Survivor makes crowd think about assault

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

They were crammed into every corner. Hundreds of students from Place Vanier and Totem Park residences were perching on window ledges, crowding the aisles and standing in the doorway.

But you could have heard a pin drop as date rape survivor and sexual assault prevention activist Katie Koestner told her story.

In a presentation called No/Yes sponsored by the residence associations, Housing and Conferences, the Women Student's Office, and Health, Safety and the Environment, Koestner told more than 650 students in residence how to help prevent rape.

Weeks later her words are on still on the minds of those who attended.

"It was an impressive turnout," says Janet Cox, residence life manager. "Students are still talking about the ideas presented and questioning each other's actions and beliefs."

In 1990, Koestner was raped by a fellow student she had been dating during her first year at college in Virginia.

It was several days before Koestner decided to report the crime. A lawyer advised against a criminal proceeding because no evidence had been gathered at the time of the assault. When she persuaded the dean of the college to conduct a hearing, the accused was found guilty of rape.

The experience led Koestner to a career of activism aimed at preventing campus sexual violence.

"This is a crime of silence," says Koestner. "Bringing it into the open is the first step in prevention."

Second-year Science student Ross Woo, a resident of Totem Park, agrees. "Nothing's ever said about rape because of shame," he says. "The presentation was an eye-opener and a reminder that it still happens."

Students are at greatest risk of sexual assault in the first three months at school Koestner says -- a period she calls the "red zone."

Starting relationships with strangers, absence of parental supervision, availability of and peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol and a motivation to fit in are factors that make a first-year student vulnerable to victimization.

"The media portray rape as some weird guy grabbing you in a dark alley," says Totem Park residence floor representative Katie Scozzafava. "I was surprised to hear that 84 per cent of the time the rapist is someone you know."

Koestner's recommendations for prevention include communication about sexual issues, especially consent. She also promotes responsibility in drinking and the use of drugs; 90 per cent of college sexual assaults involve alcohol.

Simple respect for oneself and others is critical, Koestner says. She encourages students to take a stand against victimization, which she says ranges from verbal sexual abuse and jokes about assault to rape itself.

The presentation was Koestner's first appearance at a Canadian campus. She has spent the past four years speaking at colleges across the United States where resources range from nothing to established protocols for responding to the crime.

At UBC, the Women Students' Office provides counselling to students and offers workshops on acquaintance sexual assault and personal safety in public places.

The UBC Sexual Assault Information Line at 822-9090 offers recorded information about what to do in the event of an assault.