Friend or Foe

In an era of hooking up, when does a date become rape?

The casual, "friends with benefits" nature of Mike and Sarah's relationship was reflected in the unpredictable nature of their sleepovers at the start of the semester. Mike's chronology of the first six weeks includes a half-dozen sleepovers: once the first week -- an incident he describes as "romantic"; nothing the second week; another sleepover the third week, "just as friends"; and a sleepover in both the fifth and sixth weeks, during which some sexual contact occurred, Mike says.

But while Mike and Sarah may agree on certain dates, their interpretations of the relationship differ drastically. Summarizing Sarah's version, a CSU official writes that Sarah did "not recall dating [Mike] and is clear that she never felt like [she and Mike] were ever dating.... She never had any interest in [Mike] in any case."

"One time we went and got ice cream," Sarah recalls. "I just thought that we were getting ice cream. But I guess he thought of it as a date. He seemed to see me as a girlfriend."

Lieutenant Karl Swenson's office hands out fliers educating students to the dangers.
Lieutenant Karl Swenson's office hands out fliers educating students to the dangers.
CSU counselor Mike Benn says men should ask permission every step of the way: "If he'd asked, he would have known."
Anthony Camera
CSU counselor Mike Benn says men should ask permission every step of the way: "If he'd asked, he would have known."

Mike, meanwhile, describes his relationship with Sarah as "heating up" during this same period. "We had a sexual relationship, but we didn't have sex," he explains. "We had done everything but that."

Rape crimes are usually divided between acts that involve strangers and those that involve acquaintances. While the latter are much more common, experts agree that the first category gets all the attention.

That certainly has been the case in Fort Collins. Between May 10, when a woman was attacked on Raintree Drive, and August 23, when another woman was raped on Landings Drive, a total of seven young women were sexually assaulted in Fort Collins.

Victims described their attacker similarly: The rapist was a white male with a dark complexion, between twenty and thirty years of age, a smoker who drove a faded, light-blue 1980s sedan. The attacks all followed a fairly consistent pattern: The man entered a ground-level apartment at night and blindfolded the woman before assaulting her.

Police soon concluded there was a strong probability that the same person was responsible for all of the attacks. Then in September, DNA traces left by the intruder were found to match those of a Philadelphia-area serial rapist who'd attacked a half-dozen women between 1997 and 1999; one of the women, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, had been killed.

A rape committed by a total stranger is a relatively rare occurrence. Yet the random, uncontrollable nature of such attacks is frightening, and for many weeks this past year, young women in Fort Collins reported feeling under siege. Some said they'd begun sleeping with makeshift weapons near their beds. Fliers warning women to be cautious papered the town.

The publicity provoked a dramatic response from the community. By mid-November, the Fort Collins police had received 1,265 tips on the case and identified 870 possible suspects. DNA tests eliminated 475 of them. Although the attacks have stopped and police believe the man responsible has left the area, the case remains open.

But while the topic of rape has never been as pervasive in Fort Collins as it has been this fall, authorities don't agree on what effect that talk has had on other rape filings.

Lieutenant Karl Swenson has worked as a campus cop for nearly three decades. This year, he says, he's seen a drop in the number of rapes reported on the CSU campus. He suspects the frightening and violent nature of the seven assaults has made victims of acquaintance rape shy away from filing their own complaints, which may seem relatively trivial by comparison.

"I think that's irresponsible," Rita Davis, spokeswoman for the Fort Collins Police Department, says of Swenson's theory. In fact, city police have noticed an increase in the number of reported sexual assaults since this summer, when residents went on high alert. One of those reports was false, she adds, and was probably connected to all of the publicity surrounding the attacks.

At the same time they were working out the details of their particular friendship, Mike and Sarah were not limiting themselves to each other. Mike never had sex in high school, he says, and he wasted no time exploring that realm at CSU. He remembers having sex with three different women in the first few weeks of school. (A couple of people remember him saying there were as many as six.)

A few of the encounters were one-night stands, lubricated by plenty of alcohol. According to Mike's roommate, Mike was proud of his ability to attract women to him. The roommate also says he never witnessed Mike having any "meaningful relationship" with a girl. Still, Mike says that after he had sex with one woman, they stayed platonic friends. Contacted by phone, that woman agrees.

Sarah, who had recently broken up with her hometown boyfriend, was not monogamous, either. A couple of young men on Mike's dorm floor had sex with her, according to school reports. Two say the incidents occurred with surprisingly little introduction: They were in their rooms, Sarah -- who often was visiting Mike -- came in suddenly, they had sex, and then she left. "She was very forward," says one.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help