Kiss or crime? When partying reaches the edge of assault
On a corner of Varsity Lane, I saw a guy climbing on top of a nearly unconscious freshman woman. He kept trying to make out with her, but she was too wasted to say yes or no. She had a girlfriend standing next to her, but the friend wasn’t stopping the guy. Other students strolled by, none of them intervening. Meanwhile, a balcony of partiers watched the encounter, chanting like they were at a football game.
The incident happened so fast. I couldn’t make sense of it. Why wasn’t the friend, or anyone else, doing anything? Should I call 911? Did the man and the woman underneath him know each other? How much had they been drinking? Was she aware of what was going on?
The spectacle swirled with issues at the heart of college party culture. Alcohol and sex, our hazy ideas of consent, the herd mentality that pushes students to down yet another shot of Kamchatka, the fumbled hookups no one remembers the next morning — all of it collided inside this one moment.
In the months afterward, I couldn’t forget the man or the woman or her friend. I wanted to find out if that night had confused them as much as it did me. So I tracked down all three and listened to their stories.
Little 500 week is the continuous party that IU students look forward to all year. The determination to get messed up is incredible. Of course, the bike races are the staple events, but a few epic bar nights, a handful of concerts and the block party at the sprawling Varsity Villas apartment complex have crept into the tradition.
Last spring, the Villas party fell on Tuesday, April 20. The grassy courtyard in the middle of the apartments was littered with beer cans, red cups and empty cases of Natural Light. The police had been trying to break it up for hours, but nobody wanted to leave. Ignoring the order to go home, students spilled into the complex’s parking lot and swarmed onto apartment decks.
That night, another student journalist — Caitlin Johnston — and I were roaming the Villas reporting on the party scene. We weren’t drinking because we were interested in chronicling the effects of alcohol on the students around us. Just before spring break, a rape had been reported at Foster Quad. Another alleged sexual assault had followed in mid-April. These incidents had heightened the conversation about sexual assault on campus. We wanted to understand how the party atmosphere encouraged unwanted sexual encounters. I was on alert — but I didn’t expect to see what happened right before our eyes.
By 11 p.m., the police were nowhere in sight. As Caitlin and I walked along Varsity, a Pizza X van drove by, its speakers blasting Alphaville’s “Forever Young.”
Do you really want to live forever
Caitlin and I were scoping out the party when we saw the freshman woman lying motionless on the grass next to the sidewalk. Her body was limp except for one arm that clung to the base of a “Visitors Parking” sign. Stiletto heels stuck out from the bottom of her jeans.
The freshman was not alone. Her girlfriend did not appear to be as drunk. She stood over the freshman, holding a cell phone in one hand and trying to pull her off the ground with the other. Somehow, she managed to yank the fallen student up by one arm. The freshman’s legs wobbled.
As we walked closer, a young guy approached from a nearby side street. He said something to the drunk freshman, but Caitlin and I couldn’t hear the words. He was drunk enough to be swaying, too, and was standing close to the girl, touching her shoulder. She was too out of it to respond. Her friend held her by the arm to keep her from falling again.
“Danielle is really fucked up,” the friend told the guy. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not trying to cockblock you.”
Caitlin and I heard this as we went past the three of them. By the time we turned around, the guy was trying to kiss the drunken freshman. Danielle — we knew her name now — had staggered back across the sidewalk and up against an electric box there in the grass. The man pushed his body against hers, keeping her in place. The girlfriend still stood beside them.
On a nearby apartment balcony, a group of seven or eight partiers stood with beers in their hands and laughed at what was happening to Danielle.
“Take her home!” they chanted. “Take her home!”
I wasn’t sure who they thought should take her home — the guy or the girlfriend — but as far as I could tell, they weren’t yelling out of concern. They were mocking her defeat.
The guy’s legs now straddled Danielle’s. He moved forward, pressing his hips to hers, and again put his mouth on hers. Danielle’s body drooped backward, bent over with her head resting on the electric box.
I found myself breathing hard. As journalists, Caitlin and I knew that we weren’t normally supposed to get involved. We’d agreed to call the police if we saw someone in danger. This moment seemed like it was about to cross that line. We could see that Danielle needed help, now. We started walking toward her. Abruptly, the man stood up and ran off.
We asked the girlfriend if she and Danielle needed a ride. She accepted. Danielle had trouble getting into the car. She tried to crawl in headfirst, but her legs wouldn’t follow. We had to lift her in and lay her across the backseat. Her head rested on her girlfriend’s lap.
As we drove toward their dorm, Caitlin and I didn’t mention that we were reporters. This was not the time for an interview. Resting a hand on Danielle’s hair, the friend told us her name was Darrah. She said she and Danielle both knew the young man who had been so aggressive back at the Villas.
Danielle couldn’t get out of the car by herself. With one arm around me and one around her friend, she slowly climbed the steps to the dorm’s entrance. I left them at the door, where Darrah assured me they would be all right.
I offered to call the police, but she declined. I gave her my cell number, just in case.
That night, I couldn’t stop worrying about Danielle. What had happened to her seemed familiar.
After my freshman year, I stayed in Bloomington for the summer and had a few friends over one night to hang out on the porch of a house I was subletting. We were swigging bottles of Smirnoff. Before I knew it, a friend kissed me. I kissed back for a little bit, but as things escalated, I tried to get him to stop. When I ran to my room, he “playfully” chased me and then cornered me on the bed before he finally gave up.
Ultimately it was nothing, but I was scared. Good thing I was still conscious.
I wanted to know if Danielle was OK. But I didn’t have either Danielle’s or Darrah’s full names or contact information. Fortunately, I received a text the next day from Darrah.
Thanks for the ride last night! Let me know if you want to party later.
Her invitation surprised me. After the wild night they’d had, I didn’t expect she’d be ready to go out again so soon. I didn’t text her back. There was no word on Danielle, so I assumed that meant she was recovering.
The journalist in me wanted to know more about what had happened at the Villas. But it was the end of the semester, and I was buried with finals. That August, when I came back to Bloomington, I decided to try to find Darrah and Danielle and the guy who’d run away. I messaged Darrah, explaining that I was a reporter and asking if we could talk.
We met one Tuesday evening on the fourth floor of the West Tower of the Herman B Wells Library. Darrah said she and Danielle had met the previous fall. They were potluck suitemates in the dorm but had grown close. They still hung out. Darrah was a junior now. She was an experienced partier and proud of it. More than 100 people had shown up at a party she’d recently thrown.
“We’re usually the craziest people at the party,” she said. “Body shots on the bar, just anything out there. That’s us.”
Last April, on that Tuesday before Little 500, Darrah was ready to have a good time.
She and Danielle went to the Villas together and ended up playing vodka pong with two guys. At some point during the game, Darrah said, her friend started taking off her own shirt to distract the other team.
“Even I was egging her on because it was funny. That’s what me and my friends like to do at a party. We like the attention.”
Shortly after arriving at the Villas, Darrah and Danielle ran into the aggressive guy — the one Caitlin and I would later see forcing himself on Danielle. It turned out he was a freshman, too. Darrah already knew him; Danielle was meeting him for the first time. He and Danielle started making out at the vodka pong party, even though she was dating someone else.
By then Danielle had already drank at least 10 shots, and Darrah knew that it was time to get her friend home. Soon they were outside, and Danielle was down in the grass, unable to stand up.
This was the moment when Caitlin and I first saw them. Darrah acknowledged that her memories of that scene were incomplete because she had been drinking, too. But she recalled telling the guy to back off. When I repeated what she’d said about not cockblocking him, she laughed.
“That’s a nice way of saying you’re not going to get with her.”
After I dropped off Darrah and Danielle at their dorm entrance, they had trouble getting inside. Darrah called a floormate to help carry Danielle upstairs.
“We were basically dragging her up.”
Darrah talked about the incident as though it were nothing.
“Oh, this is not even a crazy night for us. We usually get really messed up.”
She told me that she’d been looking out for Danielle. By her rules, Darrah said, making out with a guy is permitted, even if the girl is drunk. “But we wouldn’t let it go further.”
She didn’t think of the guy as aggressive. “He was just really drunk.”
She had encountered pushy guys at parties but said she’d been lucky enough to avoid anything threatening. One time, she was dancing with a guy when he pinned her to the wall and tried to put his hands down her pants. She told her friends that she didn’t want to hook up with him, so they made sure he stayed away. She thinks it’s crucial to have friends at parties.
I wanted to hear what Danielle thought.
We met on a Wednesday afternoon in Dunn Meadow. The sun glowed in her face as she sat in the grass. The wind blew through her fly-away hairs.
The last time I saw Danielle in the grass, she couldn’t get up. She had been incapable of conversation. Her face had been blank. But now, as we talked in the meadow, she struck me as warm, articulate and happy.
Danielle was no longer an IU student. She was waitressing and saving money to go back to school. She was calm, even reflective, as she talked about that night.
She only remembered the beginning. She recalled drinking five or six shots of vodka to begin her pregame back at the dorm, and she remembered more shots after she arrived at the Villas. She remembered the vodka pong, too, and the raising of her shirt to distract the other team. But she said it was Darrah who lifted the shirt.
“I didn’t show them my titties. She showed them my titties.”
Danielle was trying to be light.
“Such idiots,” she muttered under her breath.
By then the night was spiraling into a fog. She recalled meeting the guy early on, but barely recalled making out with him at the vodka pong party. One of the last details she remembered was being so confused, as she kissed the stranger, that she called him by her boyfriend’s name.
“I’m a make-out whore when I get drunk. I felt really bad about it.”
The rest of the night was lost to her. Later, she looked at photos and text messages to piece together some of what happened.
Darrah had bragged about the partying. But I could hear a tinge of humiliation in Danielle’s voice as she reconstructed that night.
She didn’t remember laying in the grass outside the Villas or trying to get up or the guy climbing on her or Caitlin and I giving her a ride home. “I’m honestly surprised that I came out of that night relatively unscathed,” said Danielle.
She’d never blacked out before to the point where she didn’t remember how she got home. It was so traumatic that she called her dad to tell him. He didn’t scold her. He’d endured rough nights of his own. She also told her boyfriend that she had made out with somebody else. He understood that it was a mistake.
“Everybody gets one,” he told her.
Remembering those words, Danielle got quiet and plucked the blades of grass at her feet.
She wanted me to know that she’s not a cheater. She was just too drunk that night to handle herself. She’s no longer with the boyfriend for reasons unrelated to that night. It turns out he knew the guy she made out with. They’re all friends, she said. They laugh about it. Now that she knows the guy, she doesn’t believe she was in any danger.
Danielle has learned to control her party habits, she said. “I don’t need to be taken care of anymore.” Having a friend with her that night at the Villas did help, even if Darrah was in party mode.
“Crazy shit happens when I party with Darrah. I still have scars from that night.”
I thought she meant emotional scars. Then she held up her arms and showed dark clouds on the skin below her elbows from where she’d hit the ground that night. I asked when she had fallen.
But Danielle couldn’t remember.
“I don’t know. All night.”
As for the guy involved, I doubted he would talk to me. But I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I gave it a try. He texted me and said he did not want to be identified, even by first name. But he agreed to meet at the Starbucks inside the Indiana Memorial Union.
When he showed up for the interview, I was surprised. He was skinnier and smaller than I remembered. I tried to picture him pinning Danielle, but he seemed in no way threatening. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t him.
We sat on the patio outside. It was chilly. He was wearing shorts. After we started to talk, I noticed he was hugging his torso and trembling. Somehow I felt bad for him.
“It’s too cold out here,” I said. “Let’s go inside.”
We went down to the food court and sat at a corner table near Baja Fresh. He told me he’d been a freshman last year. The night of the Villas party, he’d been drinking, too, and said he didn’t remember much. He recalled bumping into Darrah and meeting Danielle and seeing her at the vodka pong party.
“All I know is that at some point in the night we started making out,” he said.
Danielle, he said, was definitely into it. The worst part was finding out later that he knew her boyfriend.
“I felt like shit the rest of the semester.”
As he recounted what he remembered, the guy kept looking around the room. His eyes darted. He couldn’t hold his hands still. When I told him how Caitlin and I had seen him acting so aggressively, his head sank.
“I don’t think it was aggressive,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking about sex or anything like that. It was harmless.”
I described how he’d straddled Danielle against the electric box, how he leaned over her, pressed into her and put his mouth on hers.
“I don’t have any rebuttal for that,” he said. “Because I don’t remember it.”
I asked why he ran away so suddenly. Did he think he was in trouble?
“I started hearing sirens.” He said he was very aware of cops that night because he was under age and dreaded getting caught drinking. In fact, the first thing he thought the next morning, he said, was “No tickets. Awesome.”
He didn’t even remember who he made out with until someone told him. He insisted he hadn’t been trying to have sex with Danielle. Neither of them, he pointed out, was in a condition to do anything.
“It was a crazy night, but it didn’t get out of control,” he said. The fact that he’s still friends with Danielle and her ex-boyfriend proved to him that the incident wasn’t that serious. “It’s a Little Five story. It’s one of those moments.”
Still, he repeatedly said he felt ashamed — for making out with his teammate’s girl, for being on top of Danielle when she was so drunk, for not remembering any of it. But he said he doesn’t think of himself as a predator.
“I don’t associate with douchebags, or I try not to.”
At parties, he said, he’s usually the one pushing the drunk guys away from girls.
I asked if he thought sexual assault was a problem on campus. He started formulating an answer, but kept tripping over words. He started a couple sentences, then stopped to think again. Obviously flustered, he looked at me for guidance.
“What do you want me to say?”
My sober memory of that night was understandably sharper than his, or Danielle’s, or Darrah’s. Yet I still didn’t know how to interpret what I’d seen. So I sought out a couple experts who have dedicated their lives to sifting through the confusion.
I went to see Kristen Jozkowski, a doctoral student in applied health sciences who teaches a class she calls Sex in the College Culture. She’s an educator at the IU Health Center, and her dissertation focuses on how Bloomington students communicate sexual consent.
College campuses tend to be an environment where sexual assault is accepted, Jozkowski said. And the only way that can change, she said, is through a cultural shift in how students think about alcohol and sex. During a week like Little 500, when everyone wants to rage, the combination becomes dangerous.
“No one wants to talk about it,” she said. “Because it sounds like you’re criticizing the party.”
So students make fun of the problem. Jozkowski was disturbed by how the group on the balcony reacted to Danielle being pressed against the electric box.
“We have this mentality that it’s not a serious issue,” she said.
The attitudes are reinforced by male role models. Jozkowski used Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, as an example. After Roethlisberger was suspended amid rape accusations, his return to the game was celebrated instead of condemned. It sent the wrong message.
Jozkowski understands how and why the freshman boy acted aggressively at the Villas, especially after the alcohol impaired his decision-making. “He’s not a predatory
rapist. That’s not his goal,” she said. “There’s this pressure for men to rack up their sex partners. And this is seen as masculine. We focus a lot of this attention on what women shouldn’t do. What we don’t focus on is educating men.”
Much of the problem, she said, stems from the patriarchal power dynamic in our society. Men are stereotypically the aggressors and the providers, so women may feel the need to submit. This is why fraternities are places to be especially cautious about sexual assault. The guys decide who gets into their parties and which girls might get an exclusive invite to private rooms. The men host the party and provide the alcohol, so women may feel indebted.
But the woman always has the right to say no.
“Just because you said ‘yes’ to something doesn’t mean you have to say ‘yes’ to everything.”
Jozkowski stressed this point about the incident at the Villas. Even though Danielle had made out with the guy earlier in the night, she was past the point of consent by the time he was on top of her.
To Jozkowski, consent is an unmistakable, often verbal positive statement that is freely given and not coerced.
“It makes a difference based on your experience with alcohol and your experience with yourself.”
For most victims, just getting up and leaving during an assault is unrealistic. Many women go into a state of shock, or they’re unconscious.
In the Villas situation, Jozkowski said, the woman was certainly not at fault.
Jozkowski’s overall assessment of the situation was that “it could be included under the definition of sexual assault in Indiana.”
However, what I had witnessed was not as serious as a rape. And Jozkowski said, less than 5 percent of men are charged for these crimes.
“A prosecutor is probably not going to take this to trial.”
I was curious about the legality of what I saw, so I got in touch with Rebecca Veidlinger, the Monroe County deputy prosecutor specializing in sex crimes.
It turns out that “sexual assault” is not a term in Indiana’s legal language. There were three possibilities for what I’d witnessed at the Villas.
“You didn’t see rape because rape requires intercourse,” Veidlinger explained.
I also didn’t see something called criminal deviate conduct, in which somebody requires a victim to submit to oral or anal sex, or penetration with an object.
“Basically what you saw is possible sexual battery.”
Indiana law says that for sexual battery to occur, a person must compel a victim to submit to sexual touching through force — unless the victim is so mentally disabled or deficient that they can’t give consent. In this case, Danielle might have been intoxicated enough to be considered mentally disabled.
“Not being able to walk,” Veidlinger said, “is a pretty good sign.”
For prosecutors to determine if Danielle had been legally incapable of consent, many factors would have to be considered: her blood alcohol level, how much she had to drink, how she appeared to witnesses and if she remembered the incident.
“Gentlemen might want to think twice before approaching someone who has reached that level of intoxication,” said Veidlinger.
The prosecutor deals with sexual assault every day. She said a majority of cases involve alcohol. And most of the rapes she deals with are not forcible. They occur when the women are so drunk that they’re unaware of what’s happening to them.
“The huge abundance of drinking to the point of extreme intoxication needs to stop,” she said.
As we talked about the Villas, Veidlinger reiterated that consent at one point does not mean consent later. That’s a common misconception.
Given that she viewed the incident as a possible sexual battery, she said the case might be worth prosecuting.
“I would look favorably upon charging that.”
That night in April, when I saw the guy climbing on Danielle, it never occurred to me that he could be prosecuted. But I knew that what I witnessed was wrong.
The freshman’s aggression. The people watching and laughing from the balcony. Others walking past like it was nothing.
After the fact, when I talked to the three people at the center of it, none thought what had happened was a crime. The guy told me the situation was under control. And Darrah saw it as no big deal. Just another night of partying.
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