Several generations ago, at a college in Northern Virginia, a young woman I’ll call Hannah woke up in a fraternity house bedroom very early one morning, a party still going on downstairs. She remembered, vaguely, going upstairs with a young man she barely knew. She couldn’t remember what she had had to drink, other than too much of it; she couldn’t remember why she had gone with him — she didn’t even find him particularly attractive — or much of anything else except that she had tried to fight him off and been raped.
Hannah managed to get downstairs and go home. She was filled with remorse and recrimination. She told no one, she said, until she shared the story with me three years later. It never occurred to her to cry foul, because in those days it was pretty much okay for young men to “sew wild oats” but too bad if an unwilling woman reaped the results. It was unacceptable for young women to complain, since it was either the woman’s responsibility to look after herself or the woman’s fault that things “got out of hand.” As soon as she found she was not pregnant, Hannah told me, she “just tried to put it out of mind.”
Some things have changed, some things are better, some things stay the same. Here’s a story by Amanda Hess in today’s Washington City Paper, forwarded to me by a friend. It’s about another “Hannah,” in another, but contemporary, college story that happened not far from the one above.
On Saturday, Dec. 9, 2006, Hannah* woke up in her Howard University dorm room with a piece of her life missing. Hannah, a 19-year-old sophomore, had unexplained pain in her rectum and hip. Her panty liner, which she had worn the night before, was missing. Vomit dotted her gloves and coat. Her friend Kerston lay beside her in the skinny dorm room bed. Kerston told Hannah not to shower—they had to go back to the hospital to secure a rape kit. That weekend, Hannah claims that she was provided the following excuses for why she could not receive a sexual assault medical forensic examination: She was drunk; she ate a sandwich; she was a liar; she didn’t know her attacker’s last name; the police had to authorize the exam; she was outside the hospital’s jurisdiction; she wasn’t reporting a real crime; she was blacked out; she changed her story; her case was already closed.
This is the story of the night Hannah was not officially raped. And so far, Hannah has not officially accused anyone of raping her. In the summer of 2007, she filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, Howard University Hospital, George Washington University Hospital, both universities, and several doctors she says denied or interfered with her medical care. She seeks damages for medical malpractice and negligence from the medical defendants and the D.C. police, which she says resulted in “the probable loss of the opportunity to see her assailant brought to justice.” Across the board, the defendants denied Hannah’s claims. The parties in the case, which has yet to go to trial, were not interviewed for this story; this account is reconstructed from sworn deposition testimony taken in Hannah’s suit.
The now-elderly Hannah never speaks of her experience. The contemporary Hannah is filled with anger and a sense of injustice. The contemporary story is complex and unlikely to come to any satisfactory conclusion… but then, these stories seldom do.