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A group of young women walk through the streets of Isla Vista

Paul Wellman

A group of young women walk through the streets of Isla Vista


Sex and Rape in Isla Vista

Redefining Sexual Misconduct in Isla Vista


Not much time has passed since I lived and breathed Isla Vista. I drank sweet rum in paper cups. I walked through the streets at night, sometimes alone, shivering from the coastal chill. With a blood-alcohol content that certainly exceeded the legal limit, I flew down Pardall on my rickety, red bike. I lived for Thursday nights and for the mix of excitement and ease, wandering into neighbors’ houses, often finding doors open but no one home.

Freshman year, I showed up to the Santa Cruz dorms with an IKEA hamper, a Pottery Barn quilt, and a boyfriend. It didn’t take long for some of the 18-year-old women on my floor to let me know that boyfriends hold you back from the college experience expected to be so wonderfully wild. While eating at long tables in the dining commons on Sunday nights, my dorm mates would brag about their weekends in Isla Vista. One girl was always so exhausted when she picked at her penne doused with parmesan; I started to wonder if fatigue was the sole indicator of real fun.

I was not dead tired. I had spent the weekend at Lizard’s Mouth, rock climbing and having picnics with my boyfriend. Soon I realized that the idea that boyfriends curtail rambunctious college behavior is not entirely false. The beginning of my college experience was simply a different one, filled with respect and affection, mostly lacking excessive partying.

As the year progressed, I got to know my dorm mates better. We ventured to the Ortega dining common, which was smaller and funkier; somehow the geeks and jocks (surfers) mixed, and it all felt right. It was a better version of Mean Girls.

Sophomore year, I moved to the 6700 block of Pasado Road into one of those double duplexes that define Isla Vista. I grew up in that apartment. One fall night, 15 or so people packed into our kitchen and poured out onto our balcony. For some reason, I made everyone an individual margarita with the Magic Bullet. Twice. It was tame.

After two years, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I jumped headfirst into the madness I had witnessed from afar. I drank cheap beer on Thursdays, sometimes straight from the “Flabongo” beer bong my friends and I made by stabbing a pink plastic flamingo we found in our backyard. Late one summer night, I climbed over the no-beach-access sign and jumped into the ocean with a dude who I had gawked at for the better part of a year.

Driving, designated drivers, even designated walkers ​— ​all entirely unnecessary.

Many weekends, I bounced from house to house, without a care in the world, warmed up with liquid courage. Driving, designated drivers, even designated walkers ​— ​all entirely unnecessary. I watched guys pee off rooftops and skateboard over bonfires. I wore at least one Halloween costume I’d rather not divulge.

Also, I studied a lot, worked at the bookstore, wrote a column for this paper, and completed a senior history thesis about Prohibition. After one long weeknight at Davidson Library, while riding my bike home around 2 a.m, I ran into my roommates streaming off of Bill’s Bus on Embarcadero del Mar after an evening at the Old Town Tavern. I thought I had hit rock bottom. The day I turned my paper in, I invited 30 friends over to re-celebrate the repeal and the end of my library confinement.

During my four years, I met some of the greatest women I’m sure I’ll ever know. On Sunday mornings, my roommates and I would powwow in our living room, with smudged eye makeup and messy hair, laughing harder than we had the night before.

I had lived the beautiful nightmare.

And when I returned to Isla Vista as a reporter, viewing the town through a new lens, I felt nostalgic for the experiences I had had in this place that taught me how to have fun and, eventually, how to be strong. But in the past several months, I have been speaking with students who have reminded me of the darker elements I do not miss: the grimness of a party culture fueled by alcohol and charged with testosterone.

By Paul Wellman

How Much Sex is Too Much Sex?

Freshmen are required at the start of the school year to take a two-part tutorial known as Gaucho FYI. If you think two hours of online instruction followed by a student-run seminar is exactly what a bunch of hormonal 18-year-olds need to get up to speed about sex, you are mistaken.

A few years ago, a group of UCSB freshmen was asked how many sex partners they thought the average college student had each year. The kids threw out numbers like six, eight, 10. The correct number, on average, is one. The expectation that sex is to be had freely and often is certainly prevalent in Isla Vista. The misogynist ravings of Elliot Rodger, who went on a killing rampage in I.V. in May, highlighted this belief.

Clear boundaries often do not exist between men and women on and off campus. After a long night of drinking, a friend of mine crashed at a party, passing out in a bed with three dudes she had known from elementary school. Hours later, she suddenly awoke when the guy lying next to her started to shove his hand down her pants. She freaked. Though she knew it was not sex or penetration or rape, she knew it was a violation, and she made sure he knew it, too.

These violations are all too common in an atmosphere drenched in liquor. Yet many activists contend that discussions about sexual assault should not revolve around the use of alcohol or drugs, because it could suggest women are to blame for the violence they experience. And worse, it gives guys the excuse that they were too drunk to know what they were doing. Even the UC task force on ending sexual misconduct released a report two weeks ago specifically stating that education about the two topics should not be conflated. The intention is to stop young men from harming women rather than telling women not to drink because they might get raped.

The reality is that young men are at risk of making very bad decisions when they partake in a party culture so established it practically mandates taking three shots of tequila before leaving the house. Sixty-nine percent of cases reported to the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center involve alcohol. And that’s for the entire county; records for student populations are not available.

Nearly every major player grappling with this problem across the nation says we need to better educate our young men.

In Isla Vista, where alcohol and testosterone mix precariously every weekend, we do need to talk about them in the same conversation. Nearly every major player grappling with this problem across the nation says we need to better educate our young men. That’s a no-brainer. But we also need to realize these guys can be dangerous when they are extremely drunk. Teaching young women to be safe while consuming alcohol ​— ​don’t put your glass down at a bar, for instance ​— ​does not guarantee they will not find themselves in a very bad situation. And it certainly does not blame them if they do.

But what is sexual assault and is it even a legal term? No, it is not, but sexual battery and rape are legal terms. Sexual assault is a commonly used catchall for the following: “Unwanted sexual contact by one person against another, without consent, under circumstances of force or fear, threat of force, or the inability to consent or resist due to the intoxication or unconsciousness.” Legally, for rape, a penis has to penetrate a vagina. Rape by intoxication occurs when a victim is too intoxicated to consent and the perpetrator knew she was in that state.

A law signed by the governor on September 28 specifically targets college campuses. It requires, among other things, that they adopt a policy specifying an affirmative “yes” for sexual activity to be consensual. The idea is rather simple. If a woman does not clearly express to her partner she wants to engage in sexual behavior, the act is not considered a consensual one. The absence of a “no” or “stop” is not enough. Only yes means yes.

When the legislation was first introduced by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson in February, I must admit, I was skeptical. How would a new law mandating specific behavior that takes place behind closed doors actually force a young man to stop to ask a young woman if she’s down to get down? If the government tells young dudes what to do, aren’t they most likely going to do the opposite?

Here’s where I was wrong: If enough buzz can be generated about this new law, and it certainly will, young men will start to take the issue more seriously. That way, doubters like me (the old me) will shut up from arguing that the law is unnecessarily intrusive and artificializes a private experience. Plus, the woman doesn’t explicitly have to mutter the word yes. She just has to be conscious enough to make it clear she is equally as interested. That sounds fair.

By Paul Wellman

Island Fever and Campus Neglect

Living in Isla Vista is sort of like living on an actual island, one from which you can easily escape. Some refer to I.V.’s square mile as Animal House. I prefer Lord of the Flies. Isla Vista exists as a self-contained bubble, a no-man’s land, widely reputed to be the most densely populated unincorporated area in the United States. Despite numerous attempts to form its own government by becoming a city, or becoming part of another city such as Goleta, Isla Vista has no formal government except at the county level. (On October 7, there will be a town hall meeting to discuss self-governance at St. Mark’s church.)

Most of its limited funding must come from the county’s already over-burdened general fund. Except for the 34 members of the university police who work with the county’s sheriff’s station, little funding comes from the UCSB budget — this despite the fact that I.V. would probably be little more than a beautiful swamp without the university.

Historically the university has turned a blind eye to Isla Vista troubles, claiming it does not have jurisdiction in those trenches. Even after the four-hour mêlée of Deltopia last spring, the university had a hands-off policy. Its spokesperson, George Foulsham, emailed The Santa Barbara Independent explaining that students convicted of misdemeanors or felonies do not receive automatic discipline, because its jurisdiction extended only to campus property. For incidents off campus including sexual assault, abuse, hazing, or harassment, he said, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Seventy-eight colleges are now under federal investigation for the ways in which they investigated sexual assault. UCSB is not on that list ​— ​yet. But if the university wants to maintain its reputation as a top research institution, it better think twice about the activity it ignores. Contributing to the problem is that thousands of the roughly 25,000 who live in Isla Vista attend Santa Barbara City College, many with the intent of transferring to UCSB. The exact figure is unclear.

To be fair, Chancellor Henry Yang has begun a campaign to bring a more authoritative presence to Isla Vista, including appointing Assistant Vice Chancellor George Thurlow to focus on Isla Vista, increasing police visibility, adding more police officers, and publicizing a tough stance on sexual violence.

About a year and a half ago, the UC system conducted a campus climate survey, which included questions about “unwanted sexual conduct.” In the 250-page report, only two pages were devoted to assessing this problem. At UCSB, 8 percent of the students, faculty, and staff indicated they had experienced such misconduct ​— ​the highest percentage reported from any of the UC campuses. It’s not difficult to find students who will talk about these things; in fact, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that it was only 8 percent of the campus population who admitted to such experiences.

By Paul Wellman

What Exactly is Rape?

I recently contacted Abby (not her real name), a young woman whom I had met a few years ago during Deltopia ​— ​back when the springtime street party had not yet turned into a “civil unrest.” She was with a group of mutual friends who stopped by for a watermelon margarita in my backyard before heading to the streets on the bright Saturday. It was fun. No one got hurt.

Abby is an English major who had transferred to UCSB from San Diego last year. It turned out she had already had plenty of experiences to share ​— ​the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The most disturbing one happened at a house party on a warm Saturday night during spring quarter. Abby had had too much to drink and decided to go home. She needed sleep. When she woke up the next morning, alone in her room, she found a used condom in the trash bin next to her bed. She had spent much of the evening, like she often did, at a party with a group of close friends, so she asked them what happened. They told her Sean had come over after the party. “You don’t remember that?” they asked. She texted Sean. He replied, “I think we had sex,” and that he was drunk at the time and did not really know what was going on.

Was it rape? According to the law, it could be. In court, a prosecuting attorney would have to prove that Sean knew Abby was too drunk. But the morning after, Abby shrugged it off. If it weren’t for the condom in the trash, she never would have known it happened anyway. (Condoms do not typically first come to mind when thinking of rape. His remembering to put on a condom raises the question, just how drunk was he?)

“Sean felt that since we had already had sex once, he could start pushing it more,” Abby believes. “And it never happened when we were sober.”

Abby continued to see Sean, who she had known since high school, at get-togethers around town. But he was becoming increasingly more aggressive each time. One night at a party, when she was walking out of the bathroom, Sean grabbed her and threw her onto the bed. She pushed him back; he stopped and said he was sorry. But one week later, at another party when they were standing with a group of friends, Sean suddenly pinned her up against the wall. His friends had to intervene. “Sean felt that since we had already had sex once, he could start pushing it more,” Abby believes. “And it never happened when we were sober.” This whole experience with Sean began to make her increasingly disenchanted with Isla Vista. One night around 11 p.m., after getting off work at a downtown restaurant, Abby slowly drove through I.V.’s congested streets, watching dozens of people stumbling down the block. She thought to herself, “I look like that.”

It took Abby about a month to come to terms with the reality that she had been raped. Like so many of these assaults, she did not report the incident to the police. She did not go to the university with a complaint. “How do I know the state of mind he was in at that point?” she asked. She still believes Sean is a good person despite his recent behavior and does not think he should be academically or criminally punished.

She did tell the story of that night to a few mutual guy friends, who were shocked and repulsed. Sean never has admitted guilt for that night. Conceding guilt would suggest he was aware of the things he did when he was very drunk. Abby used to hang out with him and their friends every weekend. Now, she almost never does.

By Paul Wellman

Navigating the Aftermath

Sexual-violence victims often blame themselves. In fact, the majority of women (and most are women) who walk into or call the UCSB advocacy center do not want to consider what happened to them rape. The majority of the 84 women who did contact the center in 2013 reported they were totally incapacitated at the time of the incident. Many don’t exactly remember what happened. Sometimes women worry that the guy might be severely punished. That might appear mind-boggling ​— ​from a status-quo point of view. A woman was just assaulted, and she doesn’t want to see the rapist in jail? Well, first of all, she might not have just been raped. Often six months go by before the woman goes to the CARE (Campus Advocacy Resources & Education) offices. And, usually, she has some form of prior relationship with the man.

What women most often do want are relatively personal things, such as help in changing their class schedule. Maybe she cannot bear sitting in a small discussion section with the same guy every Monday evening. Maybe she wants to switch to another dorm. And these are just the practical matters. Forget the decision to report or not report to the police or Judicial Affairs. Forget the self-blaming. Forget the trauma. Forget the anger, fear, and uncertainty. Forget the denial or equivocation. Just think of the bureaucratic bullshit that comes with trying to change one class.

Currently there is no way to know how many Isla Vistans are victims ​— ​or survivors ​— ​of sexual assault. Only 16 students filed such complaints at Judicial Affairs in the 2012-2013 school year. And only about 20 called the Sheriff’s Office each year.

“I want to get [a medical] exam done, but I don’t want to tell anybody. I don’t want to cause a big stir, and I don’t want my friends to know.”

Jill Dunlap, the director of CARE who has worked closely with survivors for 12 years, often hears: “I want to get [a medical] exam done, but I don’t want to tell anybody. I don’t want to cause a big stir, and I don’t want my friends to know.”

As the center for resources available on campus, Dunlap’s offices offer a one-stop shop, connecting students to Judicial Affairs, law enforcement, deans of students, housing administrators, and Title IX coordinators. This is an essential service. But for students who might want to establish a legal case against the predator, they have to go off campus to have a forensic medical exam, also known as a rape kit. These exams collect evidence from swabs taken from many body parts. It takes four hours. It is not pleasant. Thirty-one students from the South County’s colleges got the medical exam last year. Taking a rape kit does not oblige a victim to enter an investigation. But they can be useful in prosecuting these drunken incidents.

The majority of victims are not attacked by strangers in an alleyway. The most high-profile exception was the brutal gang rape that occurred near the Rec Cen on campus last February. News of the violent act shook the entire community, prompting Chancellor Yang to add five new university police officers and to install large surveillance cameras.

Most acts of sexual violence in Isla Vista have not garnered as much attention. They usually occur behind closed doors after a night of heavy drinking, creating murky memories for those involved. If they do end up in court, they are incredibly difficult to prosecute and are often just one person’s word against another’s. Sexual-assault cases typically do not have outside witnesses, making it difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt.

One of the oldest claims against women who charge they have been raped is that they are lying. So-called men’s rights campaigners contend that a woman who wakes up the morning after a drunken hookup would be in such denial that she would falsely accuse her partner of rape. They worry that these recent efforts to fight sexual assault on college campuses will empower women, prompting them to file false reports. Though there was one case a year ago of a young woman who was convicted of filing a false rape report, Dunlap said this is very rare: “I don’t think the majority of women who wake up after having casual sex say I’m going to cry rape. We just don’t see that.”

By Paul Wellman

Just Say Stop

For a growing number of students, there is something much more troubling that they do see, and that is how few students step in to help very drunk women from being sexually abused. Advocates are calling for bystander intervention, which has become a focal point in recent discussions. One thought is that the best person to intervene when a woman is too drunk to know what she is doing is a man. When guys start making it clear to one another that having sex with incapacitated women is not cool, then the framework that supports such behavior will begin to break.

At her second party in I.V., a student named Natalie saw a guy holding the arm of a woman so drunk she appeared to be on the verge of throwing up. When Natalie went to intervene, asking the guy to let her go, others at the party took issue. It became awkward quickly. Even though she was able to get the intoxicated girl to a safe place, her close friend told her to stop putting her nose in other people’s business. “This is a hookup culture,” her friend told her. “People want to sleep with each other.”

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If you are a victim of sexual assault and would like to speak with an advocate, call the Rape Crisis Center at 564-3696 or UCSB’s CARE at 893-4613.



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