In June 2013, L.A. Weekly published “Rape at Occidental College: Official Hush-Up Shatters Trust,” an investigation of allegations that Occidental College in Eagle Rock was underreporting the number of rapes on its campus, and encouraging those who had been sexually assaulted to stay silent.
Since then, the issue has grown into a national concern. In early 2014 the White House launched a formal campaign, Not Alone, to address sexual violence at colleges. In November, Rolling Stone badly botched a story, since retracted by its publisher, about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
Now, the conversation has again turned to Occidental. In Esquire's April issue, senior editor Richard Dorment published “Occidental Justice,” a story that took a new approach: It's told from the viewpoint of the accused, a young man who was expelled after Oxy officials found him responsible for a sexual assault in 2013. But in an unusual turn, the ex-student — whom Dorment calls “John Doe” — is now suing Occidental. He claims, in part, that the school didn't provide a fair hearing.
In “Occidental Justice,” Dorment outlines the undisputed facts about the night in question, which were made public in John Doe's suit: Both students (the woman is called “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit) were freshmen when the alleged assault happened. They knew each other, but not well; they shared one class; and ran into one another occasionally on campus. By all witness accounts, on the night in question, both were very drunk.
At about 11 p.m., Jane and John saw each other briefly, drinking and dancing in John's dorm room with a handful of other friends. Witnesses differ in their accounts of whether the two had any sexual contact during that time. Jane soon left the room, and over the next hour, both got increasingly drunk. By midnight, friends told investigators that John had became “loud” and “obnoxious,” and was “pushing everyone.”
Just after midnight, Jane and John began texting about having sex. Jane asked John if he had a condom, and John told Jane to lie to her friends and “get the fuck back here.”
Because so much of the night was documented through texts and later made public, “There isn't a ton of disagreement” about what happened, Dorment tells the Weekly. What remains in question, though, is if Jane was capable of saying “yes” once the two were alone. “It's whether or not Jane consented at the time,” Dorment says.
When she returned to John's dorm room, Jane was slurring her words, unable to walk straight, and had vomited into a trashcan. Jane recalls telling John that she had thrown up, and him offering her a piece of gum. After entering his room, she remembers performing oral sex on him, and little else. The next day, she found out through a mutual friend who walked in on them that she and John had vaginal intercourse.
At first, Jane didn't consider filing a complaint. But after speaking to friends and a faculty adviser, she went not to police but to Occidental's administration. After an in-house investigation, an external legal consultant (called an “external adjudicator” in the suit) brought in by the college determined that Jane was incapacitated at the time of the alleged incident, and therefore couldn't give consent. She also found that John should reasonably have known how drunk Jane was.
Occidental kicked John out. But when Jane sought to press charges, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office declined, stating that there was insufficient evidence.
The case has been covered by the Los Angeles Times, and John's lawsuit is pending. In its wake, we spoke to Dorment about John's story, what's happening at Occidental now, and how media coverage of campus rape controversies influences the national conversation. Some answers have been edited for length, and some were received via email.
Q: How did you find John Doe?
A: Last spring and throughout the year, we’d been seeing a lot of headlines — too many headlines — about men, famous or not, behaving horribly toward women. It’s very disturbing. I started doing some research into issues like cyberstalking and sexual assault on college campuses to see whether I was just being naive, or whether men really were monsters, or whether there’s something else going on there.
When I got to sexual assault in college campuses, I came across the Occidental case a few times. I made some discreet inquiries to the accused’s attorney, and he said, “Do you just want to talk to John?” It wasn’t really on my mind, but I thought, “Yes, I would.” Throughout all that's been published in this case, you never hear from John.
Q: Did your feelings about the original allegations change after meeting John?
A: I tried very, very hard throughout every stage of the process to remove any sort of subjective sense of who was right and who’s wrong. In meeting him, I just tried to listen to his story. He was very generous with his time and his story. For someone who is his age, 19 or 20, he was very open and willing to talk about things I might not have been willing to talk about. He struck me as fairly competent.
Q: And you reached out to Jane Doe?
A: Immediately and with empathy. [Jane declined to speak to Esquire for the story.]
Q: Esquire called the alleged assault “drunk sex” in the online headline, and a “sexual encounter” in the print headline. That's bold.
A: We struggled with what to call it. At one point somebody suggested “hook-up.” We tried to make it as noncommittal yet descriptive as possible, because yes, he’d been found responsible for sexual assault by Occidental, but the last time that the [L.A. Superior Court] judge administered a hearing, John had a very strong position.
So it wasn’t as though we could just easily slap “sexual assault” on it when that was very much being contested at the time. To say nothing of the results of the criminal investigation, [which] L.A. Superior Court is still looking at it.
Q: Did you speak to any of Jane or John's friends?
A: What was so remarkable about this story was that because the documents have been released to the public, so much of that was already available. Of course I reached out to all of the subjects involved. None of them got back to me, with the one exception of John's former roommate.
Q: Did anyone you interviewed corroborate Jane's story?
A: There are two really interesting things about this story. […] One: There really wasn’t much disagreement about what happened the night of the incident. Two: Because of John’s lawsuit against Occidental with the L.A. Superior Court, the college’s internal investigation report, as well as the official report from the external adjudicator, was made public, and anyone could read what the various witnesses [said].
Not all of what they remembered synced up, and not all of what they believed match up, either. For example, on the one hand, you’ve got Jane’s roommate, who felt from the very beginning that Jane was sexually assaulted; on the other hand, you’ve got Jane’s closest friend at the time, the one who was with her throughout most of the night in question, who told investigators that Jane was just as much a part of it as John.
The college wouldn’t comment on what happened, and as far as I can tell, nobody has bothered to look for an answer.
Q: While you were working on this, the Rolling Stone/University of Virginia controversy was blowing up. Did that make you nervous?
A: I was in California preparing to sit down with John when the story broke online. I work for a monthly magazine, and we're used to things changing slightly when a story is commissioned. Never in my career have I seen the ground shift so much. The national conversation just completely changed.
It did make me nervous, because the last thing we want to do is give anybody the wrong idea. I made every effort throughout to make the story clear and unbiased, and just sort of tell what happened and give context. You can only commit to your best sense of how things happen … you can’t control people’s reactions.
Q: There's been a lot of attention paid to how the media covers college sexual assault, particularly post–Rolling Stone. Why is this topic so tough for journalists?
A: That’s a really good question. A lot of these cases are different and complicated and each complicated in their own way. I wouldn’t necessarily conflate what I did with what Rolling Stone published. So much of this encounter between John Doe and Jane Doe left — there was a lot of evidence to document what went on between them, before, during and after.
There isn’t a ton of disagreement between the parties; it’s whether or not Jane consented at the time. That’s where the confusion comes down.
With a topic like this you’re talking about, no one wants to call anyone a sexual assailant, or a liar. You don’t want to offend anybody unnecessarily. At this time and [with] this issue, it’s really important to focus, to take a closer look at this issue.
Q: What does this story suggest about where the conversation about campus sexual assault needs to go from here?
A: I think there’s still, tragically, way too much shame attached to women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. They say they feel shame and don’t want to come forward.
We need to change the tone of the conversation. They’ve done nothing wrong and they have nothing to be ashamed of. We need to treat it as seriously as possible, as you would any heinous crime. All these people are talking about it, are aware of these issues — I think it’s a positive thing. You can’t do everything through legislation and social policy.