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Sexual assault expert Katie Koestner gives thoughts on #MeToo movement

Sexual+assault+and+personal+safety+expert+Katie+Koestner+at+the+U.S.+Air+Force+Academy%2C+one+of+many+schools+she+speaks+at.+%28U.S.+Air+Force%2FLiz+Copan%29
Sexual assault and personal safety expert Katie Koestner at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of many schools she speaks at. (U.S. Air Force/Liz Copan)

Sexual assault and personal safety expert Katie Koestner at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of many schools she speaks at. (U.S. Air Force/Liz Copan)

Sexual assault and personal safety expert Katie Koestner at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of many schools she speaks at. (U.S. Air Force/Liz Copan)

Sam Halpern

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It’s not everyday that a speaker comes to a high school and tells students to be vigilant based on a personal story of sexual assault from many years ago.

Katie Koestner did just that on October 24.

In 1990, Koestner, then a freshmen at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, was sexually assaulted by someone she was dating. She reported the incident to her school and to the local police, but instead was told by the school’s dean that they looked like a nice couple and should get back together.

The local district attorney declined to press charges, though William and Mary’s disciplinary proceedings found him guilty in which he admitted that she had not given him consent. His punishment was a semester-long ban from Koestner’s dorm building.

In the meantime, according to “More” magazine, her assailant published an editorial in the campus newspaper, saying he had been “wrongly branded as a date rapist.” On top of that, a few thousand students signed a petition claiming she had lied.

Frustrated with the lack of support, she went to the local media and soon became the first person in the country to speak out against date rape. The following year, she was featured on the cover of “Time” magazine with the title, “Date Rape.”

Since her experience 27 years ago, Koestner has been committed to educating students on sexual assault, as well as cyber and personal safety, and has emerged as a national expert on the issues.

She is the founder and the executive director of the Take Back the Night Foundation, a nonprofit, and the executive director of Campus Outreach Services. As part of her work, she has spoken at over 3,000 schools and has appeared on “Oprah,” NBC, CNBC, CNN, and “Good Morning America.”

Koestner, who will soon be the subject of a new Netflix/BBC documentary, spoke with Weber students, parents, and faculty about sexual assault, as well as about personal safety, both at college and online.

In reference to the article, “A Rape on Campus,” published in November 2014 in “Rolling Stone,” Koestner acknowledged to The RamPage that it likely had a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assault. “I think it made everyone nervous again,” she said.

The magazine later retracted the story after it was proved false and an investigation by the “Columbia Journalism Review” found “failures at every stage of the process [of reporting].” Subsequent lawsuits also occurred.

“The whole problem most of the time is that the interactions [between the victim and the accused] happen behind closed doors,” Koestner said. “Even Harvey Weinstein did everything behind closed doors. Victims are more worried about ‘my word against theirs’ and how they [the public] believe it [their accusation].”

Victims are more worried about ‘my word against theirs’ and how they [the public] believe it [their accusation].”

— Katie Koestner

She continued that many who have experienced sexual assault are not willing to come forward with their experience because it takes a lot of energy and patience. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with bringing forth an allegation of sexual assault because they don’t want to have to face extensive questions or to have to prove merit,” she said.

She also made clear that, in contrast to many other crimes, people don’t view sexual assault in the same light—that it is not comparable. “Unlike a lot of other crimes, we’re not comfortable giving harsh punishments to people like ourselves, even when the crime [sexual assault] is just as severe as, say, someone distributing cocaine,” Koestner said.

While she was able to give tips for staying safe at college, including advising students to research about the safety of the college they’re looking at, she told The RamPage that people can only do so much to prevent situations such as cyberstalking.

“I think we will continue to see the problem. These crimes have always existed without technology,” Koestner said. When asked if the evolution of technology will change anything, she said she didn’t think so.

According to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, cyberstalking “is no less dangerous than offline stalking.” Their website says, “Stalking is a way to terrorize and intimidate another person, as is sexual assault, and the two forms of victimization may occur together.”

“Our society thrives on interactivity and sharing, especially online. And as a result, we constantly are providing personal information,” Koestner said. “Because of that, there’s nothing about technology that can deter them [criminals]. We have to live with the fact that there’s always the possibility due to how much we put out there.”

However, large amounts of sharing can also be used to benefit victims. Without social media, the allegations against many prominent people, particularly in the media, would not have been viewed with as much importance.

A lot of people don’t want to deal with bringing forth an allegation of sexual assault because they don’t want to have to face extensive questions or to have to prove merit.”

— Katie Koestner

“All of the people being accused are going to say what they will say—that they’re sorry. I don’t think we’ll hear public admissions of guilt until a court of law makes a decision [regarding their actions],” she said.

Stories part of the #MeToo movement have come from all corners of the world. By some accounts, more than 24 well-known Americans have been accused of unwanted sexual encounters.

Police investigations into sexual assault by producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as several others, including Kevin Spacey, James Toback and Ed Westwick, have been launched in New York, Los Angeles and London.

“We’re definitely hearing about it more,” she said. “I think it’s more scandalous because of the people involved. And the media wants to attract more attention, especially when representing their own and when the accused are well-known, with good name recognition.”

Koestner also made clear she would like to return to Weber in the early spring of this school year, “hopefully for a conference that could include student leaders from other high schools,” she said.

UPDATED 11/22/17 with new photo. UPDATED 11/23/17 with corrected verbs for quote attribution.

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