A Hand on Her Knee
“Can we make love tonight?” the man with the musk of gasoline and sweat asked.
It was a rhetorical question. Even after hearing “no,” the question was a statement. A warning. A threat. And Emily Crockett, currently a UNC-Chapel Hill junior, knew it.
She was interning in Milan for the summer. Although she had not been to the city before, she had previously traveled to Italy with her family and participated in UNC’s study abroad program with the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute in Florence the previous summer.
And as an Italian minor, she loved studying the culture. She knew the language to a comfortable extent.
She had heard “the talk” about cultural education and safety precautions multiple times before, from UNC, from Lorenzo de’ Medici and from the international internship program.
But none of this prevented the fact that on June 6, 2015, Crockett was sexually assaulted.
The Association of American Universities published a study Sept. 21 that confirmed a previous finding that one in five female undergraduates experiences sexual assault. Approximately 150,000 students from 27 universities responded to the AAU survey.
Almost a quarter of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate female students surveyed reported having experienced sexual assault since enrolling.
And the risk of sexual assault is even higher while studying abroad.
According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Trauma, the risk of women experiencing sexual assault while studying abroad is three to five times higher than that of women studying in their own country.
But Crockett, like any other survivor, is more than another statistic. She prepares to share the story, and a lavender scent floods her apartment. She had dabbed some oil on her wrists to stay calm, took a deep breath and began recollecting.
“I had a great day.”
With the weekend off from her internship at Expo Milano, Crockett decided to take a day trip to Torino, about 45 minutes outside of Milan by high-speed train.
She set off by herself to explore the area and visited the Holy Shroud, admired impressive views overlooking the whole city, and cheered along with locals watching the soccer game broadcasted in the Piazza San Carlo.
She said she started her journey around 9 p.m. back to Milan, where she met Fabio in the train station.
Or at least that was the name he used when he introduced himself to her.
She said he seemed nice from their conversation in English, and she apologized for her imperfect Italian.
Because she was warned of the forwardness of Italian men, she decided to take extra caution. To avoid leading him on, she sat diagonally from him when they got on the train. He seemed to ignore her deliberate placement and moved across from her.
He grabbed her hands as their conversation switched to Italian. Avoiding eye contact, she attempted to pull them away, but he continued to hold them, caressing them.
It was a hand on her knee.
Crockett stared at the couple across the train in hopes of catching their attention, but they didn’t notice.
He invited her to come sit closer and, without waiting for an answer, pulled her across the aisle and wrapped his arm around her, prompting Crockett to shrink toward the window.
As he started leaning in, she rejected him, telling him that she didn’t want to, but he ignored her refusal and kissed her anyway.
As he continued to kiss her and caress her breasts, she shrank even more, trapped by him.
She said her fear left her limp like a “Raggedy Ann,” apathetically tolerating if it meant placating him.
But as she recounted the progression, she spoke calmly, matter-of-factly and firmly. She spoke with confidence in the wrongness of his actions. Her voice didn’t waver.
She hadn’t responded to his kisses, but Fabio started biting her lip and pressing against her mouth more aggressively.
He suggested they move somewhere more private. Ignoring her spoken resistance, he pulled her up and brought her to an empty car on the train.
He pulled her onto his lap and began thrusting into her.
Because the rain began hitting them from the open window of the car, he led them into the empty hallway.
Gesturing with his hand, he said the Italian phrase for oral sex.
He pushed her against the wall and thrusted into her, entering despite the barrier of her maxi skirt, despite her tampon and despite her exclamations of pain.
Crockett said decisively, as she had later reported to the police, “It was like he was trying to fuck me through my skirt.”
He put her hand on his crotch, moving it for her, and shoved his hand down her skirt, down her underwear and began fingering her.
After he ignored her repeated interruptions of “no” and “ow,” she moved his hand slightly to at least reduce some of the pain.
He suggested they go into the bathroom, tuned out her refusal once again and pulled her there.
“He pulled me in a way that said, ‘You’re not safe, and you’re coming with me,’” Crockett explained.
Crockett said she regretted not screaming or trying to run away, but her fear and shock of the situation paralyzed her.
“Facciamo l’amore?” he asked.
“No sesso, no sesso.” No sex, no sex.
She said she was ashamed at first of how she came close to an orgasm, that this may have encouraged him or made it her fault.
“My mind was screaming no, but my body responded,” she said.
His assertive body language and constant questions about her address made it clear to her that he would follow her home. She decided to ask for his number and say that she would call him in hopes of him leaving, but after he wrote his number in her planner, he remained. She then decided she would get off at the wrong station and lie about where she lived.
“I later told people my goals that night were to not make him angry, to not let him know where I live and to not die,” she said.
In the metro, she looked around frantically for a police officer or just a friendly face to approach for help – but to no avail. No one would make eye contact with her, as she guessed others simply saw them as an unsuspicious couple.
“The entire time we’re in the metro, he’s not the sexual, lust-filled monster that he was on the train, but more of a doting boyfriend, putting his arm around me kind of lovingly,” she said.
As they left the metro, he began to walk her in the supposed direction of her home, ignoring Crockett’s attempts to send him away.
“I think I said this to him probably 10 times, ‘You look really tired. Go home.’”
He settled for walking her halfway “home” and began kissing her again, only to abruptly stop when a police car passed them.
Leading her into a dark park, he continued kissing her on a bench, pausing every so often to look at the woman a few benches down. Eventually the woman left, along with Crockett’s final hope for an ally.
He put her hand on his crotch again.
“No, con la tua bocca.” No, with your mouth.
She said no multiple times, shaking her head.
He shoved her head down onto his penis and kept her there, suffocating her at a painfully crooked angle. A spinal doctor later determined that he had damaged the soft tissue in her neck, which pinches the nerves that run down her left arm and continues to flame up four months since the incident and seven weeks into physical therapy.
“I felt like I was going to pass out,” she said. “Eventually he let up a little so I could at least get some air.”
“Veloce, veloce.” Faster, faster.
He pushed her off him and finished in the bushes.
“Did you like it?” he asked.
He walked her out of the park and left her with, “Grazie, good afternoon,” confusing it with the English phrase for “good night.”
By that late into the night, the metro had closed, and there she was, essentially stranded. Through broken Italian she eventually found a bar owner to call her a cab home.
“I go home. Go upstairs. Got in the shower. Sat there for about an hour and a half,” she said. “Had nightmares that night. Went to work the next morning. So. That’s that.”
That was the last night Crockett wore her purity ring.
She didn’t intend to go to the police.
“My program in Florence and this program each had the State Department come in to give the ‘Don’t be stupid,’ talk,” Crockett said. “And one of the things I got out of it both times was don’t get raped because the Italian police aren’t going to do anything about it.”
She said she was going to pretend like it never happened.
The first day back at her internship, no one asked about her trip to Torino, so she didn’t have to talk about it.
But the next day a friend in the program asked, and Crockett attempted to tell a watered-down version of the story and broke down sobbing.
She went to the consulate, and they said she could tell the police to get it on record, although there didn’t seem to be substantial evidence and she would need someone to translate the report into Italian for her.
She then went to the free clinic, which the consulate had directed her to, and was put in a women and children’s unit for violent crime.
Her boss from the internship translated for her, and together they spent a total of nine hours getting the report translated on record and collecting evidence.
The police kept the planner that he touched, the pen he used, her skirt, underwear, bra and shirt from that night, her toothbrush, the sheet that he wrote his number on and her train ticket. They returned to the park, but at that point the grass had been cut and it had rained, so they were unable to collect evidence but took photographs of the location.
As a sexual assault victim in Italy, she was given a free lawyer and said it helped being taken seriously and advocated for.
According to her lawyer, the police knew who “Fabio” was through his number and seeing the metro tapes. They already had his picture, which they said meant he had been in before.
On June 20, Crockett came home to the U.S., two months early from her program. Unfulfilled by her internship and seeking security, she said there was nothing keeping her there.
While she constantly reminded herself that she was 4,438.29 miles away from that park, she said it often felt like he was next door. Going back to school to live off-campus was even more unsettling and became a source of overwhelming anxiety.
“It’s still the UNC that I love, but coming back was tough,” she said. “Even though this was the same, I was a wreck. And completely shattered. And not the same person that I was three months ago.”
Her UNC roommate had interrupted, saying she thought she saw Crockett headed home alone but quickly dismissed the idea because she knew Crockett would not be walking by herself, especially at night.
Even in the morning, Crockett said she is anxious about walking alone and brings her mace and safety alarm for support to go home to her apartment with an advanced security system. Any sudden movements may trigger her fear.
“It changes your entire outlook on safety,” Crockett said.
But even with a fleeting sense of security, the anxiety persists. Crockett continues to cope with frequent panic attacks and episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), aside from the persisting neck pangs as reminders of the incident.
“I definitely have my moments,” she said. “People ask me how I am, and it could be that 10 minutes ago I was horrible, and now I’m OK. Every day is different. I wouldn’t say easier or better, but every day is different.”
On Oct. 15, the Italian court system dismissed Crockett’s case. Her lawyer told her it was dismissed due to discrepancies between the report and video from the metro station. The case had been pending for four months, as the police had to be granted permission to arrest the suspect based on the evidence they provided.
The prosecutor concluded from the video that Crockett had sufficient time to run away or ask for help. In the reasoning, he said that after a minute and 18 seconds, Crockett had the possibility to ask for help or run “but strangely she remained.”
He said that the fact that she had asked for the man’s number demonstrated an interest and weakened her case. These conclusions were made despite the clarification in Crockett’s report that explained her fear of escaping and attempts to send him away, including by asking for his number.
Crockett said August is a vacation period for most in Italy, so there was a backlog of cases but that there is no other explanation for why the decision took so long other than the fault of the Italian legal system.
She said there was a stark difference between the treatment by the Italian police and the prosecutor.
“The Italian police were phenomenal,” Crockett said. “They took so much time with me and really listened. It wasn’t ‘What were you wearing?’ or ‘How much were you drinking?’ whereas it was the complete opposite with the prosecutor.”
After receiving the decision, Crockett was given 20 days to offer new evidence, but her attorney and another lawyer both said it was unlikely that a new decision would be reached.
“The worst part is not the fact that he won’t be prosecuted but that with the Italian system he wasn’t even brought in,” Crockett said. “He has no idea it was wrong or the impact of what he did.”
In the 2012 Psychological Trauma study, about 38 percent of women reported having an unwanted sexual experience while studying abroad.
This includes 27.5 percent of respondents who reported at least one experience of unwanted sexual touching, 6 percent who reported attempted sexual assault (anal, oral or vaginal) and 4.6 who percent reported rape while abroad.
The study’s participants were 218 female juniors or seniors at a selective Northeastern university who had studied abroad within the last two years.
Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), said study abroad institutions have a responsibility of informing students of local resources in case of sexual assault or other crises and connecting them as needed.
“I would like to see schools who are sponsoring programs to have some due diligence in preparing students for crisis emergencies,” Houser said. “We really recommend these universities seek out partnerships with local organizations, like a rape crisis center, and have staff who speak English if needed.”
She said these community organizations can offer essential support, regardless of location.
“Rape looks different in different parts of the world, but most places have somewhere that can support victims,” she said. “It just varies so widely that you would want your students to be aware of the local customs and systems to navigate that.”
Despite this expectation, Houser said the perpetrator is ultimately accountable.
“The responsibility lies on the shoulders of the antagonist,” she said. “They can choose not to exploit vulnerabilities or take advantage of language or cultural barriers.”
The researchers of the 2012 study found the increased risk of sexual assault abroad to be primarily from a lack of knowledge or unfamiliarity with the culture, language barriers and an increased presence of alcohol.
While the majority of the study’s respondents had studied abroad in Europe or Australia, the study reveals a higher risk of unwanted sexual contact in African, Central and South American countries compared to European countries.
Alix Allison, global safety net program coordinator for Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad (SASHAA), said that it can be incredibly difficult to report sexual assault no matter the country, but the legality of reporting sexual assault varies depending on the country, such as those with Sharia law.
Allison said the jurisdiction for such a sexual assault case is in another country creates a tremendous hurdle for victims because of the likely unfamiliarity with the laws and language, the emotional toll of potentially having to return to that country and the financial burden of travel and hiring an attorney abroad.
“It’s heartbreaking because sometimes people call us when they’ve already returned to the U.S. and decide they want to prosecute,” she said. “But when the jurisdiction is in another country, there may not be any forensic evidence still there, and prosecution would be difficult.”
According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the threat of physical harm or use of force was found to be the most frequent perpetrator tactic, more than twice as frequent as victim incapacitation due to intoxication.
UNC released its new policy on discrimination, harassment and related misconduct, including sexual assault, in August 2014. It clarifies definitions related to sexual assault as well as reporting procedures for students.
The policy document lists the Study Abroad Office as a resource “committed to doing everything reasonably possible to provide program participants with a healthy and safe study abroad experience.”
Bob Miles, the UNC associate dean of study abroad and international exchanges, said students receive information on cultural considerations when they sign their contract to commit to a UNC study abroad program, as well as learn about safety tips, resources and cultural differences at a pre-departure meeting.
Advisors at both UNC and each international program are available to students to address any concerns, Miles said.
“Sexual assault is an issue that is not isolated to one particular country, region or university,” Miles said in an email. “We let students know that no matter where you are located, you should be sure to look out for and check in with friends, as well as be aware that alcohol and drugs can be used as tools to facilitate sexual assault.”
UNC Student Complaint and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Ew Quimbaya-Winship, said the UNC Study Abroad Office, the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, and other UNC departments work together to provide resources to students who experience sexual assault abroad. He said the offices also work with on-site staff to connect students to the resources and reporting options for their specific location, such as finding staff to accompany a student to local medical care or law enforcement agencies.
Despite the resources universities and other organizations provide in international sexual assault cases, students such as Crockett may drown in the burden of the psychological, physical and legal ramifications that make the pain of the incident far from over.
Crockett said she did not seek out support from UNC resources out of skepticism of the effectiveness of systems in place for sexual assault victims, not at UNC or universities specifically, but rather because of the general stigma towards sexual assault victims.
“A lot of it comes down to that people aren’t willing to listen,” she said. “When it turns into ‘let’s find everything wrong with this girl’s story after she’s been traumatized,’ it get’s disheartening.”