What to Make of the Rape Accusations at Amherst College?

A young woman's story of sexual assault is harrowing. But without due process, should newspapers and campus administrators automatically assume it's true?

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A handmade t-shirt hangs on a line during a UC Berkeley "Take Back the Night" demonstration. (hank chapot/Flickr)

"Sexual Assaults Roil Amherst," a New York Times headline declares. The campus is in crisis over student accusations of assaults met with administrative indifference to a culture in which sexual misconduct and sexist speech thrive. It's a depressingly ordinary controversy, but this time it was sparked by extraordinary charges of rape and malfeasance, published in a college newspaper: Former student Angie Epifano described being raped by an acquaintance on campus and eventually institutionalized by administrators after they refused to pursue her complaint and she complained of suicidal thoughts.

It's a remarkable story but only a little more remarkable than the apparent assumption that it's entirely true. "Alleged Sexual Assaults Roil Amherst," the Times should have reported.

I don't assume that Epifano's story (among others) is false. I do assume (at least for the sake of argument) that it was offered in good faith, that she believes that she was raped and badly mistreated (perhaps wrongly imprisoned) by college administrators. Her report is generally plausible, but responses by her alleged rapist and the administrators, counselors, and doctors she mentions might be equally plausible. (As far as I can tell, none are publicly available.)

In any case, plausibility isn't proof, obviously, and reading Epifano's "wrenching account," you can't possibly evaluate the accuracy of her perceptions or recollections. Neither, it seems, can the New York Times, which reports that she is in Europe ("friends say") and could not be reached for comment.

But accepting her statement of the facts, you can evaluate her beliefs about how alleged rape victims and rape accusations should be treated. Epifano says that she was raped by a fellow student in May 2011 and reported the attack about a year later, this past spring, to a college sexual assault counselor. She says her counselor questioned her rather skeptically, asking if "it might just have been a bad hook-up." Her request to change dorms was denied, she was advised to "forgive and forget," and assured that her fears of being raped again were unfounded and that she was safe remaining on campus.

The counselor reportedly discouraged Epifano from pressing charges, because her alleged attacker was about to graduate and a disciplinary hearing might not vindicate her claim. Accompanied only by a faculty adviser, she would have to face him (and his faculty adviser) and prove that he had raped her. "It wouldn't get you very far to do this," she reports being told.

Put aside questions about the accuracy of Epifano's recollections and the soundness or gross insensitivity of the counselor's advice. Never mind the absence of discussion about reporting the alleged attack to law enforcement; rape is, after all, a felony, which courts are better equipped to address than colleges. Focus instead on Epifano's reaction to the prospect of a disciplinary hearing:

Hours locked in a room with him and being called a liar about being raped? No, thank you. I could barely handle seeing him from the opposite end of campus; I knew I couldn't handle that level of negativity. 

I sympathize with Epifano's feelings but still wonder: If she wasn't willing or able to testify against her alleged attacker in an informal hearing, if she wasn't capable of handling questions about her accusations, what did she expect administrators to do? Simply take her word that a rape had occurred a year earlier and punish her "rapist" (perhaps by expelling him) without giving him a chance to confront his accuser and present his side of the story?

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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