University of Miami alumna Samantha Wortman accepted an invitation to an overnight fraternity formal in Key West during her second semester of freshman year. She had been friends with her date since the sixth grade, so she thought nothing of it. The two discussed the sleeping arrangements – a shared full-sized bed in a room with another couple, but each of them would have their own blanket, Wortman said – and they went.
Wortman said her friend knew at this point that she identifies as lesbian, so she never expected anything weird to happen. But in the middle of the night, Wortman said she woke up to her date, who had spent the night drinking on Duval Street, sexually assaulting her. He touched her and put his hands down her pants while she was supposed to be sleeping, she said.
She froze. She pretended to be asleep for what she remembers as another hour while he continued touching her.
“I didn’t do anything at that time because there were other people in the room, but I should’ve called my mom, should’ve done something,” Wortman said in a phone conversation while recalling the event. “But I totally let him molest me.”
The next morning, Wortman woke up and tried to convince herself that nothing had happened. But on the bus back from the formal, she said she confronted the man about it. He completely denied anything happened.
After that, she chose to distance herself from this long-time friend, a person she had trusted.
“He knew my parents,” she said. “He came to my graduation party for high school.”
And Wortman’s story is not unlike those of several people The Miami Hurricane spoke to over the past few months. Many knew their alleged aggressors.
Alcohol consumption before the attacks was common, and victims shared the inexplicable “frozen” non-reaction, along with self-doubt and regret after the incidents.
Another UM student, Mackenzie, who wanted to be referred to by her first name only, said she feels regret for not fighting back more aggressively during her assault.
“I regret not being stronger about it and yelling or something, but there is nothing I can really do about it at this point,” she said.
The incident took place in Montauk, her hometown on Long Island, New York. One of Mackenzie’s friends was throwing a Fourth of July party during the summer of 2017 and had invited men and women from their high school. Mackenzie drank to the point at which she just wanted to go inside and sleep, so she did. She awoke a while later to one of her male acquaintances from high school entering the room and lying down on the bed between Mackenzie and her friend, who was also groggy. After a few failed attempts to get the man out, the two women gave up and all three started talking.
What at first seemed like a silly annoyance then turned into a uncomfortable situation. The man started touching Mackenzie and putting her hand on his penis, she said. When she tried deflecting, pushing him away and telling him to leave the room, he refused. She said her friend then left the room, wanting to sleep and thinking Mackenzie was into the hookup.
At that point, she said, the man took it as permission to be more aggressive. Mackenzie said when she tried to get up and leave, the man pushed a bureau in front of the door and tried to remove her shirt, but she said ‘no’ again. In response, he took off his clothes and tried to have sex with her, although she said he was unsuccessful.
“He literally said, ‘I’m just horny,’” Mackenzie said. “I was like, ‘OK, well what? Why does that have anything to do with me?’”
After a few minutes, some people pushed the door open and took the bureau out of the way and the man left, Mackenzie said.
The reaction from the man’s friends and some of his and her mutual friends was amusement. They thought it was a consensual hookup.
“I was annoyed that I was going to have to go out there and have people see me and think I wanted to do that with him,” she said.
She said she thought that because she had been drinking, the best decision was to leave the party and remove herself from the setting. She thought she could prevent any unwanted attention by leaving.
Several months later, Mackenzie is almost disassociated from the event. She said she doesn’t feel anything when she thinks about it, except for that tinge of regret for not being more forceful about getting the man out of the room.
She said she doesn’t even know what to call what happened that night. When one of her friends asked why Mackenzie wasn’t more upset or more vocal about what occurred, she tried to make sense of it but couldn’t quite find an answer.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just know I won’t put myself in that situation again ... I don’t like to put a label on it because it’s not technically rape.”
But she knew, when she saw the flood of shared experiences – from catcalls to violent assaults – under the umbrella of the Me Too movement, that what happened to her “definitely qualifies.”
For some women, leaving sexual misconduct and harassment in unclassified folders, gray areas and unspoken corners is a form of self-preservation.
Allison Schifani realized this when she reflected on her experiences of workplace harassment when she was a teenager.
She was 17 and working at a New Mexico breakfast diner chain. When she went to get her paycheck one day, she said her manager told her to take off her pants before he handed over her check. At the time, she thought he was joking. Now, she is “nauseated” by revisiting those memories.
“What was more appalling was the way in which I situated myself to tolerate it,” Schifani said. “Which isn’t to say that I sanctioned the behavior but that it was easier for me, as a kid at that time, to just decide that this wasn’t harassment, that this was a joke, that this was just the way people interacted in the workplace.”
But with age, Schifani, assistant professor of digital humanities in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, recognized how wrong it was to endure that harassment as a child. And as she moved up through the spheres of work and education and enjoyed the privileges attached to being a white woman of a certain status, she said her experiences with sexual misconduct decreased.
None of these women reported what happened to them, either because they feared what would happen or invalidated their feelings at the time, but the tsunami of similar stories in recent months – and the very public toppling of men previously believed to be untouchable – encouraged them to come forward with their stories.
Wortman said she didn’t file a report and instead tried to force herself to accept what happened, a choice she regrets.
“The fact that I take pride in my individuality and autonomy, yet this happened to me and I said nothing – it kills me,” she said.
The stakes of her silence are higher now. Although she said she has moved on, she is unsettled by the fact that her alleged attacker is attending medical school to become a physician.
The nature of sexual assault and misconduct – how it is deeply connected to existing power structures and discrimination – has historically made it taboo to retell incidents aloud. Even though some of that systemic silence has been broken up by the unabashed coming forth of survivors and advocates, there are still strong barriers to reporting incidents.
One such blockade is a fear of being revictimized by the details required and (sometimes accusatory) questions asked by police during a criminal investigation – “What were you wearing?” “Did you drink?” But, more often, what keep people from coming forward are psychological stops, and it takes a strong impetus to overcome those hesitations, like the fear of an aggressor victimizing someone else.
Sometimes the feeling of isolation makes survivors stay quiet. For one student, being a male survivor was the issue. He asked that his name not be used because he did not want to incur disciplinary action for speaking out about a complaint that was already handled by the university,
When he was groped by and forced to fondle a friend in fall 2017, he said he at first “didn’t really know what to think of it” but knew it felt wrong. Like other survivors The Miami Hurricane spoke to, he was paralyzed by the situation.
“A lot of people think there’s a fight-or-flight response, but there’s also a freeze response,” he said. “In the back of your mind, you realize there’s a threat, but you don’t do anything because it’s just hard to describe.”
And although he wanted to give his alleged aggressor the benefit of the doubt, he said he realized it had not been “purely an innocent accident.”
He sought counseling, did research and noticed how his anxiety intensified. He said he even got an MRI scan done to rule out anything more serious.
During that time, he said he received angry text messages from the alleged attacker and mutual friends. That was when he decided to report the incident to the university.
Under Title IX, he got an immediate protective order and asked the person be moved from the on-campus residential housing where they both lived. He followed through with the process, appealed the first decision by the Dean of Students Office and got what he asked for: a safe educational environment where he would not have to worry about running into his alleged attacker in housing or in class – the person was banned from on-campus housing and put on final probation.
“Every day I wake up and you’re distracted, you know?” he said. “You’re distracted out of anger or fear or sadness.”
Even so, the process of seeking justice and closure took a toll on him. He said his friends and family, those that knew what had happened, were split. Some people encouraged him to continue pushing for his alleged attacker to face consequences. Others didn’t understand why he was still fighting for this over an attack that is seen as less severe than rape.
Even if the alleged offense wasn’t what he thought of as the stereotype of an instance of sexual assault, he still felt violated.
“It’s not as damning as some other offenses, but it’s still unwanted and shouldn’t just be played off as something you should just get over,” he said.
And when he saw people who didn’t know what happened, friends from class who would casually ask “How are you?” in passing, he said he didn’t know how to act.
“At some points, I just really want to tell them what’s going on,” he said. “I want to tell them everything. I want someone to say they believe me. I want someone to say it’s not my fault. I want someone to tell me that I’m not overreacting, that it’s perfectly normal for me to carry this baggage for a long time.”
The psychological scars that sexual assault can leave on survivors are sometimes wide, dark and close to the surface, even if the incidents happened years – or even decades – before survivors speak about them.
Lillian Manzor, chair of the Department of Modern Languages at UM, has worked at the university for about 20 years. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, when she had just started at the university but was a well-respected, tenured professor for her work in Latin American studies, she was victimized by another member of the UM faculty. It happened in the middle of a university-wide meeting with about a dozen or more colleagues in attendance.
During a meeting to discuss a pool of applications – Manzor would not give too much detail in order to protect herself from legal retribution – she disagreed with the male colleague about the merits of a certain applicant.
She said he then leaned over, grabbed her bare knee tightly and asked, “So how long have you been here?” She was taken aback by the combination of the question and what was occurring below the table, and she said she didn’t think that mattered.
She said he slid his hand further up her thigh and said, “Well, I think you’re completely wrong.” In that instant, she froze. She did not say anything about the hand when it happened – a reaction she is still puzzled by – although she said she swatted it away under the table.
“Why did I react the way I did?” she asked. “Why didn’t I just pull the hand off and tell, ‘What the hell are you doing touching my bare leg?’ Why didn’t I do that which I think I would do today? ... I honestly don’t know. I know that I was in shock.”
When she ran into a friend after the meeting, she looked so aghast he asked her what had happened.
She said she recounted the story without giving the man’s name, but her friend figured out who likely had grabbed her. Her friend told her this man was well-known for inappropriate touching and grabbing in the College of Arts and Sciences, Manzor said.
Manzor decided to report the assault to the sexual harassment officer in the College of Arts and Sciences. At the time, the system for reporting was much more fragmented than the centralized protocol most universities have introduced in the past few years. Again, when she began telling what had happened without naming the alleged aggressor, the officer could guess the man to whom she was referring. When she spoke to the chair of the man’s department, Manzor said he told her he had encouraged other faculty to report the man, too.
She was stunned by how many people knew about this man’s behavior, yet he continued to violate coworkers – often times those who were younger and seeking tenure – because he already has a full professorship.
Manzor filed a complaint with Faculty Affairs and, a few months later, she said she was told her aggressor would be given a one-semester leave with pay and would be required to complete workshops and psychological counseling.
Although she said she was disappointed, she trusted the university to take the appropriate measures. But she did leave the investigators with an ultimatum: “If I hear one more thing about this person, I am not coming through these regular networks again,” she said. She would go directly to the local media with her story.
She said she has not heard anything else since then, except the occasional profile on the man’s research in university newsletters. When she sees him around campus, she goes the opposite way.
“I just get the creeps,” she said.
She is still outraged about how she could be made to feel so violated during what was supposed to be a professional meeting – and at the fact that her alleged aggressor still teaches at the university as of fall 2017.
Since the incident, he has moved departments several times, and in those departments, some female junior faculty members know his reputation. She knows he has led an eight-week study abroad program with students, has taken sabbatical, been awarded grants and continued to publish.
Manzor said part of her wishes she could say the man’s name and make her story known in all its details because it would give other people permission to come forward. Even now, she said, to bring accusations against a “big male name” is extremely difficult. She is certain that if his name came forth, other people would have experiences to share.
“It’s not so much about him,” she said. “But it’s really about the women who have probably been harassed by this guy throughout the years and have their stories and are being eaten up by their stories inside of them.”
For Manzor, the Me Too movement is a beacon of hope and progress. When she compares this moment in women’s history to even a few decades ago, when she was a graduate student clueless about how to report sexual misconduct, things are looking better.
Sexual misconduct is known to have been rampant in the academic spheres of yesteryear, Manzor said – she knew of at least three senior scholars who had openly harassed graduate students and then were suddenly set up with a full-endowed professorship at a different institution – but that cycle cannot continue.
In order to make a positive change, she said institutions need to ensure they are free from discrimination of any kind and, furthermore, that they are vocal about their lack of tolerance for misconduct. Actions need to align with messages, from the top of the university to the bottom.
“It’s good for the institution to acknowledge and address these things and act openly and transparently – as open and transparent as you can in legal cases – by acknowledging that if any place, the university and the classroom and research have to be sacrosanct spaces,” she said.
Part of the debate surrounding the Me Too movement is a kind of intergenerational tension about what it means to speak up and seek support after being victimized. Some women from older generations have criticized young women for not having “thick skin” to deal with these incidents. The counter-argument is that women did not have the choice to seek justice because terms like “sexual harassment” and the spectrum of sexual misconduct were only spoken, if ever, in hushed tones.
Manzor said when it comes to misconduct, it’s not a matter of how much a person can put up with but a right to live, work and study without fear. And if people are made to feel uncomfortable, they should have access to resources that allow them to report their aggressor and feel supported while continuing to be themselves, whole human beings with other responsibilities and concerns.
That idea – that a survivor is an entire person who has just been deeply affected by an incident – is what UM Title IX investigator Maria Sevilla uses as the guiding principle in her work. Sevilla, in her short tenure at UM, has been a leader in pushing for sexual assault education programming and advocacy. She is one of the few people at the university whose job is to push for a change in culture surrounding sexual violence, and it is a big responsibility.
Sevilla began her career as a lawyer working in a domestic violence clinic at Georgetown University and, since then, she said her passion for helping victims has never died. Sevilla serves on the President’s Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, which is co-chaired by Ashley Falcon, assistant professor of public health and Kim Martin, UM Counseling Center’s director of outreach and a licensed social worker and therapist.
Yet more important even than gathering data and scheduling training sessions is making sure the conversation doesn’t die out, Sevilla said. She doesn’t want campus to revert to where it was, with students coming in not knowing what consent and sexual violence are, or afraid to have important conversations about sex or even worse, people indifferent to the silent epidemic plaguing institutions.
““The conversation is just light years away from where we were five years ago,” Sevilla said. “Until a year ago, people who didn’t want to think about these things could just not think about this. They could just pretend this wasn’t an issue. But now, if you don’t want to think about it, you have to lock yourself in a room with no TV, no radio and stare at the wall.”
So Sevilla and the other coalition members are investing in students who care about the issue, so advocacy and education are being filtered through the mouths of people who are young and in-tune with the student experience. At times, that has created strife within the coalition, she said – like when students created a poster that said “slut” on it to create dialogue about slut-shaming and rape myths. Falcon said keeping the tone young and approachable rather than preachy is the trick.
“If you don’t do that, you’ll be laughed out of the room and you won’t be effective,” she said. “So you’ve got to keep it real.”
And part of keeping it real is shifting the angle. Instead of promoting abstinence or unrealistic expectations of students’ sexual behaviors, the message is one of empowerment: If you want to have good sex, and you want it to be good for everybody involved, this is what you need to do.
“They have never been talked to about sex like that,” Sevilla said. “And that’s a failure from other generations.”
So far, the plan has been effective. Sevilla said although she could not provide exact numbers, there were almost as many reports of misconduct in fall 2017 as in the whole 2016-2017 academic year. To the coalition, this is a good sign. It means more students are finding the resources they need and seeking help.
Though, as a professor, Schifani said she sees “clear avenues” for her students to follow should they be victimized in their time at UM, the problem is much larger than people think. The root of sexual violence, when traced back from the current moment, is buried in the mammoth of patriarchal power dynamics.
Few people willingly spend their time thinking, writing and talking about difficult concepts, such as disenfranchisement and gender discrimination, Schifani said, but it’s part of her work as an academic. She enjoys unpacking huge problems and analyzing how their impact trickles down into communities, something the Me Too movement has largely missed. Schifani said going after individuals with allegations of misconduct isn’t wrong, but it ignores the larger-scale issues.
“That does a lot for personal healing, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for changing the structural inequality which consistently positions women as inferior,” she said. “If it can be just ‘bad apples,’ then the system which is working to position women that way doesn’t have to change.”
People are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, too, Schifani points out. Being a wealthy Hollywood actress with a large platform and certain level of financial stability places someone at a lower risk than a working-class woman, person of color or someone from the LGBTQ community, or any combination of those characteristics.
“If we are not thinking about that, we’re going to be in trouble because we don’t want it just to get better for Hollywood, right?” she said. “We want it to get better top to bottom.”
Making sweeping culture shifts means engaging in difficult conversations about sex, about gender dynamics and about respect.
A student who asked to go by Veronica, her first name, said it is a relief to feel the taboo of certain subjects being lifted. Before Me Too, she said she would laugh when telling her story because it was the only way she could take control of the experiences – by making them into a funny story.
“It’s weird to think that it’s something we just live with,” she said. “Before this, it was just something that … we go through all this, but we don’t really talk about it.”
What she really wanted to do was cry. She wanted to cry when a man on the same Metro Rail car as her began masturbating in front of her while she was on her way back to campus from her boyfriend’s apartment on a Saturday morning
She wanted to cry when, that same week, she saw another man in a parked car watching her and masturbating as she was walking on Stanford Drive with a friend.
She felt helplessly silenced by these men, both strangers, who could do whatever they wanted without repercussions. Veronica was able to take a picture of the license plate of the vehicle on Stanford Drive, which she sent to an online University of Miami Police Department form, but she never heard back about if they caught the man.
In some ways, Veronica said, the risk of being violated anywhere, even in a public space, is a sick burden shared by women and other victims.
“It’s such a unique experience to feel like you have to watch your back all your life,” she said, “And it’s just something that we’re used to. You never really understand unless you’re going through it.”
Annie Cappetta and Jackie Yang contributed to reporting.