At first I couldn't say the following words without getting a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes. Today these jarring words roll off my tongue.
"I was gang raped."
I start a lot of speaking engagements with that sentence. You think you get nervous talking in front of a crowd? Try sharing intimate details of the worst event in your life with complete strangers.
It happened 17 years ago, when I was raped by four men, including two who were Oregon State football players. I shared the secret shame I held private for so many years last November with Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who wrote about my ordeal and the long list of betrayals that followed. Immediately after the attack, I went to the police. I went to a hospital and got a rape kit. The next day, all four men were in jail. The backlash started soon after.
I wasn't named in the media, but many people knew it was me. Friends and family turned on me. I received death threats. So did my two young sons. All I had left were my children and parents. I clung to life and fought off thoughts of suicide. The district attorney said she needed my help to get a conviction, but I didn't feel strong enough to testify. Charges were never filed.
After Oregon State sexual assault counselors gave the university a copy of the police report, then-coach Mike Riley said his players made "a bad choice," and suspended them for one game. They worked 25 hours of community service and completed a class. My rape kit was never tested. Three years before the statute of limitations was up, all the evidence—rape kit, condoms, flashlight, alcohol bottle—were destroyed because the police said they needed more storage space.
After I decided to go public last year, I had a choice to make. Would my legacy be defined by and end with the story of the worst moment of my life? Or would I take an unimaginable experience and attempt to promote change? The words "gang rape" make people uncomfortable. They should.
Sexual assault is an epidemic in the United States. Studies show that one in five college women will be the victim of an attempted or actual rape. Ninety percent of these women know their attacker and 80% will never report it. Ninety-eight percent of all rapes are committed by men, but it's only 10% of the male population committing these acts. Two-thirds of them are serial offenders. Campus serial rapists average six to eight victims each. Over the past 20 years it's become clear that a disproportionate number of sexual assaults on campus are committed by college athletes, often in situations involving gang rape. Male student-athletes comprise only 3.3% of the population, but they represent 19% of sexual assault perpetrators and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators.
These statistics are horrifying. As a nation, we should be ashamed of these numbers, especially on college campuses. The statistic one in five haunts me.
We talk about rape and assault in vague, unattached ways. We think it happens somewhere else, to another woman; we act as if it could never happen in our community. When I first decided to come forward, I made a pact with myself that I was going to be brutally honest and open. I wasn't going to sugar coat anything. If I don't use words like "gang rape," people aren't going to feel it. If I don't tell them that an alcohol bottle and a flashlight were used on me over a brutal seven-hour assault, they aren't going to understand how this event changed my life forever.
It's embarrassing and extremely difficult for me to expose my pain, but I have this story for a reason. I need to share it because people need to understand I'm a regular person. I go to the grocery store, I pay my water bill, I attend parent-teacher conferences. I'm a rape survivor. It wasn't my fault. I'm not some random Jane Doe. I could be your co-worker or your friend. I am someone's mother, someone's daughter, someone's sister. I'm just like you. When it comes down to it, we are all human beings and we all deserve love and respect.
Sometimes when people in athletics hear my story, they recoil. They think, "She's crazy, she wants to ban football." I do not want to do that. I think sports are great. They changed my life, and my children's lives. But when we place an entitlement on athletes and we make them believe their talent is all that matters, it's a problem. We are doing a disservice to young men if we allow them to believe that athletic ability and status makes them immune from the consequences of their actions. That they can have any woman they want and do to them what they please.
It's scary to come forward, but if your rapist is an athlete or celebrity, it's a whole different type of backlash. I hate that we call the survivors "the accuser." The language of our legal system turns it around and acts as if the rapist is the victim because he's the one being accused. Suddenly it's as if the survivors are perpetrating them.
I'm glad that we are finally talking about this and that people are getting involved. Maybe in my lifetime we won't see a huge shift, but maybe my kids and their kids will. At least now people are finally standing up and saying yes, women are being raped, yes, this is a problem. But it's time we take action. My gang rape happened 17 years ago, and statistically nothing has changed. How do we improve the numbers? How do we prevent my story from happening again?
In the Pac-12, change can start next week, when school presidents meet with commissioner Larry Scott. I believe the Pac-12 needs to pass legislation similar to the SEC, which does not allow student-athletes with a history of sexual assault and/or domestic abuse to transfer into schools in the conference. We should not prioritize athletic ability over someone who might be a danger to the community. We've been shuffling violent athletes around from conference to conference for too long, hoping their past gets lost in a long trail of paperwork. I say NO MORE.
Some people think I'm on a crusade to get coaches fired and athletes thrown in jail. That's not what this is about. I'm an accidental spokeswoman. After suffering in silence for 16 years, I got to a point last fall where I couldn't hide anymore. But what I've learned is that there can be redemption. With the help of Oregon state president Ed Ray and Coach Riley, who is now at Nebraska, there's been healing between me and Oregon State. What I've experienced is that coaches and universities can embrace survivors, not turn them away. What I know is that we have to figure this out together.
Oregon State did it for me. Now it's time for the Pac-12—and conferences across the country—to do the same.
Brenda Tracy is a nurse and a consultant for Oregon State University, where she frequently speaks about sexual assault.