggest difference between Karen’s generation and Serena’s; it’s perhaps why, unlike Katie Roiphe, today’s college-age men and women mostly do seem to know someone who was date raped. (One man I talked to, a 19-year-old at Cal Poly Pomona, even claims that he knows a 20-year-old man who was overpowered by two women who forced him to submit to oral sex.) And as much as they wish the woman (or in that one case, the man) would have exercised more cautiousness, or defended herself more vigorously, few of them let the perpetrator off the hook completely.

“Some people might argue that with date rape it is a girl’s fault,” says Karim Wahba, a 23-year-old man studying physics at UCLA. “But that shouldn’t translate into a guy getting a lesser sentence. It should be the same sentence for date rape as it is for rape. Both are serious crimes.”

“I wouldn’t know personally, but I imagine being raped would be comparable to someone killing a family member,” says John Bowley. “It’s beyond demeaning. It would make you lose trust in men.”

Katie from Claremont is even more adamant. “I firmly believe that date rape is one of the worst possible insults against a human being. Not only are you taking away the essential freedom of choice, but you are humiliating the victim and breaking the sense of security and trust that the victim has in the person who is raping her, and even in the world around her. The trust and security that can be destroyed in one short hour can take years to rebuild.”

But she also assures me that it’s still possible for college women to flirt with strangers, date new people and feel safe. “Has it become more difficult for men and women to trust each other based on this increased awareness of date rape? Possibly. But couldn’t we say that about anything these days? People in the 1950s left their doors unlocked all the time, and nothing was stolen. Or at least,” she reconsiders, “we didn’t hear about it if it was.”

Christine Pelisek contributed reporting to this story.

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