My rape wasn't much different from the sexual assault described by Jameis Winston's accuser.
I wasn't forced into an alley or attacked by a stranger in my home. I wasn't beaten up. I wasn't threatened. I didn't get pregnant as a result.
My rape was like many rapes. I was in college. I was drunk. I left a party with an Army officer whom I'd met hours before in Cancun, where I was on spring break. We went to the beach. Things started getting out of hand. I said "stop." Repeatedly. He didn't. I remember quietly saying "help" as two guys ran by, laughing, and took a picture. They didn't stop to help.
When it was over, I went back to my hotel. I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my best friend or the girls I was traveling with. I didn't tell my brother, who had joined me in Cancun that week. The next day, I went on with my spring break as if nothing had happened.
At the time, keeping my rape a secret seemed like a no-brainer. What was I going to tell the police? That I got drunk and left a party with a guy I didn't know? What would they think of me? Would they even prosecute a case like that? What was I going to tell my parents? I certainly hadn't behaved in the manner befitting a good girl, a college honors student, from a small Midwestern town. I was certain I'd be told that what had happened to me was my fault. The police would laugh at me, or worse, not believe me. Better just to keep quiet.
I moved on with my life. I went back to school. I applied to law school. I became a public defender, and dedicated the first few years of my career defending people accused of crimes. Sometimes, I defended men accused of rape. My judgment wasn't so skewed by my own experience that I couldn't be objective. I was willing to ensure rapists got a fair trial and the best possible defense, even if I believed them guilty. Most of the time, I did believe them guilty. Despite the common "she's making it all up" refrain I heard from my clients, there were few accusers I didn't find credible.
My rape didn't ruin my life. It didn't hollow me out like it does so many women. In that regard, I was lucky. I was full of rage, but I got over it. Eventually.
I'm no shrinking violet, and those who now know about my rape are surprised that I didn't stand up for myself, that I didn't scream bloody murder from the rooftops about what happened to me. The only explanation I have is that I was one girl, a very young girl, and I believed that I would be up against several adult male police officers. It never occurred to me that I might tell them my story and they would believe me. From the beginning, my assumption was that they would side with my rapist, and it would be my job to convince them otherwise. I suppose I believed this because of the way I'd seen rape victims treated in the media.
If it's still hard to understand why women don't report being raped, look no further than the press conference given by Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs, announcing that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would not be charged with sexual assault. Throughout the press conference, Meggs referred to the accuser as "the victim," and it was clear that he felt that he couldn't get a conviction, not that a crime had not taken place. When Meggs was asked if he had considered charging the victim with filing a false police report, he answered, "I did not consider such a thing."
And yet, Meggs's press conference left my stomach roiling and sent my blood pressure through the roof. Meggs giggled throughout the entire event, an entire chorus of law enforcement officers chuckling along behind him. Because, after all, what's funnier than announcing that you can't prove that a rape has been committed against a college student? I can think of few things that make me laugh harder. Anchorman, maybe.
There were also subtle omissions made all throughout the press conference. While Meggs stated that there were "several people in the room" while the alleged sexual assault took place, he didn't mention that the witnesses were all friends of Winston's, friends who had clearly been well-prepped by Winston's attorney before they ever spoke to the police. In fact, when the witnesses finally agreed to speak to the police, almost 11 months after the alleged sexual assault, they testified in accordance with the affidavits they'd provided to the police, which were also prepared by the office of Winston's attorney. As for Winston? He was never even interviewed by the police. He "declined" through his attorney.
Meggs went on to say that there was no evidence that sex between
Winston and the victim was "a forceful act." Sure, that could be true, if you
ignore the bruises that a sexual-assault nurse noticed on her left knee and
right elbow, the blood
in her underwear on her shorts, and the fact that Winston's DNA was
found in her panties. And that she called two friends immediately after the
encounter; we don't know what she told them, but it was serious enough that one
of the friends called her parents and the other called the cops. She also
described Winston's apartment accurately. She remembered that he owned a black
scooter. From the incident report:
[Redacted] stated the apartment in which the incident occurred was on the first floor. The room where the incident occurred had a broken door that did not shut all the way. The room had a queen size bed with red and gold sheets. The sheets had a polka dot kind of design on them. The bedroom had its own bathroom.
According to [redacted] she remembers lying on the bed and the suspect taking her clothes off. [Redacted] stated she was "kinda incoherent" and was "just laying there". When he started to have intercourse with her, she stated she told him to stop but wasn't yelling or anything, she was quiet because she felt sick.
[Redacted] stated the suspect started out on top of her but then rolled her over and tried to put her on top of him but she "just laid there", so he rolled her back over. After a little while a male subject she described as a bigger but not taller (than the suspect) black male came into the room and told him to stop. The suspect responded by picking up [redacted] and carrying her to the bathroom. Once in the bathroom, the suspect told [redacted] that he could lock that door. He then put her on the ground and continued the assault. After the assault he told her that she "could go now", but then said he'd take her home on the scooter.
All of this, however, wasn't enough for Meggs.
Having spent many years in criminal court, I'm familiar with prosecutors' abiding concern and affection for their conviction rates. Many prosecutors won't take a case to trial unless it's a sure-fire winner. Sadly, real life is not CSI, and slam-dunk cases with rock solid-evidence are rare. If prosecutors believe a victim is credible and a crime took place, their job is to advocate for the victim, build a case, and do their best to put the criminal behind bars. For crying out loud, they are AT LEAST supposed to interview the accused rapist.
It seems that every time we have a case where a woman accuses a high-profile athlete of rape, we get the inevitable "we just couldn't prove it" press conference. Where are the prosecutors who say, "I believe my witness, we're moving forward, and we'll let the jury decide who's telling the truth"? THAT's what prosecutors are supposed to do. Seek justice, not just winnable cases. In the event law enforcement hadn't noticed: Many woman get raped when they're drinking. Many rape victims are not virgins walking home from church. Some of us foolishly put ourselves in situations that we should not have. But the penalty for stupidity is not rape.
Frankly, I've represented clients charged with sexual assault on less evidence than Meggs had against Winston. Significantly less, actually. My clients, usually poor minority men with no shot at the Heisman, were never given the option of "declining" to be interviewed by the police. Meggs may not have been pressured to close the case against Winston, but given the knee-slappin' good time and Meggs's palpable relief at the press conference, it's hard to imagine that Meggs wasn't at least partly influenced by the public flogging he took from FSU fans and alums when he charged defensive tackle Travis Johnson with rape in 2003, and lost.
I don't know what happened between Jameis Winston and his accuser. Given what I've read in the police reports and the fact that the victim was clearly frightened, at least initially, of pressing charges against Winston, I'm inclined to believe her. I also know that, after a woman is raped, the prospects of a police interrogation and cross-examination are frightening. So frightening in fact, that many of us choose to keep quiet.
I know that every time we see one of these "we can't prove it" press conferences, it confirms what many rape victims have grown to believe: Unless there are severe injuries and/or witnesses to the rape, it's not even worth reporting it.
In fact, for any woman who watched Willie Meggs chortle his way through last week's press conference, the message was clear: When accusing someone of rape, bruises aren't enough. Blood in your underwear isn't enough. The rapist's DNA isn't enough. Your testimony isn't enough.
It's believed that around 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. I have no regrets that I kept my rape a secret, though I'd handle things differently now. I'm older, wiser, and stronger. But the way rape victims are treated by the system, sadly, hasn't grown up as much as I have.