BY LAUREN ORSINI
UMW junior Brittany Adams kept quiet for six months after a man drugged her and sexually assaulted her last spring. It happened during a visit to her hometown of Chesapeake; she thought he was a friend.
Her boyfriend at the time said he didn’t believe her. He accused her of cheating on him. She says that hospital workers and police back in Fredericksburg weren’t helpful, and neither was the University Health Center.
Adams confided in her parents, who were supportive, but as she was not sure where else to turn, she gave up.
Then another Mary Washington student was assaulted on Oct. 4 at the university parking garage. The highly publicized case—which still hasn’t been resolved—led a progressive campus organization to organize a forum about what the school could do to help sexual assault victims.
“I just blurted out my story at the [Students for a Democratic Society] meeting and everyone embraced me,” she said.
Sharing her story out loud, Adams says, has changed everything.
“I can’t fix what happened to me, but I can make future situations better for others,” she said. “Sexual assault is a real problem, and I want to let victims know that they’re not alone.”
As is often the case, Adams knew and trusted the man who sexually assaulted her.
“He was my best guy friend… We were very close and talked to each other every day,” she said. “He was my boyfriend’s best friend, too.”
She was hanging out with him at his home in Chesapeake when the assault happened.
“Since he was over 21, he offered me some wine,” she said. “We started drinking, but my wine tasted really bitter. He said, it’s just because it’s shitty wine, don’t worry.”
“I’ve been drunk before, but I never felt the way I did,” she said. “My body went completely limp, I couldn’t sit up on my own, and I had to lean on him- all only after one sip. That’s when he started kissing me.”
Adams said that the man raped her three times during the evening, while she struggled the best she could.
“I said distinctly, ‘Stop, it hurts,’ but he said to me, ‘No, you can take it.’ When I cried out and fought against him, he yelled and I got too scared to fight back,” she said.
At some point in the evening, Adams says she passed out. “I ended up falling asleep somehow, but I don’t remember when,” she said. “The next morning, he woke up and acted like everything was fine, even telling me he’d see me later. When I confronted him about the attack, he said I wanted it, and that I should be ashamed for cheating on my boyfriend.”
Adams, feeling vulnerable and confused, didn’t know how to respond.
“I couldn’t believe that he would rape me, so I started convincing myself in a weird way that I wanted it to happen,” she said.
UMW Psychological Services Director Barbara Wagar said that victims can have varied responses to being attacked.
Assailants, Wagar said, are adept at manipulating their victims.
“Individuals who repeatedly engage in antisocial behavior or unacceptable, unlawful behavior, such as sexual assault, often are manipulative, fail to take responsibility for their own actions, and are indifferent to and unable to understand the feelings of others,” she said.
When Adams told her boyfriend about what happened, he said he didn’t believe her.
“He said ‘This is your fault,’ and dumped me,” she said. “He said he couldn’t be with someone who does things like that.”
Hurt and confused, Adams didn’t go to the police in Chesapeake. Instead she returned to Mary Washington.
“When I told friends that I was upset about cheating on my boyfriend, they said, ‘It sounds more like you were raped.’ When I didn’t stop bleeding for days, that’s when I decided to get help,” said Adams.
In the days following Adam’s assault, university records show that she visited the UMW health center three times. She visited Mary Washington Hospital once.
Adams said her visit to the hospital was traumatic for her because, as a first year student, she had to get a ride from a friend and tell them about her experience being assaulted.
“If there had been a place on campus for me to get treated, I wouldn’t have had to share my story or find someone to give me a ride,” she said.
Furthermore, Adams had to take a significant amount of time out of her day to wait in the emergency room for treatment.
“I got to the hospital around 7 p.m. but I wasn’t seen until 12 or 1,” she said. “Then, they gave me a male doctor, and I was very uncomfortable. I asked for a female doctor, but he told me all the female doctors were busy.”
“When they were about to take my blood, they asked, ‘Are you going to report your assault?’” she said. “When I said I didn’t know, they told me that if I was going to have a rape kit, I had to figure it out right away. I burst into tears.”
Though Adams declined a rape kit, she still consented to speak with Officer Nicole Gentry of the Fredericksburg police department.
According to police records, the interview took place on March 11.
“All it amounted to was me telling her in detail what happened to me, and all the officer asked was, ‘Did you say no?’” Adams said. “I said I told my attacker to stop, and she just pursed her lips.”
“I thought, if that’s what the police officer is like, what’s going to happen in court? That’s when I just gave up and decided not to press charges,” she said.
Natatia Bledsoe, spokesperson for the Fredericksburg Police Department, said that police questioning is standard protocol for dealing with a sex assault case.
“First, a regular patrol officer is sent out to question the victim, and we try to send a female one if possible,” she said. “Her task is to get an idea of what type of assault occurred.”
Bledsoe said that Adams may not have found Gentry helpful because the case was not in the Fredericksburg jurisdiction.
“Since Adams’ assault did not occur in Fredericksburg, all we could do was show her how to get in touch with the Chesapeake police and report the assault there,” she said.
Next, Adams sought help at the UMW health center, but felt that she was still unable to get the treatment she needed.
Adam’s health records show that she made three appointments at the health center without receiving treatment or a rape kit. Instead, she was referred to Mary Washington Hospital.
Associate Director of the Student Health Center Susanne Deleon said that the hospital was the only place that Adams could receive the treatment she needed.
“The health center staff is not trained to use a rape kit,” said Deleon. “The only location in Fredericksburg to see a nurse for [rape] kit evidence collection is in the emergency room of Mary Washington Hospital. Any exam done by anyone except the [rape kit certified] nurse would tamper with the evidence.”
When Adams said she had already visited the hospital and was still in pain, she said the Health Center tried to set her up with a local gynecologist.
“They told me they didn’t have the equipment to help me, and they’d set me up with a gynecologist,” said Adams. “But because I have military insurance, they were unable to find a gynecologist that accepted my insurance.”
“When I told them the gynecologist wouldn’t accept my insurance, the nurse said, ‘well, sometimes bleeding isn’t important,’ and suggested I take a warm bath,” she said.
Adams said that the health center also recommended she visit Counseling and Psychological Services on the third floor of Mercer.
“They suggested it like it was this obligatory thing they do,” she said. “I had a bad experience at CAPS in the past, and that was just about a break up, so I didn’t think they’d be able to help me now. They didn’t press me on the issue.”
CAPS Director Wagar said she couldn’t discuss Adams’ case, but said that the center is fully capable of dealing with sexual assault aftermath.
“As part of our clinical training, all staff members were trained in crisis intervention and trauma work, including response to and intervention with sexual trauma,” said Wagar. “In addition, all staff members have attended specialized continuing professional education in these areas and are experienced in assisting victims.”
The second time Adams visited the health center, she received a similar response. The third time she went, she was finally able to get treatment by pleading.
“The third time I went, it was over a week after the attack and I was still bleeding,” she said. “I said to them, please check me, and started crying; then they finally agreed. They said my cervix was clearly traumatized, but didn’t offer me medicine or any information about how to treat it. They said to go to Mary Washington Hospital again.”
During the months that followed, Adams said she suffered in silence, mostly alone, though with continued support from her family.
“I was quite furious when I heard about it,” said her mother in a recent interview. “I really want to kill him. I was very heartbroken for my daughter.”
Over time, through her struggle, Adams said she grew angry and defiant.
“I’ve heard every negative thing that people can say to a rape victim,” she said. “It doesn’t even faze me any more. People will still try to say it’s my fault but I don’t believe it anymore. I’m over it. I know what happened really happened.”
Now, working with SDS, Adams is committed to working to make campus resources available to student victims in ways they were not there for her.
Adams and other student activists want to make students aware of places they can get help after an assault.
“After my assault, I didn’t know that there were any resources available to me,” Adams said. “I only recently have heard of RCASA [Rappahannock Counsel Against Sexual Assault] after starting on this campaign. That’s why one of our goals for the campaign is to set up a 24-7 resource center for students to get help when they need it.”
While Adams feels that she was unable to get the help she needed from the school, she does not think the health center is to blame.
“I’m not trying to say that the health center did a bad job or didn’t help me on purpose,” she said. “In fact I think they did their best. But their best wasn’t good enough, and that shows that UMW needs to make changes to better help assault victims.”