'I Never Thought It Would Happen': USC Students Share Stories of Sexual Assault

In 2016, 34 rapes and sexual assaults have been reported in the campus area

As universities nationwide work to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, Annenberg Media sought to find out how such incidents were unfolding at USC. In the course of months-long reporting on this story, we combed through DPS logs, interviewed survivors and mapped out locations of reported assaults. Names with * next to them have been changed at the request of the interviewee because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Katie* could smell it on her the next morning. She remembered being raped the night before.

"I went back to New North and I just sat in the shower to feel clean. And was just sobbing uncontrollably in the shower," she said.

It was October of her freshman year, and she had gone out to a party with some friends when she ran into a guy she had a crush on. Then, the now-senior said, he raped her.

"Very quickly it became not just kissing and dancing a little bit. It became me trying to push him off of me and like yelling at him to stop. And screaming."

She said the man asked her if she was on birth control, but when she said no, "he didn't seem to care."

"I had only had sex with one person previously to this encounter and that had been a boyfriend of mine from high school who I had dated for a year and a half," she said.

In 2016 alone, 34 rapes and sexual assaults have been reported in the campus area, according to logs kept by the Department of Public Safety and the Los Angeles Police Department. That's more rapes than have been reported in any of the last five years.

Most of the reported incidents involved male USC students who raped female students, occurring across the campus area—in dorms, fraternity houses, apartments and private homes. Some occurred off campus, and in others the victim declined to give a location to police. In total, 126 rapes have been reported since January 2012.

Annenberg Media contacted Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry for comment, but he canceled a scheduled interview after a reporter refused to send written questions in advance. In an email Carry said, "Eradicating sexual misconduct is among our top priorities. Over the past three years we have launched more than a dozen initiatives to get to this goal."

Reluctance to Report

It was Sarah's* first semester of college, and she went to a party with some friends. An older boy approached her, she recalled, "and freshman year, that's an exciting thing. You don't really know how to say no, or you just go along with it. They're older and you're in a new place and it's exciting."

She followed him upstairs.

"What came next," she said, "is something that I never would've thought would happen."

She said he raped her in his bedroom as the party continued downstairs.

"I said all the right things. I said no, I pushed him off of me and it didn't really stop him. It didn't do anything."

Finally, the now-junior said, she pushed him more aggressively and got out of his bed.

"The only thing I remember him saying was 'I guess you should leave then,'" she said. "And then I couldn't get out of the room fast enough."

She left behind her keys and her underwear.

But Sarah didn't tell anyone what happened for a year and a half.

"I always referred to it as a 'sketchy situation,'" she said. "I thought that's what a college hookup was."

It wasn't until sophomore year that she first called it rape.

She never reported it — partially because she was in denial for so long, partially because she had consumed alcohol underage that night and partially because she started making excuses for him. She didn't think she had enough of a case, she said, and didn't think anything good could come from reporting it.

A 2015 Campus Climate Survey of USC students by the Association of American Universities shows that Sarah is not alone in not reporting. Fifty-six percent of female undergraduates surveyed said they thought it was not likely that campus officials would take a report of sexual assault or misconduct seriously. Sixty-eight percent said they thought it was not likely there would be a "fair investigation" into their report. Nearly 15 percent of women surveyed said they had been raped while at USC. In all, more than 8,000 USC students responded to the survey, which was focused on sexual assault.

Mardi Walters is in charge of putting together the school's annual security report at DPS. She said DPS and the university have "put a lot of effort" into encouraging students to report crimes including rape. And, she said, they've worked to make students aware of resources available.

"In many cases [rape at college] is acquaintance rape and that kind of equates to the reluctance to report," Walters said. She wants to see more reporting because DPS "can't devote the policing resources necessary unless we know where these crimes happen, how they happen, when they happen."

But some students think the university could do more. Junior Paige Saucyn was raped while she was home for winter break her freshman year. After realizing how common sexual assault is among college-aged women, she decided to speak out.

"Of my handful of really good girlfriends, I have one friend who has not been assaulted or drugged in her lifetime," she said.

Saucyn thinks the school should provide more resources to survivors of sexual assault.

"We have a Sprinkles ATM, but we can't pay a part-time nurse to come two days a week to administer rape kits," she said. The Engemann Student Health Center typically refers students off-campus for exams, often to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center.

This fall, USC created a sexual assault task force, composed of educators, students and faculty, a permanent annual committee in the provost's office. That committee oversaw both the relocation of the Center for Women and Men to the health center and its renaming as the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services Office. All freshmen at USC are required to attend a training session designed to clarify laws and school rules on affirmative consent and share bystander intervention techniques.

But more than just providing more resources to survivors, Saucyn thinks USC needs to provide more education to all students.

"Teaching people, 'Oh, you see a girl really drunk and someone going at her, you need to help her.' Like, yeah, that's true—but even better would be to teach people not to rape."

She said the online course that students must take their freshman year "everyone just skips through—including me. That's not helping anyone."

Reporting Technicalities

Maddy* was coming back from a party with a male acquaintance and went into his house to finish their conversation. There, she said, he "convinced me that I should hook up with him." They had both had alcohol at the party earlier in the night.

"It was in a drunk setting," she said, "so it was like 'making out won't do anything,' and then he forced more and more." Maddy said he began to sexually assault her and it was "a while" before she was able to get out of his room to leave.

She later told one of her friends, who then reported it to the Title IX office on campus. But that assault never made it into crime logs kept by the Department of Public Safety, nor the school's annual security report because of a reporting technicality.

Only crimes reported directly to DPS are included in the crime logs, the department's Walters said. That means that rapes reported to resource centers recommended by the university—such as the Title IX office, the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services office (formerly the Center for Women and Men) or the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center—are kept confidential and not included in the policing logs.

Those centers offer counseling and treatment to survivors. Walters said that when students report to an on-campus resource center, counselors inform them that they have the option to report the rape to law enforcement. But making a report to one of these centers does not mean the assault is automatically reported to DPS. That decision is up to the survivor.

The Title IX office investigates violations of the student code of conduct, but there is no criminal investigation of the incident. Title IX investigations can lead to punishments including expulsion, Walters said.

The director of the Title IX office, Gretchen Dahlinger Means, declined Annenberg Media's interview request.

"If in many cases if a victim does not want to involve DPS or LAPD, we cannot control that," Walters said. "We try to offer services and make recommendations that people should report to [DPS] so that we can offer resources to them, but that doesn't always happen."

Walters says that because of these reporting procedures, "it's possible" that there were even more rapes reported to campus resource centers that are not included in the 126 sexual assaults reported in the USC area.

Impact Beyond the Crime

"It ruined my self-esteem at the beginning of college," Sarah said. "I thought I was worth nothing and I grew to expect that type of behavior from other people. I would make excuses and I had no self-confidence."

The rape two years ago still affects her to this day.

"It's something I guarantee that person doesn't remember and it doesn't affect him at all, and it like physically affected me, it emotionally affected me," she said.

At first, Katie's friends questioned her story. She said they asked her, "Are you sure you didn't want it?" and "Were you just drunk?" Katie said she did have several alcoholic drinks and doesn't remember parts of the night. She does remember being raped. Looking back as a senior, she doesn't think she would be asked those same questions today.

"I can tell you that if I were a freshman now and had the same experience — it's been about four years next week or so — I would have reacted very differently," Katie said. "The conversations now are that anything you don't want is 100% not OK. Anything."

Still, she said, despite the change in conversation and increased awareness of sexual assault on campus, the rapes keep happening.

"I've already heard about freshmen having issues this semester with it," she said. "I've seen posts […] saying 'help we had a new girl who was sexually assaulted. Has anyone had this experience that could come talk to her?'"

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault or rape, help is available and you are not alone. Please see this list of university-recommended resources or call the national sexual assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673.

Staff reporters Maddie Ottilie and Sam Bergum also contributed to this report. Contact reporter Cole Sullivan directly and privately at acsulliv@usc.edu.