It was a warm Friday evening in autumn, the kind of night that makes a college campus seem a magical place, full of excitement and promise. Exhilarated by her new independence, Casey Letvin, like hundreds of other recently arrived University of Colorado freshmen, was looking for a party. The students milling about the streets of Boulder seemed convivial, and Casey and her roommate thought nothing of stopping four upper-classmen to ask where the parties were. “We just wanted to meet new people and have fun,” says Casey, now 20. The four young men offered to take them to a nearby off-campus house where about 20 students were gathered. But approximately four hours later, the evening ended in a brutal breach of trust. At 12:30 A.M., Casey Letvin was taken back to her dormitory and raped on her own narrow bed by a man she might never have spoken to if he hadn’t been a fellow student.
Casey’s assailant didn’t have a gun or a knife; he carried no aura of obvious menace. On the contrary, Casey remembers him as “a very attractive guy who quoted Monty Python lines to his friends.” But he was exactly the sort of person from whom a female college student has most to fear: a male college student. For as comforting as it may be to imagine that rape is brought to sheltered American campuses by violent outsiders, the truth is that the greatest danger comes from within the college community. A 1988 survey of rape victims showed that four out of five sexual assaults in colleges and universities are committed by students. According to Dr. Mary Koss, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Arizona who conducted, for the National Institute of Mental Health, the largest study at present of date rape on campus in 1984 and 1985, one in nine college women had been raped, and eight of 10 victims knew their attacker—although as few as 5 percent ever report the crime. And all but a few of the perpetrators will go right on seeing themselves as upright young men. One in 12 college men responding to the same survey admitted committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but only 1 percent of those respondents saw their behavior as criminal.
Like most college women, Casey Letvin (who appears on our cover) was unaware of such dangers when she came to college from little Sedalia, Colo. (pop. 500), south of Denver. Her parents, both teachers, had always tried to protect her from life’s dangers; when the family’s horses threw her once too often, they were sold and a pool installed so that Casey and her brother, Josh, now 15, could lake up swimming instead. An honor student described by her friends as “sweet,” she thought it was just inexperience that made her uneasy the night she ended up with Joe (not his real name). “At the party he took me to, he ignored me and wouldn’t include me in the conversation, but then he kissed me,” she remembers. “It seemed weird. But I thought, ‘I guess that’s how it goes in college.’ ”
At some schools, men refer to a woman’s first few weeks of college as the “honeymoon period”—the time when, according to campus lore, an upperclassman is likeliest to get “lucky.” Crisis counselors know it to be the time when a woman is most likely to get raped. As the evening wore on, Casey found herself at a second party with Joe, and he became more aggressive, pushing her into a bathroom where “he made bruises all over my neck from kissing me,” she says, her voice quivering. “I wasn’t having a good time, but I didn’t know anybody, and it was too far to walk back to the dorm.” Casey’s roommate, Cathy Kleier, had paired off with one of the other men they had met earlier, and when the two couples got back to the women’s dorm, Casey drew Cathy aside and told her she was afraid of Joe. Cathy told her that she was overreacting. “She was like me, a freshman trying to fit in,” Casey explains. So when Cathy and her date went out for a drive, Casey was too embarrassed to protest being left in the room with Joe.
At first Joe was gentle, but then, says Casey, “things started to happen faster, and he got rough.” When he got on top of her, Casey wasn’t strong enough to push him off. “He was so big—like 200 lbs.—and he was taking my clothes off,” she remembers, starling to cry. “I was telling him no. but he wouldn’t listen. He started holding my arms real tight and using more force. I just froze. And then he veiled. ‘We’re not having sex, okay?” But he entered me. I cried. I just cried. And then it was over, and all I could think was, ‘I want to get out of here.’ ” Cathy and her date returned later to find Casey crouched against the wall in a stairwell, her skirt stained with blood. “She was panicky, and she said, ‘Just get him out of there!’ ” remembers Cathy. Back in the dorm room, Cathy found Joe unconscious on the bed with his pants unzipped.
Casey, too ashamed to tell her parents what had happened, confided in a few friends, then tried to resume her regular routine. “I wanted to think, ‘Okay, now life is normal.’ ” she says. “But it wasn’t.” It was almost two weeks before she went to the student health center for counseling. “I was going crazy,” she says. “I kept replaying everything in my mind, thinking what I could have done differently.” A month later, Casey was starting to get her life back in order when she began getting obscene phone calls. Although she didn’t recognize the voice, she thought the caller might be Joe because he called her Casey. (She had dropped her nickname in favor of her full name, Cassandra, when she entered college, and Joe was one of only two men she had told.) Casey went to the campus police intending to report only the phone calls, but Det. Tim Delaria, sensing that “something was really eating at her,” soon extracted the whole story. After questioning Joe as well as Cathy and her date, Delaria decided that he had a case. Four months later, a county judge issued an arrest warrant for Joe. “It made me so happy.” says Casey, “because I was living with my own self-doubts. I needed verification that he did this to me and that I did not bring it on myself.”
More than a year after the crime. Joe pleaded no contest to the charge of second-degree sexual assault and received a two-year deferred sentence and 20 days in jail. (But he had told police that Casey was a willing sexual partner and still denies raping her.) He was also ordered to undergo psychiatric and alcohol counseling and to write Casey a letter of apology, which she has not yet received. Casey, who has continued her studies at the University of Colorado and works with a rape-prevention program there, says she still wants that letter but is happy that Joe—who was allowed to stay at CU and graduated in December 1989—has been made to understand what he did. “I was a victim for a while.” she says. “I don’t think I’m a victim anymore.”
Casey is one of the lucky ones—if that can be said of any rape victim. For many women, the feelings of humiliation, helplessness and rage that rape leaves cause long-term emotional damage. “They are afraid to go outside, they withdraw from friends, they can’t trust anyone,” says Meg Nugent, assistant director of the Women’s Center at Towson State University in Maryland.
Now 21, Mary (not her real name) has rarely spoken of the night in 1988 when she was sexually assaulted at Florida State University. Five months ago, she saw the last of her assailants brought to justice in the first known successful prosecution of a fraternity gang rape. But she still can’t forget—or forgive. “These men took away the child in me,” she says, “and I hate them for it.”
Like 50 percent of the women who fall victim to rape attempts and 75 percent of their attackers, Mary had been drinking before the rape occurred. Paradoxically, many people believe that a woman who uses alcohol is somehow more responsible for her behavior than a drunken man is for the way he may use her. In fact, because the legal definition of rape turns on the notion of “consent.” any sexual contact with a woman too drunk to be capable of giving permission is technically a crime. But most people are ignorant of this, and young men often use liquor to “disable” women, according to Dr. Claire Walsh of the University of Florida’s sexual-assault recovery program.
Mary, however, began drinking of her own accord, believing that tequila would help calm her nerves on the way to the stately Pi Kappa Alpha house, home of Florida State’s most exclusive fraternity. A mere freshman, she was to be the date of 23-year-old Daniel Oltarsh, a handsome 6’2″ junior with a trust fund. When she arrived, already intoxicated, Oltarsh handed her a bottle of wine and left her in his room to finish it—alone. Tests later placed her blood-alcohol level at .349 percent, enough to cause death.
Mary cannot remember what happened next, but police reports say that Oltarsh forced her to have sex with him, then took her to the fraternity shower room, where he was joined by at least two other Pi Kappa Alpha brothers in a group rape that included penetration of the victim with a toothpaste pump. Police later found her in the hallway of the Theta Chi house next door, where she had been dumped, unconscious, with her skirt pulled up, her underpants down and the initials of a third fraternity scrawled in ballpoint pen on her thighs. Though one of Oltarsh’s accomplices admitted the rape to his fraternity brothers, the Pikes told investigators that they knew nothing about it.
A 1985 study sponsored by the Association of American Colleges’ Project indicates that members of such closely knit, all-male groups as fraternities and athletic teams are involved in a disproportionate number of rapes, especially those committed by groups. “Men who rape in groups might never commit rape alone.” writes Robin Warshaw in her 1988 book I Never Called It Rape. “In gang rape they experience a special bonding with each other…and prove their sexual ability to other group members.” After the assault, they may present an intimidating, united front against the victim.
In Mary’s case, student opinion did at first seem to be on her attackers’ side. The FSU campus was soon abuzz with rumors depicting her as a sort of accessory to her own rape. “It got to the point where I’d walk down the hall of the dorm and hear people talking about me,” she says. In the months that followed, press reports portrayed her as a promiscuous, blackout drinker. The assailants’ lawyers fed the rumor mill, filing discovery motions for items—such as nude photographs of Mary with multiple sex partners—that did not exist. “It was like being R-worded all over again,” says Mary, still unable to speak the word “rape.” The gossip made her wonder whether she really was to blame. “You can tell yourself it’s not your fault, but that doesn’t make it any easier to believe,” she says. “I ended up being nonfunctional. It was the only way to deal with the shame.”
At first, Mary was too defeated to assist in the prosecution of her case, which the state pursued without her. A nose job and a new hair color did not prevent her from being recognized on campus, and she soon left school and checked into a psychiatric hospital near her home in Louisiana. There, suffering from alcoholism, bulimia and depression, she tried to kill herself. “I just lost interest in the quality of my life,” she says.
By the time Oltarsh’s trial for felony sexual battery involving multiple perpetrators began last July (his fraternity brothers had plea-bargained earlier to lesser charges), Mary had begun to recover. Judge F.E. Steinmeyer prevented the defense from inquiring into Mary’s sexual history during the discovery process (a first for rape cases in Florida). Immediately after jury selection, Oltarsh pleaded no contest to the charges.
Oltarsh’s jail sentence—a year minus a day—was severe for a date-rape case, and Lt. Jack Handley of the FSU police believes it is a milestone. “Years ago, possibly months ago, the opinion would have been that she drank of her own accord and was responsible for what happened.” he says. “This puts people on notice that what happened to her is rape.” (Oltarsh will not comment on the case, but his lawyer still maintains that the victim consented.) Mary, who now works as a bookkeeper, says it has been “therapeutic” to see her attackers convicted. “These men robbed me of any pride or hope or self-esteem that I had and replaced it with anger and self-hate and fear,” she says. “To see their lives affected is some vindication.”
For Agnes (also a pseudonym), that kind of vindication never came. In 1984, the year of her rape, she was a quiet, studious freshman at an exclusive West Coast liberal arts college. It never occurred to her to press charges against the popular football player who forced her to have sex with him one night after she accepted his offer to share some math notes. “I had no idea that friends raped friends,” she explains. “I thought a rapist was a big. hairy stranger.”
On the contrary, her assailant was a popular freshman. Agnes confided only in her roommate, but somehow word got out about the rape, and she found herself under attack. “His teammates created a sort of ‘hate team,” with both men and women,” Agnes remembers. “I would walk across the quad, and they would mock me. They said I was a dyke that I was making it up, that I wanted it to happen.”
Harassed and humiliated, Agnes went to the dean of students and requested a leave of absence. In explanation, she described the assault and its aftermath without naming her assailant. The dean granted a leave but took no further action. When Agnes returned after five months, however, she was still being taunted. Worse, she found herself in a class in which her attacker was a teaching assistant. Sometimes, noticing her discomfort, he would smile. “He was so arrogant.” says Agnes, who dropped out of college in 1986 and now works at an art gallery. To this day, she wonders whether he ever realized that he had committed rape. “The morning after, he called me up and asked me to go skiing with him,” she says. “I really think he felt he had taken what was rightfully his.”
That was apparently David Caballero’s turn of mind after he left a fellow Lake Superior State University student bruised and bleeding in her Sault Sainte Marie. Mich., dormitory following what he later described to a judge as “just your average one-night stand or whatever.” His unwilling partner saw it differently and told police that at approximately 4 A.M. on Dec. 17. 1987, Caballero had escorted her from a party to her dorm room, where he forced her to have intercourse and oral sex.
In court, Caballero—a varsity wrestler-was nonchalant, testifying that the victim had consented to have sex with him and then complained because he was “overzealous.” His victim remembers him telling the court, “I can’t help the anatomy God gave me.” Judge Charles Stark disagreed. “I see a young man who believed that “If it’s my word against theirs, nothing can happen,” Stark told the defendant at a one-day trial in 1989. “You were not believable, and the victim was believable beyond a reasonable doubt…. You did not have consent. You knew you didn’t have consent.”
Nevertheless, Stark decided to set aside a verdict of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and to sentence Caballero under a Michigan law that allows for lenient treatment of youthful offenders. Caballero was given three years probation, assessed $975 in court costs and ordered to pay $200 compensation to the victim; if he complied with these terms, his record would be expunged. Stark later explained to the press that a felony conviction would have been too harsh partly because it would ruin any chance for Caballero to pursue his dream of becoming a policeman.
After a public outcry, the State Attorney General filed the first in a series of appeals that led ultimately to the Michigan Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether it will hear the case. The Attorney General is seeking a minimum prison term of 10 to 25 years for Caballero, who is now pursuing a degree in social work at another Michigan college. He no longer plans to be a police officer because he is “disillusioned” with the justice system, according to his attorney. The woman, who has also transferred to another college, is angry to think that her attacker will go free. “He got up [on the witness stand] and said he had gone out with another girl who had been hurt by his strength. He bragged about it.” she says. “Something needs to be done. There are girls everywhere who suffer like me, and the men who rape them never pay.”
Kristen Buxton thought it would be a relatively simple matter to exact payment from the three men who were charged with raping her at Colgate University in 1987. After all, she felt the facts were indisputable, since the perpetrators later described the attack to police. Kristen, then a 20-year-old junior, had been asleep at 3 A.M. when the three men walked into the bedroom where she was staying during a weekend fraternity party—the invitation for which had promised “safe lodging for all girls.” Distraught over the recent death of her grandmother, she had drunk quite a lot and did not become fully conscious until well after the first assailant had gone downstairs to boast about what he had done, according to the statements he and the other men—who had crashed the party—later gave police. When she came to, according to these statements, the second man—like his two friends, a freshman athlete on campus early for special courses-was on top of her. The third, who had been waiting by the bed with his pants down, allegedly climbed on, her as she was screaming for help, which arrived moments later when another woman rushed in.
It seemed an open-and-shut case, but Kristen soon learned that there were those who preferred it shut. Friends immediately took her home to Marblehead. where she reported the rape to local police. They in turn called Colgate security. But when Marblehead Policewoman Marion Conrad drove to Hamilton, N.Y., where Colgate is located, three days later, she found that little had been done to pursue the case. “I got the feeling people at the college felt this was really no big deal.” says Conrad. “Everyone at Colgate was very concerned about the school’s reputation,” says Kristen. “In Marblehead, people were concerned that I was raped.”
After Conrad arrived at Colgate, the Hamilton police opened a criminal investigation, and the District Attorney ultimately accepted plea bargains from Henry Lamarr Alston, then 19, Raymond Lee Hobson, 17, and Rodney Lamar Corbitt, 18, who received no jail time. Kristen has now filed a $10 million negligence suit against Colgate; the fraternity, Sigma Chi; and Best Brands Inc., a beer distributor. Kristen, who cannot comment on the university’s handling of the case, does say, with unconcealed anger, that the District Attorney urged her to drop charges, telling her she would be “ruining the lives of the three young men” who had raped her. (The DA, Neal Rose, says that remark was taken out of context: He was “discussing the prospects of success in court, which I viewed as questionable.”)
Colgate, which cannot discuss the details of the suit, insists it cooperated fully with the police investigation and “had no involvement whatsoever in the District Attorney’s decision to permit the perpetrators to plead guilty to lesser charges,” says Director of Communications James Leach.
Kristen dropped out of Colgate temporarily; after the rape, some of the fraternity men on campus gave her a hard time, and she decided she was “emotionally and physically unable to stay at school.” But she eventually returned and graduated last June. Now living at home and applying to law school, she is still wary of men. “Dating is hard,” she says. “I always think, ‘Should I tell him?’ I hate to introduce myself as a rape victim, but it’s so much a part of my life.” Though she tries to plan for the future-she’s studying law so that she can help other victims—her heart is not yet really in it. “It’s hard for me to make changes,” she says. “I’m more fearful of life now.”
Says her mother, Marah, a flight attendant: “You don’t know what it’s like to see the child that you’ve put all your energy into raising limit her choices out of fear.” Yet there is not a night, or even an afternoon, that Marah herself doesn’t worry when Kristen goes out. “It’s a wound that doesn’t go away,” she says. “No longer do I have the attitude that it doesn’t happen to my child. Because it did.”
—Vickie Bane in Boulder, Meg Grant in Tallahassee, Benita Alexander in Sault Sainte Marie, Katy Kelly in Washington, D.C., Sue Avery Brown in Marblehead, Barbara Wegher in Dallas, Leah Feldon-Mitchell in L.A.