D.C. Attorney Fights Back on Behalf of Women Everywhere After She Was Sexually Assaulted in College: 'I Fought for Myself'
"I thought rape was a stranger jumping out of an alley attacking you with a knife," Laura Dunn tells PEOPLE. "I didn’t have any narrative where it’s someone I knew."
Thirteen years after she says she was sexually assaulted after a college party, D.C. Attorney Laura Dunn is demanding support and justice for other assault survivors.
“One fifth to one quarter of women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate from college,” says Dunn, who was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when she says two fellow students dragged her into an apartment after a frat party and assaulted her.
“Most of the assaults happen freshman and sophomore year, right at the start of school when (women) are vulnerable, new to campus, trying to figure out, ‘Who do I hang with? Where do I go out to have fun?’ That’s when people target them. It’s very intentional. It’s predatory. It’s not accidental.”
In 2014, Dunn founded SurvJustice, a national non-profit that helps women on campuses all over the country and studying abroad to report sexual assault and navigate the criminal justice system—help Dunn herself could have used during her horrific ordeal.
At the time of her alleged assault in the spring of 2004, Dunn—a pastor’s daughter and award-winning athlete—had only tried alcohol once when she attended a party at a frat house, where she was encouraged to down free shots of liquor. It was after midnight and she was stumbling and drunk when she walked to another party with two older male students.
“It was late, I wanted to be safe,” recalls Dunn, now 31. “I had no reason not to trust them. I thought rape was a stranger jumping out of an alley attacking you with a knife. I didn’t have any narrative where it’s someone I knew.”
Watch Laura Dunn on the series People Features: Women Speak Out, available now, on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to people.com/PEN, or download the PEN app on your favorite device.
It would take Dunn over a year of self-blame, confusion, nightmares and extreme weight loss before she finally reported the assault to her school and police in July 2005. Even more difficult was telling her parents, who brought Dunn and her three siblings up in a strict, Evangelican-Christian household where sex was not a topic of discussion.
“My mother stormed out of the house and my father asked, ‘What were you wearing?’ It was one of the worst moments of my life,” says Dunn, tearing up at the memory. “I yelled at him; I fought for myself and said, ‘That has nothing to do with it!’ To this day I still feel heartbroken that that was the reaction.” (A week later, her parents apologized for their reactions and became her fervent supporters.)
Also heartbreaking were the ensuing, 10-month-long investigations, during which Dunn had suicidal thoughts. “I felt like no one believed me,” she says, “One time when I was driving, I had this thought of just pulling my car into the oncoming traffic, just jerk the wheel. I couldn’t shake the idea that if I killed myself people would believe me.”
The following year, the university concluded its investigation—and dropped the case due to lack of evidence, conflicting accounts between Dunn and her alleged attackers (who claimed she’d given her consent) and because Wisconsin law (at the time) did not consider alcohol a date-rape drug capable of altering one’s capacity to say “yes” or “no.” The D.A.’s office declined to press charges.
In a statement to PEOPLE, UW-Madison wrote, “Regarding the investigation, the U.S. Department of Education’s OCR found that UW-Madison acted appropriately and within established law.”
“I was shocked,” says Dunn. But not defeated.
Dunn went on to law school at the University of Maryland and over the next few years, became an outspoken activist for women’s rights—helping the Obama Administration craft laws that protected victims and improved investigations.
Seven years to the day of that frat party, she had an unexpected triumph.
Dunn attended an event at the University of New Hampshire where then-Vice President Joe Biden pledged his support to sexual assault survivors and unveiled a Federal directive to help victims that Dunn helped to write.
“I started to cry,” she says. “It was this beautiful moment where, after seven years, it was my moment of justice. I finally had what I needed,” she says. “Now, I wanted to give this moment to other victims.”