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Understanding Trauma Is an Important Part of Every Sexual Violence Story

Posted on Sep 12, 2016

By Jessica Luther

  “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” exposes the epidemic of cover-up that surrounds sexual assault and college football players. (Akashic Books)

The following excerpt is from “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape,” copyright 2016 by Jessica Luther, used with permission of Akashic Books and Edge of Sports.

    Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape
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There is ample fascination with how people who report traumatic violence change their stories. So much time is spent nitpicking details from different interviews, depositions, and testimonies of the person reporting, and it is pretty common to find inconsistencies. That is a trademark of experiencing trauma.

If we are going to ever have a better conversation about this problem, within college football and beyond, we need a better understanding of how trauma affects the brain. The Jameis Winston case works well for this.

One of the biggest questions around [Erica] Kinsman’s case is the possibility of a drink she had that night being drugged. In the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which premiered on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival, Kinsman says on camera, “I’m fairly certain that there was something in that drink.” But two separate tests by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) have shown no evidence of drugs in her system that night. She also went out of her way at the FSU disciplinary hearing to determine if Winston had violated the student code of conduct by assaulting her (they found he did not) to make it clear that she herself never speculated that she had been drugged nor told the police that.

Kinsman’s lawyer, John Clune, explained the discrepancy to me this way: “She knows that the tests did not show the presence of anything, although the tests never keep up with the latest and greatest ways to drug women. For example, at FSU specifically and other college campuses, using Visine as a date rape drug in not uncommon. There are a number of substances that would not show in a test.” He went on to tell me, “Erica feels strongly that something was in her drink, but whether she can ever prove it is entirely another matter. She will always believe that there was something in her drink as she did not consume enough alcohol to have the impact she felt after taking that shot.”

Once again, we are left with answers that are unsatisfying for everyone.

From the beginning, there have been claims that Kinsman is in this only for the money. This is a common refrain about sexual assault victims, who are often failed by the criminal justice system and so seek some form of justice in the civil courts.

In late September 2014, Winston’s attorney, David Cornwell, sent FSU a 13-page letter in which he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times, that in February 2014, Kinsman’s lawyer “demanded $7 million to settle potential claims against FSU, the Tallahassee Police Department, and Winston.” But Kinsman’s lawyer told the Tampa Bay Times that it was Mr. Cornwell who initiated the negotiation over settling. “The facts that Mr. Cornwell chose not to disclose are that it was he himself who reached out to our client’s former counsel Patricia Carroll to discuss paying off our client,” her attorney told the paper. He also said his client’s “main concern was holding Winston accountable, not money, and that Cornwell threatened to sue for civil racketeering.” On January 7, 2015, on the same day that Winston announced he would leave FSU and enter the 2015 NFL draft, Kinsman filed a lawsuit against Florida State. Then, on April 16, two weeks before the draft, she filed one against Jameis Winston too. As one commenter on the site ProFootballTalk (of all places) put it, “Geniuses, if this were a cash grab, don’t you think she’d wait until AFTER the draft to release public information that might negatively effect [sic] his draft stock? It’s MENSA up in here.”

Perhaps the most popular reason given by people who discount Kinsman’s allegations is that she has not had exactly the same recounting of all the events that night, specifically the ones leading up to the moment when she left the bar and got into the cab with Winston and his two teammates. But memories clouded by alcohol and that precede traumatic violence are often unreliable. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, gave a presentation at the National Institute for Justice’s Research for the Real World Seminar in December 2012, titled “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault,” during which she quoted a 15-year police veteran about what it is like to interview sexual assault victims: “The stuff they say makes no sense. So no, I don’t always believe them, and yeah, I let them know that. And then they say, ‘Never mind. I don’t want to do this.’ Okay, then. Complainant refused to prosecute; case closed.” In the same presentation, Campbell explained that “memory consolidation—it is a slow, fragmented process. It’s a documented neurobiological phenomenon” that can be made even worse if the person trying to retrieve and consolidate memories from when they had alcohol in their system. She stressed that “the story may come out as fragmented or sketchy” but “what it really is, most often, is that the victim is having difficulty accessing the memories. Again, the content of the memory the research tell us very clearly is accurate. It’s just going to take some time and patience for it to come together.” That Kinsman has struggled to piece together those details is as much evidence of her experiencing trauma as it is that she has fabricated events.

All of this must then be contextualized in what we know about false reporting. The very act of reporting sexual assault leads not to questions about how this could happen or who did it but rather if it happened at all. According to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, “The American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false.” Only 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are false. That is on par with all other crimes, except that it is the victims of this particular crime who must constantly prove their trustworthiness before people will even entertain the possibility that they are victims at all.

People also question why Kinsman rode on the back of Winston’s scooter afterward, when he drove her back to campus, and why she tweeted nicely about the team and Winston during the 2013 football season before news broke about the case. In the immediate wake of trauma, when someone is unsure of what has just happened or fears repercussions of not going along with the person who has just been violent to them, they will do things that might look confusing on paper. During her 2012 presentation, Campbell said that biologically, many victims respond to violence by releasing hormones, specifically high levels of opiates, that block pain and numb sensation: “The affect that a victim might be communicating during the assault and afterward may be very flat, incredibly monotone—like seeing no emotional reaction, which again sometimes can seem counterintuitive to both the victim and other people.” Many victims may also find it difficult to make choices during or immediately follow the trauma, especially if they are still with the person who they feel harmed them. As Campbell put it, “When they’re in the middle of the assault, strategies like ‘Oh, you coulda, you shoulda, you would have done this’—they can’t even think of the options, let alone execute them.” We will never understand why Kinsman got on that scooter (she might never understand it either), but it’s not evidence that disputes her claims. 

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