Trigger warning: rape and sexual assault
On Halloween night in 2015, a female student at Yale University, unnamed, left an orchestra concert after drinking for the first time in her life and throwing up at the concert. Another Yale student, male, named Saifullah Khan, took her home and made sure she got into bed. The next morning one character in this story woke up with few memories of the night before, unknown bruises, and used condoms on the floor. The other character recounted a completely different story, one that involved seduction and consent.
You’ve heard this story enough times to know who the stories belong to.
Fast forward to February of 2018, as this case is being brought to court. After questions from the defense attorney revolving around how much the accuser had drunk, what she was wearing, interpretations of video footage and the gaps in her memory, the jury concluded that the defendant was not guilty. He was acquitted.
The aftermath of the trial has brought arguments over how the trial was conducted, specifically regarding the questions about the accuser. The defense attorney, Norm Pattis, asked why the accuser wore a black cat costume instead of going as “Cinderella in a long flowing gown.” He focused on how drunk she was, inciting that she wasn’t so drunk that she would have lost consciousness, and pointed to text messages exchanged between the two parties that prove she was flirting with him.
I’ve read this story and so many others like it, that now I’m at a loss for words.
Rape cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and notoriously underreported. The evidence presented calls into question everything about the accuser, usually a woman, from her choice of outfit to the “signals” she sent. Hardly ever are these same questions presented to the alleged perpetrator. It almost seems like in rape cases, the court seeks to prove that the accuser is lying until proven honest, rather than that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
If the script were flipped, it all sounds a bit ridiculous. Consider the following: the defendant was drunk, meaning he would be more likely to be seeking a woman to rape. He wore an outfit that accentuated his biceps and chiseled cheekbones in order to lure his victim. He texted the victim flirtatiously beforehand, an unequivocal sign that he planned to have sex with her whether she consented or not.
If this were presented as evidence, the courtroom would laugh.
I tried to find more information about Khan. The accuser said she woke up and didn’t remember anything from the previous night, only condoms on the floor and bruising on her legs. Fragmented memory doesn’t help in rape cases, especially against a defendant who remembers the event perfectly clearly. Who remembers her consent perfectly clearly.
But had Khan been drinking? Is there no room for doubt that his memory of what happened, or really perception, because that’s what this is, may be inaccurate? And, as Khan attends one of the most elite universities in the U.S. if not the world, I think I can be presumptuous and say that he is smart. That he probably knows that if someone is vomiting after heavily drinking that they might have alcohol poisoning. As a college student himself, he probably knows what that feels like, or has just witnessed it enough times to imagine.
It could be that Khan refrains from drinking and has never been in the presence of an inebriated person. The fact that I could not find this information, and yet its equivalent exists about the accuser in every article about this case speaks volumes.
I’m willing to bet that had the accuser been stone cold sober had remembered every detail and reported her case, the outcome would be the same. The defendant’s evidence would still claim the presence of consent, and then the narrative would turn into a battle over what constitutes consent rather than on the fact that something happened and left a woman feeling violated. Consensual encounters shouldn’t leave a woman feeling violated, and yet that is seldom part of the discussion.
It’s important to note that I’m operating on assumptions that I’ve made based only on the evidence I can access. But from my perspective, the waters in rape and sexual assault cases are intentionally murky. It’s easier to focus on details of the encounter rather than question how rape culture exists in society, how prevalent and deeply embedded it is.
It’s time to stop doing what is easy. Change may be slow history has taught us that it is completely possible, and #MeToo is a start.
God knows I don’t want to read this story again.