In response to “Harvard’s sexual assault policies reflect larger issue”

In November of my freshman year at USC, a fellow student raped me.

I was intoxicated, meaning I was drunk. I was also incapacitated, meaning I was intoxicated to the extent that I was no longer capable of normal activity such as consenting to sex.

Many of us have gotten intoxicated to the point of incapacitation before. A problem, however, for some students — often, but not always female — is that this carries an undue risk of sexual assault.

For this reason, USC’s policy on sexual misconduct specifically defines sexual activity with a person who is incapacitated as non-consensual, meaning sexual assault. This is similar to, though an improvement upon, the California Penal Code, which states that sexual assault occurs in circumstances “where a person is prevented from resisting by any intoxicating or anesthetic substance” or “where a person is at the time unconscious of the nature of the act.”

Such provisions are frequently misinterpreted to mean that persons with any amount of alcohol in their body cannot give consent, thus giving deranged and retributive women license to run around having sex with men just one shot deep and then later accusing them of rape.

An Oct. 21 op-ed published in the Daily Trojan (“Harvard’s sexual assault policies reflect larger issue”) for example, incorrectly stated that “USC’s sexual assault policy states that consent cannot be given while the victim is intoxicated,” and thus declared the grievance process a matter of who can be first to cry rape.

In fact, the only place where USC’s policy addresses intoxication is to state that the intoxication of the accused cannot serve as an excuse for the assault committed, just as being intoxicated does not get you out of robbery, murder or any other crime.

There is an essential difference to be noted here between a person who is “intoxicated” and a person who is “incapacitated.” “Intoxicated” means you’ve imbibed some sort of mind-altering toxin — i.e. alcohol, marijuana or cocaine — but it does not necessarily mean you’re incapable of walking, talking or consenting to sex. For all you know, I could be intoxicated right now, but I am still capable of writing this article drawing this important distinction, as I am still capable of giving my consent (should I want to) to sexual activity.

If, on the other hand, I were intoxicated to the point that I “could not understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual activity,” which is how USC defines “incapacitated” in Section E.2 III of the Student Conduct Code, I could not give my consent. I literally wouldn’t be capable. On that night in November 2011, I wasn’t capable.

To suggest to students who are raped while incapacitated that their rapes are loopholes that should be expunged from university policy is to discourage these students from coming forward, as well as to discourage their peers from recognizing these instances as rape, including the very people who — as a result — might not hesitate to perpetrate them.

Make no mistake, this sort of misinformation is the same thing for which the university has fallen under scrutiny, for which more than 80 institutions are under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. As students, we might not be held legally responsible for these missteps, but that does not mean they are not equally as damaging or as dangerous.

It heartens me to see more people entering the campus dialogue around sexual violence because I am a firm believer that we cannot begin to solve this crisis until we are first comfortable talking about it.

But as much as I want to encourage open dialogue about the issue, I also want to remind my fellow Trojans that any conversation about sexual assault has an impact on a very real threat to USC students. Sexual assault happens here. Students rape other students who are incapacitated, intoxicated or sober — and the common denominator in all of these scenarios is that the assaulted person has not given consent.

To my fellow students, I would urge you: Before you profess yourself an expert in sexual assault policy, take some time to educate yourself about those policies and their context. Before you dismiss incidents of rape, like my own, where the victim was incapacitated, as simply a matter of who reported whom, consider the experiences of those individuals and what it might be like to go to school every day in an environment where those experiences are not taken seriously.

And for that matter, consider the experiences of all the survivors of sexual violence on this campus — of which there are many genders, colors, backgrounds and nations; and who, for the most part, you are completely unaware of because we still live in a society where survivors are safest being silent.

On-campus entities like the Title IX Office and the Center for Women and Men offer resources and programming to help students learn more about sexual assault and associated laws, policies and procedures. RISE Student Alliance also offers educational programming by and for students to help foster awareness within the campus community.


Francesca Bessey

Co-founder of RISE Student Alliance

USG Assistant Director of Wellness Affairs