It Happens Here: Rape at Tam


By Elissa Asch, Maddie Asch, and Kennedy Cook

When junior Barbara woke up, she had no memory of having had sex during a party the night before. “It wasn’t even anybody who I wouldn’t have [hooked up] with sober… [But] it was…uncomfortable to know that they were comfortable going through with it,” Barbara said. “…I must have been like just a dead rag doll, like I was just very drunk…I was pretty upset about it honestly. I haven’t talked to the person at all…I’ve tried to forget about it.”

I’ve tried to forget about it.

Barbara, who requested anonymity along with a few other students in order to speak candidly about rape and sexual assault, isn’t alone in this experience. According to a recent Tam News survey of 620 students, when provided with the definition of sexual assault, 4 percent of freshman girls, 9 percent of sophomore girls, 14 percent of junior girls, and 13 percent of senior girls at Tam reported being sexually assaulted or raped. Additionally, 3 percent of male students surveyed reported being sexually assaulted or raped. Despite these statistics, the majority of students and parents interviewed were surprised that rape and sexual assault occur at these rates within the Tam community. This prompts a question: why are so many in our community unaware of rape and sexual assault at Tam?

Barbara herself is still not sure how to categorize what happened that night. “I wouldn’t consider it full-on rape and I would never charge them or anything,” she said. “I don’t think that they did anything in bad faith, but I do think that it was his job to know, ‘She’s too drunk, she probably won’t remember any of this.’”

‘I wouldn’t consider it full on rape.’

Barbara said her friends are even less likely to label the events of that night as rape. “It’s not really considered rape between [my friends], like they would never say that, but it’s kind of like a, ‘yeah that’s something that shouldn’t have happened for sure,’” she said.

Despite how Barbara and her friends define rape, having sex with someone who is intoxicated falls under the definition of rape, which the National Institute of Justice defines as “nonconsensual oral, anal, or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects using force, threats of bodily harm, or by taking advantage of a victim who is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving consent.”  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is defined by the National Institute of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

One indication of the problem is that when asked to define rape, 54.7 percent of the 620 students surveyed were unable to do so correctly. Some answers to the question such as “touching without consent” included some aspects of the definition, in this case “consent,” but lacked important parts as well, in this case the distinction between any “touching” and sexual penetration.

Those who took the survey struggled to define rape even though they passed through a mandatory Social Issues class fall semester of their freshman year, including a sexual education unit. Senior Andrew Jefferies said this problem may exist because the sex ed program at Tam doesn’t go into detail about rape. “I think in social issues we kind of covered [rape] but it was something we didn’t spend much time on, unfortunately…It seemed kind of like they were afraid of teaching kids [about rape] because it was something so serious, they were just kind of like let’s move past it, that’s bad, and we don’t want to be teaching something negative.”

‘It seemed kind of like they were afraid of teaching kids [about rape].’

The Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) course guide for the Social Issues class specifies that students be educated about both sexual assault and rape, but doesn’t make explicit what information falls under those topics, nor does it give extensive guidance to teachers about how to approach these potentially sensitive issues.  

Claire Ernst, a Social Issues teacher, noted that she didn’t receive much formal training in sexual education instruction. “We have [had] a staff development day a couple of times [where] the focus has been on social issues, but not a ton of training [as a new teacher],” she said.

Social Issues teacher Luc Chamberlin doesn’t think that the sex ed curriculum should focus more on rape than it already does. “The sexual education curriculum within Social Issues doesn’t focus specifically on rape so much as sexual assault in general,” he said. “I think we need to be extremely clear on consent and sexual assault in general. Rape specifically? I hope not. It’s kind of like the difference between telling students, don’t hit anyone, and don’t stab anyone. Hopefully it’s contained in the larger message.”

Ernst is less confident that the curriculum’s focus will allow students to correctly conduct themselves in social situations outside of the classroom. “I think they probably feel it’s adequate in terms of the nuts and bolts, you know how pregnancy happens, how to prevent pregnancy, STDs, but when it comes to the social situation I’m not sure…[how much of] what we do in class translates,” Ernst said. And based on the survey’s findings, it seems that more specification about rape may, in fact, be needed in Tam’s sex ed curriculum.

Despite these potential shortcomings, freshman Emilia Murphy found that the sex ed program was useful. “I was actually [really happy with sex education at Tam]. I thought it was so cool to have someone come in from Planned Parenthood and talk about good relationships, what a healthy relationship is, and address sexuality and gender identity,” Murphy said.

When it comes to other sexual education that students receive, according to counselor Alex Hunt, people use inaccurate sources to educate themselves about sex, which can create misconceptions about sex itself as well as what qualifies as rape. “Unfortunately, I think the most common way [students] learn about sex is through their peers and through social media,” Hunt said.

The danger of social media, accurate or not, lies in the fact that starting from a very young age people consume it and internalize its messages, according to Nancy. “TV shows are becoming increasingly sexualized and…younger and younger kids have snapchat, for example, my little cousin who is 7…she has a snapchat and on snapchat… there’s like the Cosmo articles and it’s like sex tips literally that anyone can see,” Nancy said.

Junior Anika Kaplan has found that the way the media portrays women creates a disconnect between expectations and reality. “People are growing up watching the objectification of women and how women are being treated in the media… and then there is real life women in front of you and you don’t know how to connect those two, and I think it’s really hard,” she said.

Hunt is concerned that when an individual forms those unrealistic expectations about sex, it leads to unhealthy sexual experiences. This is especially true in situations where “hooking up,” a casual physical encounter outside of a relationship ranging from kissing to intercourse, is involved. “I worry that boys and girls are not necessarily on the same page on hookup culture,” Hunt said. “[Hooking up] can seem really fun and casual and there’s really not a lot of emotion in it for one party, [but] you don’t really know if both the people are on the same page and that is where problems arise.”

‘You don’t really know if both the people are on the same page and that is where problems arise.’

Though she said that she takes part in and enjoys hookup culture, Nancy agrees with Hunt that it can create situations where what is or isn’t rape is unclear. “Sex is almost kind of expected. It’s like you hook-up with someone maybe twice, you blow them or whatever, and then you have sex with them and it’s just natural progression. And it’s such a rapid progression now…it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just sex’…it’s whatever, it isn’t shocking anymore,” she said. “I think that that’s kind of a problem… because sex is expected by some people… rape can [become] a little more of a gray area.”

According to counselor Brian Napolitano, what constitutes rape can get blurred further when substances get involved. “If somebody’s intoxicated, they can’t give consent…so I think when you introduce substance into the equation, it can be really tricky,” he said.

Substance use and hook-up culture combined can make sexual assault or rape more likely, according to Nancy, who was sexually assaulted when she was drunk at a party freshman year. “I was sitting on this couch and this guy came over to me and he was talking to me…and then he was like trying to kiss my neck and take my shirt off and I was like, ‘What…is going on?’ and then my friend…came over to me, picked me up and was like, ‘Come on, we’re going over here,’” she said. “The next day that guy somehow got my number and texted me like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And I just didn’t text him back cause you shouldn’t have to apologize for that, you shouldn’t…do it in the first place.”

Affirming the fact that substance abuse plays a large role in rape culture at Tam, Boe Roberts, a Bay Area Community Resources (BACR) staff counselor at Tam, ties substance use directly to rape. “[Substance use is] an issue…I would say that is the root of the problem [of rape at Tam],” she said.

Widespread student substance use is caused in large part by the privilege and economic resources of Tam students, according to freshman Emilia Murphy. “I think intoxication and young people making bad decisions, having extra money to throw around, and limited parental supervision can make…a very dangerous environment,” she said.

‘I think intoxication and young people making bad decisions, having extra money to throw around, and limited parental supervision can make…a very dangerous environment.’

There is evidence of extreme alcohol consumption in Marin that supports Murphy’s perspective. According to a County of Marin news release, “Almost one in four (22 percent) of Marin adults recently surveyed reported binge drinking in the past 30 days, one of the highest rates in the state.”  It seems that those unusually high percentages translate to high school students in Marin. According to the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, almost 75 percent of Marin 11th graders and 38 percent of ninth graders drink or use drugs, while one third of all 11th graders and 10 percent of ninth graders are heavy drug users.

These situations can put students at risk of rape and sexual assault, as in the case of Nancy. If rape occurs it often goes ignored and unreported because of its stigmatization, according to English teacher and leadership advisor LesLeigh Golson. The rape stigma is defined by Healthy Place Mental Health Channel as when “society insinuates disgrace upon the survivor [of rape], insisting on silence.”

Golson believes that rape is often caricatured as an act that can only be carried out by a malicious, violent attacker, which makes it harder to identify rape when it happens in less stereotypical contexts. When applied to hookup culture, this black and white definition can prevent victims from labeling their experiences as rape or assault. “Rape is such a strong word….[In our] culture it carries the connotation of a violent, stranger-based, forcible assault. People are having a hard time seeing it as sometimes passive and they feel that rape is too strong a word for some of those absent of consent situations,” she said.

Hunt believes that these media caricatures of violent rapists can limit boys’ awareness of consent boundaries as well. “Boys are less aware or maybe even more reluctant to admit responsibility because…when they hear about it everybody kind of internalizes and thinks of their own behavior and nobody really wants to think of themselves as the villain. So it actually prevents you from being cognizant of what your behavior is and what affect that has on other people,” she said.

For this very reason, victims of rape or sexual assault have trouble recognizing what has happened to them and calling out their perpetrators. Sophomore Jane, who wanted to remain anonymous, described her rape, which she did not report. At a Mill Valley party, she found herself intoxicated and dancing with a boy. “The next thing I remember he was grabbing my hand and pulled me into the bathroom. He locked the door and told me we should hook up…” she said. After that, the situation escalated, and Jane had sex without her consent.

However, Jane doesn’t identify herself as a victim of rape, even though she was coerced into having sex while intoxicated. “I wouldn’t say raped, but taken advantage of because there was a point that night where I was [having sex] in a locked bathroom and I didn’t want to be in there,” she said.

‘I wouldn’t say raped, but taken advantage of because there was a point that night where I was [having sex] in a locked bathroom and I didn’t want to be in there.’

Jane was also very clear that she would never accuse the perpetrator or even talk to her peers about what happened. “[If I called it rape] people would call me a liar and a hoe,” she said. “I don’t even think it’s really rape, I would never tell other people that I was raped.”

According to Hunt, the effects that the rape stigma has on people’s mentality is what causes victim’s denial and fear such as Jane’s, and leaves the topic of rape undiscussed in society. “I don’t think the community deals with [rape victims] at all,” she said. “It’s a very hush hush thing; it’s not publicized.”

Ernst thinks that one way to combat rape at Tam is to revisit the topic in upperclassmen curriculum. “I would argue for [sex education] one more time at Tam, maybe senior year, and I think it’s important because as students mature different things become important to them. So even though you might be getting the same information again and again, it means something different to you when you’re thirteen than when you’re seventeen,” she said. Ernst added, “Teaching…more on the idea of bystander intervention [could be useful as well].”

Nancy also suggested that reform of sexual education could decrease the number of rape and sexual assault victims at Tam. “I think that freshmen should take a sex class, that’s more than Social Issues. There are people that talk about sex for a living, there are health classes. We should have those. We shouldn’t just talk about the mechanics of sex and what sex is, and how to prevent getting STDs and pregnancy, but how to tell when sex is sex and when sex is rape,” she said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a little uncomfortable to talk about [but] that’s the only way this problem will ever be solved.”

Nancy’s ideas might just be put into action with the current implementation of the University of California, Riverside (UCR) Wellness Program in the Tam counseling office. “The UCR Wellness Program focuses on promoting awareness and education, motivation for positive behavior changes, and influencing campus practices and policy to support a healthy environment,” according to the program’s website.

The new program coordinator will increase education about sexual reproductive health services in sex ed, most likely through presentations by the coordinator along with outside community based organizations according to Hunt. “I think [the Wellness Center will] help [with sexual assault and rape at Tam], especially the coordinator is going to work very closely with both [Working to Inspire Student Empowerment (WISE)] mentoring and peer resource….Education is key in prevention,” Hunt said.  “The more kids understand about consent and what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s ok, what’s risky behavior…the more apt they are to avoid those behaviors.”

‘The more kids understand about consent and what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s ok, what’s risky behavior…the more apt they are to avoid those behaviors.’

Educating parents as well as students is vital in creating platforms for serious discussions about rape, according to Napolitano. “I think by talking about [rape]…putting it out there and saying these things are a reality…and doing parent education… [is] really important,” he said. “I think family life [and] how sex is talked about in the home [affects students].” Broadening resources in our community and furthering education about this issue is a good start, but according to Hunt, there is no “silver bullet” that will solve this problem.

Golson agreed that the best way to tackle the issue of rape is bringing it into everyday conversation. “I think there is a really good [culture-wide] dialogue that needs to happen…because we all need to get on the same page,” she said. “If you have the time to have a careful conversation, most people, even those that are against the use of the word rape in less violent but still assaulting situations…come around quickly once they gain the empathy to look at it differently. But it’s facilitating those hard conversations and having spaces where we talk about it that is important. As a culture, we are having a lot of difficult conversations right now, and I think we could all do with a heavy dose of listening.”