Sexual assault survivor shares her message

Lisa Robertson

In 1991, Katie Koestner was 18 and a freshman at the College of William and Mary when a fellow student raped her while on a date. Instead of keeping silent about her attack, Koestner choose to go public in a Time magazine cover story, catapulting the controversial issue of date rape onto the national stage. At 21, Koestner started the consulting firm Campus Outreach Services to raise awareness of issues like sexual assault.

Tonight, Koestner will tell her story in “No-Yes” at 7 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. She spoke on the phone Sept. 19 about her advocacy efforts and tonight’s presentation.

Q: What propelled you to turn your own experiences into becoming an advocate for sexual assault awareness?

A: Personal experience is a powerful motivator in anyone’s life, and having started college only to go through rape by another student there the third weekend, it so completely jarred my life goals and outlook on the planet that I don’t know that I felt like at that time I could focus on anything else. The more I learned about the problem and how little we really understood it, and how little had been said about it, the more determined I became to change things.

Q: When you started Campus Outreach Services, were people willing to contact your organization and have you come to speak about the issue?

A: No, they weren’t. It was an uphill battle… You’re trying to have an organization that’s really not going to be well received because of the topic — of this mission.

Nobody wanted to change. No one wanted to talk about the problem, or acknowledge it, and the victims of the problem mostly didn’t have the strength to really do much about it.

I was just so frustrated and angry of the attitudes I would get from people I would talk to. I would call a high school and I would say, I know you’re doing some assemblies on preventing drunk driving, everyone’s OK with that. And I would say, I can come in and talk about my experience with sexual assault, and talk about how we need to be more respectful in our relationships and make sure that there’s consent at all times. And people would say, ‘Oh, that would be really great for you to do and talk to our girls about that, because they wear these provocative clothes and send the wrong messages to the boys at our school.’

That doesn’t happen that often now. These people know better, even if they think it, they don’t say it. But it doesn’t mean that it’s always like that. If you have an organization where you want to change things, it’s always figuring out creatively how to market and get your agenda taken seriously without making people mad too much.

Q: Today, would you say you reach out to more schools or organizations, or are they more open to reaching out to you?

A: It’s both. We still make it our mission as an organization to reach out to communities that traditionally don’t address the topic. It’s kind of like we’re still activists always, and now at least there’s some groups. Kent State’s really excited to do a lot right now on the topic. It’s awesome. The administrators and the students are really committed to making sure that Kent State is being proactive, which is awesome.

Q: Do you think the use of social media, especially among college-aged students, is leading to an increased amount of sexual violence within that population, with the easy availability to find out so much information on a person and the vulnerability of posting so much personal information?

A: I don’t know if it’s making it worse. It certainly makes people more accessible. You can learn more about someone in a shorter amount of time.

Q: After your own experiences, do you see a change in the way that victims are being treated, both in being able to tell their stories, having their stories believed—especially around the issue of date-rape—and having their cases brought to resolution, whether that’s prosecution or having someone there to listen to them and starting to heal themselves?

A: I think it’s very regional, the reception that victims get by the media, by district attorney’s offices, police officers, medical professionals. Everywhere it’s completely different. There’s not any one expected response.

Q: What do you mean by regional?

A: There are communities that, I think, it’s just the norm to understand that sexual violence happens and that we do what we can in our community to prevent it. There are communities where you’ll find high school health classes covering the topic very well. It might even permeate the education that goes on in churches or synagogues. It might be something that there are a number of resources in the area, like rape crisis centers and education and prevention programs. So everywhere it’s different.

Q: What’s your best advice for students or community members who are interested in advocating for the prevention of sexual violence?

A: There are a number of options. The first would be what I call the direct providing of service through an existing agency, like a rape crisis center that has an outreach coordinator. They could apply to take that job on. That would give them a very specific mission and a job completely dedicated to that.

Another option is to take a job in a school where you’re a teacher and you start a peer education or awareness group. So, it’s not your primary job title but something you take on personally and start a group for.

And then the third option is providing the support behind the scenes for those organizations and groups. For example, you could work in an advertising or social media company, and then you could partner specifically with foundations and nonprofits to help them better market their message.

Q: Do you feel that your advocacy is making a difference?

A: I don’t know that I ever quantify how much of a difference I make, or even if that’s possible. The only thing that I care about is that when I share my story, that number one people are open to hearing what happened, and that I can weave in stories from all kinds of survivors and all different situations to help as many people as possible see how the issue relates to them. And if they clap, give a standing ovation, whatever that is, the most amazing thing is when people either e-mail me afterwards with entire personal stories of how the speech helped them, or come up and talk to me about their own experience and how helpful it was to know they’re not alone.

I think if that stopped happening I would quit. I would do something where I was able to make a difference in a better way. But for now that’s still what I get on a regular basis, so it’s what motivates me.

Q: What would you recommend to motivate college administrators to get them more involved with working on this issue on their campuses?

A: Administrators have a million things on their plate and they prioritize, sometimes for personal reasons but oftentimes more like a business. So in order to get them to care about a social justice issue, you have to market it like a business issue. If it’s going to cost them time, staff time, personnel time, PR, if it’s going to cost them a lawsuit if filed, then they’re going to care more about addressing it. Lastly if they’re out of compliance with the law, they’re going to get caught if you bring it to their attention that they’re not complying.

Those are the top ways to get administrators to think about the issue. What does it cost time-wise? What does it cost liability-wise? And what are my peer institutions doing that is different from what I’m doing to address the topic, because peer pressure also works.

Q: What is the hardest part about hearing stories from students who have been affected by sexual violence?

A: I think the hardest part is knowing that there are just going to be more stories. It’s not like a math problem, where once you come up with the answer you’re done with that problem and you can move on. Knowing that it’s a gigantic issue, and knowing that behind that one story there are five or 500 more in the room is very difficult. But at the same time, it’s when most of those victims are empowered enough to speak out that we shatter the silence basically and bring light to the problem.

Q: What do you want to get across to the Kent State audience?

A: I want to make sure that the men feel like it’s an inclusive message. Just because I’m a female speaker, I’m a survivor, certainly should not mean that men aren’t going to be welcome and appreciated at my presentation.