Fifteen Minutes: An Unsilenced Voice: Katie Koestner on Rape, Reaction and Change

FM: Katie, please retell your story in whatever detail you feel comfortable with.

Katie: I was raped when I was a freshman at William and Mary. It was the third weekend at school. We were out for dinner and a date; it was a guy I knew, Peter. He didn’t throw me up against a wall. He didn’t push me. He didn’t hit. We went back to my room after dinner, and we were hanging out. I told him I didn’t want to have sex. Initially, he said that he respected that. As the night wore on, I think that it was a blow to his ego that I wasn’t telling him yes. He tried to convince me that I did want to have sex with him. I kept on persisting that I did not. He gave up and went to sleep and I thought if he ever called me again, I would just politely decline. That’s why I never kicked him out of my room. He woke up when the sun was coming up, around 5:30 in the morning. I had stayed awake the whole time he was sleeping. He started saying how he was so sorry and apologizing for his behavior. I thought he really meant it so I let down my guard again. That’s when he started everything up again, kissing my neck and trying to have sex with me, and the next thing I know is that he’s over by the door telling me thank you very much.

Harvard students think that your admission’s office doesn’t let in rapists. But, rapists can be anyone. William and Mary isn’t Harvard but it’s a really good school. We probably have the same SAT scores, Peter and I. Who says it isn’t there when it happens? A lot of students are trying to get this covered at orientation, and this is important. For women their highest risk of being raped is the first day of college to the first break. Of course, every other campus issue is important, but there is no other issue when there is a specific time period when women are so at risk. There is no other issue where the university can be held legally liable when this event occurs. Even with racism, the university can not be held accountable. I am not saying that other issues are not deserving of more weight, but in terms of the coverage the issue gets, we must set an overarching tone that we don’t tolerate this behavior.

FM: How did you react to this situation?

Katie: Right after it happened I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to weigh out the good and the bad. I considered the fact that I didn’t know that many people at school yet, and the advantage of being the first victim in the country to use my name in the case of a date rape. I didn’t know what bad things would happen—how could anyone disagree with me? I didn’t realize how the media could portray you badly. I was usually picketing the frat. We handed out fliers that said, “last weekend someone was raped at this house, do you really want to go party there?”

FM: What was the response at William and Mary?

Katie: There were a lot of women who heckled and who wrote petitions to silence me. They said that I was hurting their future job chances because when they applied for jobs, William and Mary would be thought of as ‘that rape school.’

FM: How much control do women actually have in preventing rape from happening?

Katie: My analogy of rape is to car theft. You can buy heavy-duty anti-theft devices or loud alarms or devices that will disable your engine when a thief comes near. Women can choose to never be alone with a guy and other absurd extremes to protect themselves from rape. But, the car thief can still steal the car if they really want to. Women can reduce the risk, but ultimately rape will only end when rapists stop raping.

FM: Well, how can we as women, change our behavior or become more conscious of the decisions we make?

Katie: We must interrupt the silence during sex. We need to talk during sex. If you’re going to have a one night stand, that’s a high risk behavior. You’re going to have to talk. College students are doing hookups. I guarantee you that there is a rape every weekend at Harvard.

FM: Do you get support from men when it comes to sexual-assault activism?

Katie: During my programs all over the country, I do speak at the Citadel and the naval academy and male-dominated institutions. Men walk away from hearing my story without feeling threatened or blamed, but rather empowered to get involved and take a stand. “Take Back the Night” at Harvard was amazing and there were so many stories when we formed the circle that it was overwhelming. Harvard students had more stories of rape than any other Take Back the Night that I have attended this year. There were stories about siblings, girlfriends, men and friends from home. There were no threads connecting the stories like the presence of alcohol or anything like that. The only thread was that it was pervasive and nearly everyone in the circle had been through something.

FM: What steps can we take to change things at Harvard?

Katie: Ivy League schools are pretty behind the time and Harvard is the worst of them all. The women’s movement at Harvard has to reinvent itself because people think there is no women’s history here. Dean [of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley] Nathans was raped and she has openly admitted this, but she is most resistant to any kind of change. I have had conversations with Dean Nathans where she has actually said to me that there is no date rape at Harvard because Harvard students don’t have time to date. Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to change Harvard except sue them. Only Harvard can be Harvard. The only way to change institutions is to figure out what they need. William and Mary changed because of the media attention. Harvard isn’t as responsive to the media. Harvard has an opportunity to be a model, to be on the forefront of change.

FM: Is there anything to be done on the student level?

Katie: There is a tendency for female students to act like men in order to gain power. It becomes more difficult for women to speak about vulnerability. Women who want to be senators or CEOs think, “maybe I shouldn’t report the rape. People will find out I was weak.” Women at Brigham Young University can’t speak out because sex is an action against the church. Women at Harvard are fighting to become part of the patriarchy. They put up with the rules.

FM: A final thought…

Katie: Be a loud, angry voice at all times. Get Harvard out of the 1800s.