Katie Stevens was only 17 when she was sexually assaulted at a university party — but the hardest part was when the police didn’t believe her. Now, she’s reclaiming her life, dealing with Saanich Police and her long healing process.
It’s Halloween weekend, 2007, and a 17-year-old girl is about to board the ferry to visit her friend at the University of Victoria. She’s thinking about parties, independence and being free from parental eyes for the first time.
“The weirdest part is, I can remember the last thing my mom told me before I left was ‘Watch your drink,’ but I thought, why would that matter — that would never happen to me,” says Katie Stevens, now 21. “You never think it’s going to happen to you.”
That night, Stevens did party with her friends. They squished into costumes — Stevens’ a classic white Marilyn Monroe dress — they drank, they laughed, they danced. That night, Stevens left her friends to make out with the boy she’d been talking with. “Don’t worry,” she told them, “I’m not going to have sex with him. I just want to kiss someone. I’ll be back in five minutes.” But Stevens wasn’t back, and soon friends were on a mad search. Hours later, she was found by a residence adviser in a hallway, nearly unconscious, foaming at the mouth and unaware of everything.
On the heels of recent assaults gaining media attention this year in Victoria, stigma has remained one of the most challenging factors in dealing with sexualized violence. For four and a half years, Stevens, a Vancouver native, has been dealing with an assault she now believes involved a date rape drug, discrimination from police and lack of information. In an effort to promote dialogue about violence against women, she has come forward with her story.
Fight or flight
Paramedics and police arrived on campus the night of Stevens’ attack. She was questioned, but was unresponsive. It was best friend Sarah LoBosco, then 18, who told attendants, “I think she’s been sexually assaulted; something is really wrong — she needs to go to the hospital.” Stevens refused hospital care, though, for fear of her parents’ reaction. Paramedics gave her a blood sugar test, but did not test for GHB and did not take her to the hospital.
“When Katie left us, she wasn’t even drunk — she’d had maybe two drinks, and was maybe a bit tipsy,” says LoBosco, now 21. “When we found her, I’d never seen anyone like that in my life. She was limp, there was drool on her face and all she would say is, ‘It’s OK, I kicked him in the balls’.”
Stevens awoke the next morning dizzy and off balance, unlike any hangover she’d ever known. She was missing her underwear, then went to the bathroom and wiped blood. Later, she would find fingerprint bruises on her right arm. Police were called again and, finally, Stevens went to the hospital to perform a rape kit.
Meanwhile, Stevens’ friends were questioned by police — questioned about what Stevens was wearing that night, how many sexual partners she’d had, who she was seeing, what her drug and alcohol intake was and how often she partied.
“I can remember thinking, ‘They’re going to get this guy, because I’m doing everything right. I’m telling them everything I can, and they’re going to get him,’” Stevens says.
But while police were able to locate and question the alleged assaulter, they would not release his last name or information to Stevens. Police also said there was no reason to suspect any date rape drug had been used, and did not obtain a search warrant. While they were in possession of the report from the rape kit, police did not interview the Sexual Assault Response Nurse. No GHB was found in Stevens’ blood, though by the time she was taken to hospital it was nearly 16 hours after the assault, and GHB leaves the system within 6 to 12 hours. In a phone call that Stevens would later receive from police, the constable told her, “I believe you don’t remember what happened, but that you did have consensual sex.”
“According to Saanich Police, it seemed like Katie and this guy just had a couple of drinks and decided to have sex,” says LoBosco. “They’re saying there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges for an assault, but a lack of evidence doesn’t mean that he’s innocent and Katie’s a liar — it just means you can’t charge him. It seemed like they had decided what type of person Katie was and that she didn’t deserve the same type of treatment that a victim of any violent crime should have.”
Only weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a person cannot give advance consent to sexual activity while unconscious. Since 2007, legislation has also been passed regarding consent while under the influence and the legal age of consent in B.C. has been raised for teenagers from age 14 to 16.
Due to questions raised in the writing of this article, Stevens’ case is now being reviewed by the Saanich Police Professional Standards Office, overseen by the Office of the Police Complaints Commission. Media spokesperson Cst. Dean Jantzen says that, due to the review, he is now unable to comment on the 2007 incident, though he stated that the department works closely with community organizations like the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre (WSAC) to provide officers additional response training and debriefing sessions.
“We want people to know we are sensitive … and, just as society changes and evolves, so do we. The way police conduct investigations in 2011 is more sophisticated than it was years ago,” Jantzen says. “The reality is, police have a dramatically different role from organizations like the WSAC … our role is to keep as many people safe as possible, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers.”
Stephanie Capyk, executive director of WSAC, says that she’s been impressed with police involvement in recent years, but believes there still has to be a strong community working together to end sexual violence.
“If we are made to believe we are responsible for terrible things happening to us, we don’t want to come forward and share that,” Capyk says, adding the more reports come forward, the greater the chance for societal change. “Making a survivor feel empowered has to be part of the healing process.”
Sitting alone in the lobby of the police department that day with a dying battery in her phone, Stevens found out she would be driven to the ferry and had only enough time to tell her brother on the other line to run and get her father.
“I said ‘Dad, I’ve been raped. I’m coming home on the seven o’clock ferry,’ and then the line went dead,” Stevens says.
A female officer drove Stevens back to the ferry. Stevens sat in the back of the cop car, crying, while she says the officer turned up the radio. Before leaving, she asked the officer for a hug, but Stevens remembers she was “really awkward about it.”
“I remember her saying to me, ‘Just remember, this is only sex. That’s all this is.’ That day was so lonely for me; it was the worst day of my life,” Stevens says. “I needed someone there to stop all the negative thoughts I was having, but I was totally alone while I blamed myself.”
An ocean away in Vancouver, Dave Stevens remembers that call. “I sat at the dining room table hearing my daughter weep as shock settled over me and gripped my heart,” he says. “I could not comprehend it all … She was in pain, and I could hear shame creeping into her voice. All I wanted to do was let her know how much I loved her.”
Within moments, Dave had to tell the five other family members. “I recall Dave’s face looking at me. His voice was bleak. He said, ‘It’s Katie. She’s been raped,’” says Katie’s mother, Diane. “I remember suddenly not having any air in my lungs and I collapsed where I was.”
The family made a call to friends in Victoria who raced to catch the ferry and escort Stevens over. When she walked off the ferry, Stevens was surrounded in a nest hug from her family. Yet the following days and months would see a combination of Stevens missing school, undergoing therapy and sometimes self-medicating, which Diane says was hard for the family to watch.
Meanwhile, Dave and Diane were firing letters at Saanich Police and UVic administration. At first, the family was optimistic that the information provided would lead to a conviction, but eventually they were told police could not find any justification for charging the suspect.
“There was no evidence to suggest that the male provided or forced Katie to consume the a/n liquor or any drugs,” police stated in the 2008 letter. “Some of your questions and concerns appear to be speculative or subjective in nature.”
“Now I was angry with someone other than the guy,” says Dave. “[Saanich Police] had to take his word that it was consensual sex between two young people that had too much to drink. The fact that Katie had no recollection and was found passed out in a hallway was not enough to push things more.”
Dave also received a letter from UVic administration outlining the policies around underage drinking, but received no word on whether or not the student was allowed to stay in residence.
Jim Dunsdon, UVic’s Associate Vice-President Student Affairs, says that while he cannot speak to the 2007 assault or the response given by the university, he says UVic has evolved its policies to meet a growing awareness to cases of sexual violence. Recent changes include an increased number of staff, revamped training models, a revamped residence agreement and greater connections with external organizations.
“We’ve invested a lot of time in our residence community, and it’s a top priority to keep those communities safe for our students,” Dunsdon says. “I think our expectations around standards of behaviour are some of the highest in any institution. A critical part of our strategy is education, and we’re doing a greater job of educating our residence staff and our students.”
The next step
Stevens has spent the last four and a half years working through her trauma. Despite skipped classes and insecurities, she won the top psychology student award and was co-captain of her rugby team. She also visited a number of high schools to speak to students about her experiences and about what consent means. Still, Stevens says she has real questions that may never be answered, like why society still puts the onus on women to avoid getting raped.
“When a person buys a nice fancy car that has an alarm on it and it still gets stolen, the police don’t say, ‘Excuse me, what colour did you say it was? I’m sorry, but don’t you think you were asking for it? Red cars make men go crazy,’” she says. “Yes, you can try to protect yourself, but there is only so much you can do … It’s taken me years to realize this wasn’t my fault.”
The impact wouldn’t just stop at Stevens. LoBosco would also spend years weighed with the guilt of “not taking better care” of her friend — at least until Stevens urged it wasn’t her fault, either. The two have remained close for almost seven years.
“Katie would sometimes call me in the middle of the night, saying ‘I just need to hear it one more time,’ and I would tell her, ‘It’s not your fault.’ But that whole time, I was never taking my own message,” says LoBosco, who adds the experience has made her a more impassioned advocate for feminist issues. “Anything less than an enthusiastic ‘yes’ should always be considered a ‘no.’ We need more emphasis placed on that in schools — silence is not consent.”
Stevens believes when it came to her own healing process, having that first person to talk to — LoBosco — was integral. That, and the support of her family.
“A woman doesn’t really get over being assaulted. It is a permanent shadow that is always there. Yes, you learn to live with it. You work around it. But it is a trauma. The body remembers,” Diane says. “Katie is still coming through it, and … I believe she will be dealing with this for years to come. [But] she will continue to grow stronger, and I am so thankful for who she has become.”
Stevens agrees her life will always be altered by the event, but she is considering becoming a sexual assault therapist in the future and, she says, she has things to be thankful for.
“I’m not mad at him [my assaulter] anymore. I’m mad at the society that allows for this to happen, that fails to protect its daughters and blames them for their own assaults,” says Stevens. “I hope that one day he reads my story, he sees my face and recognizes our night, but nowhere can he find his name. Then he’ll see he is invisible the way I was — the way my shame wished me to be. In a way, I’m thankful for this experience; I proved to myself that I am strong. I am proud of who I am today.” M