Courtney’s Lament: Two allegations at the U show the struggle to define consent

Courtney Blake

Courtney Blake Sarah White

Courtney Blake left her last class of the day late on a Friday afternoon in September of 2013. The University of Minnesota freshman was supposed to visit a friend, but those plans fell through. So she accepted a Facebook acquaintance’s invitation to dinner in a campus dining hall.

She had moved from Brooklyn Park to the U just weeks before, enjoying her first semester as a journalism major, while equally excited about a new social life that lay before her. She saw no harm in getting to know someone new.

Courtney and her dinner companion liked the same Facebook post on the U’s Class of 2017 page. They casually messaged. She gave him her phone number. He was just another classmate, another friend to be made.

They dined with a few of his friends. Courtney found him immediately annoying. He was talkative, self-important, a little dorky. He flirted, told her she was pretty, bombed her with compliments.

Courtney played defense. She’d just gone through a breakup, she told him. She only wanted a friend.

They talked movies. Kevin Spacey was one of her favorite actors, Courtney told him, but she had yet to see Horrible Bosses. They decided to watch it in Courtney’s single dorm room in Centennial Hall.

Sarah White

Sarah White

As the movie started, he moved to kiss her, she says. Courtney explained that she wasn’t interested in him that way. He backed off, then began again, this time grabbing her breast, she says.

“I can just kiss him,” she told herself. “It’s no big deal.”

“Do you want to know something?” he asked.

She said she didn’t want to know.

“I have a huge dick,” Courtney says he announced. He removed his clothes and “was shoving himself into my face.” 

She says she was too stunned to say no or push him away. “I froze. I can’t remember what I was thinking. I went along with what he was forcing to happen because I didn’t know what he was capable of.”

All she could focus on was a whitehead on his stomach. She still has nightmares about it. “I fixated on it. Because that was probably the least significant thing I could fixate on.”

He finished while the movie played in the background.

Though she felt forced to provide the blowjob, Courtney told herself she wasn’t in danger. He put his clothes back on and tried to cuddle.

She wanted him out of her room, but says she was too stunned to ask. So she started a conversation about abortion, thinking that if she made him angry or frustrated, he would leave.

“Crazily enough, that turned into talking about that program we have to do before we start [school]. That program about sexual assault,” she says. “We were talking about that. About consent, even though I had already not consented to various acts that he had committed.”

The man read the situation differently. He settled down to stay.

Suddenly, he asked a simple question that Courtney will never forget. “Do you want to go for round two?”

Courtney recalls saying “no,” but says he was already pulling off his clothes.

“I knew what was going to happen,” she says. “I knew it. I could see the look in his eyes.” 

“I froze. I don’t remember what I was thinking.”

“I froze. I don’t remember what I was thinking.”

She figured sex was inevitable. As he struggled to put on a condom, she suggested he try a different one. If she couldn’t avoid it, she concluded, she might as well be as safe as possible. At his request, she removed her tampon. “There was no rational thought process.”

“The actual sex is all a blur to me because I was focusing on trying to keep myself together and waiting for it to be done. I think I remember him saying that he knew I wanted it... and kept asking if it felt good. Of course I said yes,” Courtney would later write in her journal.

Afterward, he mumbled something about “feeling douche,” Courtney wrote. She assured him it was all consensual.

Then he mentioned something about other plans and left.

Her acquaintance would have a different story to tell. Though he declined repeated interview requests, he offered a written response:

“At all times, my one and only physical encounter with Courtney Blake was consensual. I never did anything to Courtney without her consent or suggestion, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”

Afterward, Courtney made a decision. “I decided I’m going to push this out of my head. It didn’t happen.”

That night, she went out with friends. She would try to forget. She sent him a selfie, making a joke about how she didn’t get too drunk. She didn’t want to feel weak. So she pretended that everything was fine.

Some might find it difficult to understand why Courtney felt assaulted, yet was sending selfies within hours. But these reactions are quite common. “Sometimes pretending that it’s not true can feel like self-protection,” says Kristen Sukura of the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis. “So they reach out to the perpetrator.”

“Just because someone doesn’t scream, ‘No, get off of me,’ doesn’t excuse the behavior of another individual forcing themselves on someone or forcing someone to engage in sexual activity,” adds Gavin Grivna of the university’s Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, which aids victims of sexual violence.

Generally speaking, about 40 percent of victims freeze in response, losing their ability for “complex reasoning,” he says. “We’re acting more primal in terms of just how to survive in this moment.”

The problem with this, say lawyers for the accused, is that such reactions can lead men to believe what they’re doing is okay. Especially in a college setting. In a criminal court, assault must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But schools make their own rules on what constitutes appropriate behavior, generally placing a greater burden on the accused to prove he or she acted in good faith.

Thus, the notion of consent becomes “a moving target,” says lawyer Joe Tamburino.

“In criminal law... a kiss is not a sexual act. However, in schools, it is, which is absurd. And that’s part of the challenge we have, because we’re dealing with people who are accused of something that is, by definition at times, not a crime within this state.” 

Courtney kept replaying the night in her mind, wondering why this felt different from sex she had in the past. She was afraid to call what had happened “rape.” That label would make it all real.

In the following days, she texted friends, asking for help in understanding what had happened. Some called it rape.

“That kind of sunk in, but I was still hiding it,” she says. “I thought this would just go away and it wouldn’t be a problem.”

She thought time would eventually erase the moment—until she saw the man in a dining hall the following weekend. Courtney had a panic attack. It prompted her to act. 

Friend Veronica Jones-Carr accompanied Courtney to the Aurora Center. A week had passed since that Friday night. Without physical evidence, she knew she couldn’t go to police. And she never fought back, never asked him to leave, and had asked him to use a condom. All could be construed as consent by a court, regardless of what was going through her mind. But she could still report the incident to the university.

She also needed to tell her mother, which would make it far more real. When she finally called, she could hardly choke out the words. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” her mother asked.

Brenda Thom initially felt shock and disbelief. She admits that her mind jumped to how the situation came about, and how it could have been prevented. “I mean, I never expected something like this to happen to my child,” she says.

Thom drove to the U the next morning, escorting her daughter to an after-assault exam and an interview with the school’s Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity (OSCAI). Courtney brought copies of texts she’d exchanged with the student.

The man would also offer OSCAI his view of the evening. He said that Courtney helped take off her clothes, helped put on the condoms, and said “yes” to some of his actions.

The school’s investigation concluded a month after the incident. OSCAI’s letter to Courtney said the U had found the man in violation of the Student Conduct Code, though it provided no specifics. He was placed on academic probation for a year, required to take counseling, and write an essay on consent.

The student says he subsequently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, contending the school’s process was “flawed,” and that the U allowed Courtney “to repeatedly harass and make false statements about me despite the university’s policies and prohibition of such.”

“Because of this ongoing investigation of the university’s conduct, I am unable to make any further comment,” he wrote to City Pages.

Joe Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education, declined comment. The agency’s list of active cases makes it unclear if there’s an investigation or not.

Courtney saw a school counselor, who would cry when Courtney shared her deepest thoughts. Nightmares arrived, as did struggles with sleep. Courtney became so dissociated from her experiences and emotions that she made jokes about the incident. Still, she managed to pass all of her classes, though her panic attacks resumed whenever she saw the student on campus.

“Anytime I see him, the flashback is back to my dorm room, with my head banging against my dorm wall and my bed creaking, and really wishing that someone would have saved me or that he wouldn’t have been such a terrible person.”

She has always wondered why she didn’t scream, kick, or fight back. To this day people still suggest it was all a misunderstanding. Sometimes she blames herself entirely. 

Courtney became depressed, then hospitalized as suicidal, before leaving school to enroll in an out-patient program. She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

She didn’t return to campus until the following summer, enrolling in a New Media and Culture course. For her final project, she created a YouTube video and wrote a blog post detailing her experience. She brought cake to class. A fellow student was sobbing by the end of her video, she says.

“It felt necessary for survival when I decided this. And I’ve never been more proud of a project.”

The blog quickly became something far more powerful than a class project. As more people discovered her posts on Tumblr, they began to interact with Courtney online. The responses ranged from women telling their own stories to readers issuing violent rape threats.

By fall, she was hopeful of rebirth. She’d been a straight-A student in high school, and believed her second year at the U could be drastically better than the first.

On September 12, 2014, Courtney was with friends Grace Duginski and Savannah Erdman at a house party not far from her new apartment. She’d had four shots hours earlier that night, but felt nearly sober by the time she arrived. What began as a small party grew significantly with strangers coming through the door.

The friends separated as they socialized. Courtney made her way up to the roof, leaning against the railing of a balcony when a man approached her.

He had a harmless face, she remembers. He introduced himself, swaying slightly as he complimented her pigtails, and kept saying that he was a virgin and wanted to have sex that night.

Suddenly, he kissed her. Courtney bit him. She was determined to do what she had not done a year before, fighting back at any sign of a threat. A friend intervened.

“And that was the extent of my interaction with him,” Courtney says.

She returned downstairs. A man offered Courtney and others a bottle of s’mores vodka. She took a drink as he joked about how disgusting it was.

That was the last thing she remembered from that night. Her next conscious moment was back at her apartment, sitting with her roommate while vomiting, she says.

She’d lost everything she’d brought to the party, save for her dress and socks. She had no idea how she’d gotten home.

Grace and Savannah had left the party early, first making sure Courtney wanted to stay. They didn’t hear from her until the next morning, when a partygoer posted a picture on Facebook of Courtney’s clothes next to vomit on the floor.

Friends told her that she’d “gotten drunk and had sex with someone.” Courtney protested: She was in no condition to consent. But the friends who hosted the party refused to say who she had sex with, she says. 

“And so I broke. I broke down. I was hyperventilating, I could not do anything. I got my roommate to contact my work and say I am not coming in. And then she called my mom to pick me up, and I’m just screaming in the back of the room, ‘This can’t be happening to me again. This can’t be happening to me again. Why is this happening?’”

Her mother took her to the hospital and called the cops.

The after-assault exam did not reveal any trace of drugs in Courtney’s system. But the hospital is unable to state which drugs it tested for, and it’s not clear how long certain drugs would have remained in Courtney’s system anyway.

The case was assigned to the Minneapolis police, but Courtney never met the investigator, nor would the investigator return her calls, she says. (The Minneapolis Police Department declined comment.)

It wasn’t until the following spring that the case moved forward. Kevin Randolph, an investigator with the University of Minnesota Police Department, found that the suspect was also linked to another sexual assault allegation.

Prosecutors eventually declined to charge the man.

That’s not unusual. Sexual assault cases are extremely difficult to prosecute, even with physical evidence and witnesses. They tend to be he-said, she-said incidents. Add in a night of drinking, and the notion of beyond a reasonable doubt becomes remote.

In Hennepin County, 60 percent of those tested for rape were intoxicated or otherwise impaired at the time of their assault, says Sukura of the Sexual Violence Center. “It can make their stories shift and change a little bit, which is actually a hallmark of trauma, yet people think it means that someone’s not credible. Often, [prosecutors] decline to take these cases forward because they believe it would be a further victimization... when they don’t actually think there’s a shot.”

“I believe that [Courtney] was sexually assaulted,” adds Randolph. “The evidence showed me that more than likely this happened.... I didn’t find enough evidence to lead me to believe that she wasn’t telling the truth. That was the very frustrating part.”

But “more than likely” doesn’t constitute “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and Courtney couldn’t even remember what happened, making prosecution all the more difficult.

Yet the university seemed to find her claims credible. According to a letter Courtney received from OSCAI, the student was found “more likely than not” to have violated the Student Conduct Code for harm to person, sexual assault, and “persistent violations.” The U offered to resolve the matter informally if the student accepted expulsion and agreed to be barred from campus.

Since the university keeps the rationale behind its decisions private, there is no way of determining how it reached its conclusions.

This troubles Tamburino. Like any institution, colleges have an inherent interest in keeping treasuries intact and reputations polished. He believes these impulses rise to the fore when discipline is issued in private.

“What really I find interesting is that these schools come out and it’s all this very wonderful language about how they want to protect victims.... This is about the bottom-line finances. Schools are worried that they will be sued by alleged victims because they failed to act. They’re cloaking it in, ‘We are worried about the victim,’ ‘We want to make sure the victim’s whole.’ But you must look beyond that curtain and see what they’re really doing. And what they’re doing is protecting their institutions.”

Courtney later read the man’s depiction of the evening in the police file. He “was really descriptive,” she says. “It was doggie style and he left the room because I was throwing up... I now know exactly what happened. He ejaculated on my back.”

According to the report, the student said he was drunk and that Courtney said “no” to oral sex. He claimed their intercourse was consensual. After he was finished, he said he left quickly because Courtney was throwing up, and that he didn’t even know her name. He did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Courtney eventually dropped out of school and now lives elsewhere in Minneapolis. “I am working the hardest that I can. It doesn’t look like progress.... It is a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. It is a struggle to do anything but lie on the couch and watch Netflix.”

She has plans to take online classes through Arizona State University, and hopes to someday become an advocate for sexual violence victims.

“I am still here. I’m still fighting. I am still looking forward to the future, and I still want to make this world a better place.” 

To this day, she believes she was raped. 

“I don’t believe [Courtney] got justice,” Randolph says. “She didn’t get a conclusion.... Do I understand why? Yes, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Many days, she regrets reporting the incidents. Research suggests that less than 20 percent of victims do. And of those, the conviction rate hovers at less than 5 percent.