City Paper is not for tourists
On April 22, Chloe Rubenstein posted a note on her Facebook page.
“ATTENTION WOMEN,” she wrote, before identifying two American university students by name and calling them rapists. She went on: “we should all be aware! Stay away at all costs. They are predators and will show no remorse for anyone. If you have been effected by either one of these sickos please feel free to talk to me. With enough help we can take them down!”
Two months earlier, the American University sophomore and a group of her fellow students had gathered to pass the time during the snowstorm. As feet of snow blanketed the city, Rubenstein’s apartment filled with friends and one new acquaintance—a male AU student who lived in the same building. They drank cheap vodka and danced. At the end of the night, a female friend left the party and entered Rubenstein’s bedroom. Five minutes later, the new guy followed. Rubenstein noticed and followed him in.
Four years earlier, as a high school junior in Massachusetts, Rubenstein found herself alone with a classmate she barely knew, a football star she described as “100 percent muscle.” Rubenstein was 16. She didn’t tell anyone what happened for four months. Even after she moved to D.C. and entered college, she wasn’t comfortable calling the incident by its name. But when she walked into her own bedroom the night of the snowstorm, she recognized what was happening. “It was re-traumatizing for me. I was trying to wrap my head around it for a month,” says Rubenstein, now 20. “It was the same weird feeling I had had a month after I was raped.”
Weeks after the snow had melted, Rubenstein called her friend to see how she was doing. She refused to take Rubenstein’s calls, but a mutual friend informed Rubenstein that the woman was still reeling from the events of the party. “I started slowly trying to figure out what I was going to do about that,” Rubenstein says. Around the same time, another friend informed her that she had recently been raped by another AU student in an unrelated incident. Then, Rubenstein did something she couldn’t do in high school: She attempted to tell as many people as possible what happened.
Rubenstein posted the note without consulting anyone on strategy. “I just did it,” Rubenstein says. “I followed what I believed was right to do at the time.” The accusations were disseminated to 968 of her online friends. A dozen people clicked a box indicating that they “liked” the announcement.
Two female AU students sent Rubenstein private messages claiming that one of the alleged rapists had “done some really screwed-up things to them, too,” Rubenstein says. When she would see him in her building or on campus, Rubenstein says that the accused would run in the opposite direction.
Others were more confrontational. On campus, Rubenstein says that supporters of the accused started to walk “in circles around me, trying to intimidate me.” She received several anonymous phone calls at odd hours. When she picked up the phone, from a private number, a male voice repeated the phrase, “I’m a police officer and I have a few questions I need to ask you,” growing sterner with each iteration. Friends warned Rubenstein of the legal implications of making a rape accusation without absolute proof.
“You’re playing with fire when you throw people’s names out,” admits Rubenstein. “I was aware of the dangers of that. I knew it was a bold move,” she says. “But when I told people that I was fully aware of what I was doing, it made them feel a little more fearless. After that, I started getting a lot more support from people.”
It’s been a banner year for controversial rape announcements on the American University campus. Added encouragement for Rubenstein’s activism came from an unlikely source: Alex Knepper, a sophomore columnist for school newspaper the Eagle, who devoted a great deal of column inches this year to complaining about AU’s “campus of victims.” On March 28, Knepper published a column explaining how women who have been drinking can’t really be raped: “Let’s get this straight: any woman who heads to an EI [fraternity] party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice, and walks back to a boy’s room with him is indicating that she wants sex, OK? To cry ‘date rape’ after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s head and then later claiming that you didn’t ever actually intend to pull the trigger.”
On the day the column was published, an anonymous group of campus activists removed the papers from their stands, returned them to the paper’s offices, and hung posters printed with the words “NO ROOM FOR RAPE APOLOGY” around campus. Rubenstein participated in the stunt, albeit halfheartedly. “I took some of the copies and moved them around,” she says. “The article was insulting to every woman who has ever been sexually assaulted on campus. So it was an effective action in the sense that it got people to talk, but it was sort of an immature way to do it,” she says. But Knepper’s column shifted something else for Rubenstein. “I wasn’t able to comfortably talk about rape until that article came out,” she says. “Now, I can say, ‘I am a victim of rape and I’m not afraid to say it.’ But this time last year, I wasn’t saying that. This time three months ago, I wasn’t saying that.”
On April 13, two weeks after the column dropped, Rubenstein attended AU’s “Take Back the Night” rally, an annual demonstration against sexual violence. It was the first time Rubenstein openly referred to her experience in high school as a rape. A week later, she wrote her Facebook note. Rubenstein says she posted it for all the women on AU’s campus who might find themselves drunk at parties around the accused. “At first, I wasn’t thinking that this was going to help my friends. I felt like I needed to warn everyone else about these guys,” Rubenstein says. After leaving the message up for a few days, Rubenstein removed it. “I don’t clear my status because I’m scared,” she wrote on Facebook. “I clear it for legal reasons and because my message reached 968 people. If you or someone you know has been raped or sexually assaulted and needs a safe place to talk about how they feel or what can be done, please contact me. No Fear. No Secrets. 2010.”
After removing the note, Rubenstein finally heard from the woman she had followed into the bedroom. “That’s the most beautiful thing that came out of all this,” says Rubenstein. “She called me and asked me why I took my status down…She said that if the other victims decide they want to do something, that she might want to be there to do something too,” she says. On Facebook, 968 people can be warned of potential predators in an instant; reaching actual victims of sexual assault is more difficult. “When it had happened to me in high school, I did nothing about it,” Rubenstein says. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that. I promised myself that I would do whatever I possibly could when this happened to people I know. I just didn’t expect it to happen to so many of them.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery