Spotlight: Katie Koestner

By Summer Zhang
NEWS Reporter

katie koestner

atie Koestner, the first campus date rape victim to bring her story to national news, initiated the emotional national debate on the reality of date rape in 1990. Twenty-six years later, she has transformed from a rape survivor into a rape counselor and advocate for healthy and informed relationships, raising awareness of sexual violence among teenagers. Founder of the Campus Outreach Services, Katie Koestner and her team have provided lectures and consultations on sexual misconduct to more than 3,000 schools in the US; Koestner has shared her personal story with at least 2,000 audiences. She visited campus last Wednesday to do just that.

Koestner began her speech by depicting the kind of girl she was as she entered college. Her decision-making often centered around the young men she admired, and her intelligence had allowed her to study abroad in Japan before entering the College of William and Mary. She never thought that she would be in a position to advocate for consensual sexual practices or raise awareness of the reality of rape culture.

Koestner detailed the early stages of her relationship with her eventual rapist. When she arrived on the date that preceded the attack, her date exhibited warning signs of potential violence, signs that she did not at the time recognize; she implored the audience to be less naive than she had been. In painstaking detail, she described arriving in her room and how an innocent dance to her carefully crafted mixtape turned into an assault that would change her life and catapult the country’s outdated rape laws and entrenched stigma toward sexual assault into a national debate.

The audience came to understand that had Koestner not persevered through the vicious aftermath of taking the rapist to campus court, schools today would not offer the services and have the protocol they do; courts would not be able to seek justice for victims of sexual assault. Koestner’s lasting message was that students must demand respect for themselves and hold their peers to a high standard that prohibits sexual misconduct and educates others on their right to say no and be heard. Her words brought many in the audience to their feet in ovation.
Last year Katie Koestner visited Mercersburg twice.The first time she led discussion on the ways in which teenagers put themselves at risk when using social media; however, some of the dramatic examples and intimidating approaches within her speech initiated backlash and disbelief among some students. Koestner did not grasp the fact that within her audience, most, if not all, viewed social media as a way to share life and to foster friendships, not to breed unhealthy relationships and impede the path to the dream college.

Associate Head of School Debbie Rutherford stated, “I don’t mind the terrifying [aspect to the speech] so much, because she is only telling you facts, but I do think she has to mix it with what you should do.”

Katie Koestner’s impact on students has been significant. Her social media speech, “definitely raise[d] awareness, and knowing that it could happen to you is thought-provoking,” Emma Maurer ‘18 said. However, the way Koestner conveyed her messages ignited controversies that prevented many from comprehending the importance behind these issues.

“The way she talks to us sometimes seems like she doesn’t know her audience very well. I think that’s where most of the negative comments came from,” Courtney Gantt ’18 said.

Some of the negative reactions to her speech later turned into questions regarding the relevance of her message.

Responding to many students’ concerns on the effectiveness of speakers like Katie Koestner and of the stories she presented, Rutherford explained, “We want to know if she is relatable. I want to send surveys [to the students], and I’m going to talk to her afterwards about each of the sessions, because we don’t want and don’t have to continue with her if it’s not going to work.”
The ineffectiveness of her first visit and the inappropriate examples she used undermined the potency of Koestner’s second presentation later in the year. At that time she shared her personal date rape experience with lower-middlers and seniors during a workshop about sexual assault. Many in attendance agree with Courtney Gantt ’18, “My views about her have been tainted by the other students, too. When everyone else has negative impression of her, it is hard to have a positive view.”

Koestner’s second presentation didn’t produce the expected reaction from students. Koestner undeniably possesses incredible courage, displayed not only in 1990 when she disclosed to a judgmental society that she had been raped by her date, but also today when she opens herself up in front of teenagers and incorporates her story into educational messages of safe and healthy decision making.

Nonetheless, the topic of sexual abuse and the definition of consent are hard topics for a group of fifteen and sixteen year-olds to grapple with. Some students did not understand Koestner’s tactics in including small details from the night of the traumatic incident, despite the chilling evidence that rape victims remember the night of their attack in vivid detail. Her story was powerful because she made the difficult decision to tell it to the public when most women were simply told to keep quiet and when rape was still classified as a crime of property.

The stigma surrounding rape still exists. Students have the responsibility to report misconduct when they see it and to empower others to do the same.

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