Tucker Reed, a student at the University of Southern California, had been dating her boyfriend for several weeks before they got drunk and had sex for the first time on 3 December, 2010.
If not quite in love, they were serious about each other, and it should have been the consummation of their relationship. Instead, according to Reed, it was rape, and the beginning of a nightmare. “I said no. But my humanity didn’t matter to him.”
Los Angeles prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, and three years later the facts of that night remain disputed, but the aftermath now affects not just Reed but her ex-boyfriend, USC and other universities across the United States.
The 23-year-old, who said she has felt traumatised and suicidal, named her alleged rapist in a blog and posted photographs of him, triggering debate over the ethics of outing someone who has not been charged with or convicted of a crime.
Reed, the daughter of bestselling authors, also accused USC of failing to properly investigate the alleged assault and supply proper help, amounting to what felt like a second rape. She mobilised other students with similar stories. That has prompted a federal investigation, it emerged last week, into whether USC violated Title IX, a federal gender equality law.
Reed’s campaign also helped galvanise similar complaints at other universities, including Swarthmore College, Dartmouth College and UC Berkeley, which now face scrutiny over allegedly hostile environments for women on campus.
It was a wake-up call, she told the Guardian, to victims’ often silent suffering: “They are broken and bleeding and trying to heal. Many of them wouldn’t even have attempted to seek justice because they know they wouldn’t receive it.”
The campaign is gaining momentum. Occidental College has hired two former sex crimes prosecutors to review its handling of sex abuse allegations following complaints earlier this year.
USC is now in the spotlight because of a federal investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), launched on June 26 after a formal complaint from Reed and others detailing 16 cases.
The OCR decided to investigate three of those 16. Some media reports inaccurately said it was probing more than 100 cases.
The provost, Elizabeth Garrett, defended the institution in a letter to faculty and staff on Friday, which said the university did not tolerate sexual misconduct in any form:
“There are not 100 students who have complained to the federal government about the process, as some have claimed. Instead, a student alleged that USC had not responded appropriately in 16 cases; the OCR accepted three of those cases for further investigation”.
The OCR had dismissed the charge that there was a “hostile environment” at USC, she added. “It determined there was not sufficient evidence to pursue that claim, but it agreed to look into our grievance procedures, as well as the three specific cases. Our process is always open to review and improvement, and we will collaborate fully with the OCR and look forward to suggestions it might have.”
Reed, speaking from her family home in Oregon, said the university had failed her and many others. In a survey of 200 students almost half – 47% – said they had experienced some sort of sexual violence and found the school’s security, medical and psychiatric services to be inadequate, she said.
Its policies were fine; the problem was implementation, with some administrators unable or unwilling to respond effectively to claims of harassment, stalking and assault, she said. As a result few reported abuse. “The likelihood of getting justice for it is so slim you just don’t go there.”
Some critics on social media have accused Reed of distorting her own case, which police dropped citing lack of evidence, and seeking a vendetta against her ex. She continued dating him for two years after the alleged assault, which she reported in late 2012 after they broke up.
She had stayed in the relationship, she said, because although traumatised by the alleged assault she was in denial that it was rape, a common reaction when the assailant is known to the victim. Friends witnessed her distress the day after the alleged rape, she said. Plus she had subsequently secretly recorded her boyfriend confessing. “I took control over what happened to me,” she said.
Reed is pursuing a civil claim against her ex. He is counter-suing for libel. She rejected suggestions she had ruined his life. “This person’s actions, decisions, maybe ruined his life.”
Two years younger than Reed, he graduated this year. Reed, who missed many classes after going public, is due to return in September for her final year.
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