What is ‘rape culture’ at Cal Poly? 61 sex assault survivors share their unfiltered stories

A Cal Poly student project went live online Monday with the personal stories of 61 rape and sexual assault survivors who shared the details of their experiences and criticized the university for caring more about its reputation than their success as students.

It’s called “The Clapback,” because its creator wants those survivors’ voices to be “a slap in the face to all of those who have turned their back on us.”

Cal Poly senior Amelia Meyerhoff investigated what she called the university’s “rape culture” by interviewing dozens of Cal Poly students and alumni about their assault and how it affected their lives.

Meyerhoff, who says she was raped her second year at Cal Poly, was inspired to create the project after she met other survivors in group therapy. Some of those women’s stories are recorded in the project. Other participants responded to fliers, Cal Poly Facebook posts or presentations about the project at sororities.

The result — “The Clapback: An Investigation of the Sexual Assault and Rape Culture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo” — is a powerful collection that displays the common threads and raw, unfiltered experiences of survivors, and paints a portrait of a university where sexual assault is common and survivors do not feel supported.

“Survivors rarely get justice in the reporting process,” Meyerhoff said about her project. “They do not feel safe on campus as many have to see their perpetrators at school. They struggle academically. And the overall sexual assault and rape climate at Cal Poly is somewhat hostile to survivors.”

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“When we look at the statistics, perpetrators are able to repeat this crime multiple times before they get caught,” she said, “So we’re just adding victims to this list and not really doing anything to stop anyone from being unsafe on this campus.”

After reviewing the website, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong told The Tribune in an email Monday that the university takes the problem of sexual assault seriously and is listening to the community.

“Sexual misconduct is not welcome on our campus,” he said. “It is heartbreaking, abhorrent and against everything for which our university stands. Unfortunately, it is also a reality on our campus and in our society.”

He pledge that the university should and will do more to prevent sexual assault and support victims.

“Some survivors have shared their concerns that the university is not doing enough — that we need to provide more resources for investigating sexual misconduct and providing support to survivors,” he said. “I agree.”

The red hand print

Meyerhoff’s project uses a red hand print as a symbol for survivors of sexual assault at Cal Poly.

Students once painted red hands on campus in locations near where they said they had been assaulted, including outside residence halls. The university painted over the hands in 2005, reportedly after parents of potential students voiced concern about campus safety.

“I don’t think that we should ever be painted over. That’s invalidating to our experiences,” Meyerhoff said. “I wanted to bring that symbol into this project to honor the 23 survivors who were painted over and to kind of double entendre that symbol with the clap back as a hand. I want it to be a slap in the face.”

Meyerhoff said she chose to not use the names of survivors in her project because she wants to protect them from being targeted and to preserve the honesty of their statements.

“I want this to be the most authentic and real and raw testimonies that you’re going to see from survivors on this campus at this time,” she said.

Alleged perpetrators are also not named in the project, Meyerhoff said, because she could face defamation charges. That’s a larger problem that she said contributes to the system that protects perpetrators.

Cal Poly student Amelia Meyerhoff researched rape culture at the university, interviewing 61 survivors who are students or alumni. Her senior project is called “The Clapback: An Investigation of the Sexual Assault and Rape Climate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.” David Middlecamp

‘Survivors are disenfranchised at this university’

A section of the Clapback website, “Findings,” divides quotes into common themes such as “Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong,” “Title IX” — the university office that investigates accusations and has the power to expel perpetrators — and “Intersectionality,” where survivors discuss the compounded oppression of racism, homophobia and assault.

Nearly all of the Clapback participants are women — most of them women of color — who were assaulted by men. Meyerhoff says most of the alleged perpetrators, so far, have not faced consequences.

Not all of the perpetrators were Cal Poly students, she said.

According to Meyerhoff, only three perpetrators described in the project received consequences after Title IX investigations. Two of those perpetrators’ cases have been reopened after a recent change to the Title IX adjudication process.

For the researcher, the project was emotionally taxing — she said she carries the survivors’ stories in her heart and they replay on repeat in her head.

Doing the work also provided her a lot of strength, she said, because after all they’ve gone through, those survivors still participated in her project to make a change.

“Survivors are disenfranchised at this university,” Meyerhoff said. “I really wanted to do a project where we’re showcasing our perspectives and it’s in an environment where a survivor can come talk to me, who’s also a survivor, and feel validated and supported when we’re sharing such personal things.”

Sexual assault services at Cal Poly

Ten rapes were reported on the Cal Poly campus in 2017, according to the university’s 2018 Annual Security Report, and many more likely occurred; the Department of Justice says that rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in the country.

Cal Poly provides prevention and support services to Cal Poly students and survivors, including with on-campus counseling and through Safer, both of which received mostly positive reviews by participants in “The Clapback.” The university also provides education programs through fraternities, student orientation programs and at residence hall safety meetings.

The campus Title IX office “investigates complaints, dispenses corrective or disciplinary action where appropriate, provides referrals for medical care/counseling, modified classes, reduced course loads, campus housing changes, work assignment assistance, stay away orders, leaves of absence, and more,” according to university reports. The university also provides information to victims on pursuing criminal action and obtaining protective orders if needed.

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Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong says the university must do more to prevent incidents of sexual assault and support those who’ve been victimized. Joe Johnston

Armstrong acknowledged that these efforts might not always seem sufficient or satisfy those who’ve survived an assault.

But he assured the campus community that the university’s Title IX Office and the Safer program would provide the highest level of service possible within the law.

He also noted that both groups have added resources, including a new assistant director position and a full-time staff position in the Equal Opportunity Office and both one new full-time and part-time advocate positions at Safer.

“These changes will help. But I am aware that it is still not enough,” Armstrong said. “We will continue to add to these programs. We will continue to improve how the university responds to sexual misconduct, supports survivors, and tell all of campus that we will not tolerate sexual misconduct in our community. Perhaps most importantly, we will continue to listen.”

Q&A with ‘The Clapback’ creator

Meyerhoff is an English major, minoring in psychology and Spanish. She plans to graduate from Cal Poly in spring 2019.

A Tribune reporter sat down with Meyerhoff for an interview at Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library over spring break to learn more about her experience. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What are some of the common threads that you heard while interviewing people?

A: Almost every single person I’ve interviewed has some sort of mental health issue now that they’ve been assaulted or raped. Whether that’s depression, PTSD, anxiety, all of them.

Almost every survivor I’ve spoken to struggled to perform academically because they either didn’t want to be on campus because they didn’t want to see their perpetrator, or they just couldn’t handle the course load anymore because they’re coping with all of this emotional stuff happening. Or, they just didn’t want to open up to their peers so they felt they had to have this face on all the time, and that’s very exhausting for us to constantly have to save face.

Q: How much do you want to tell us about what happened to you? You said that he was a student at Cuesta College?

A: I’m pretty open. My best friend at the time who I met my freshman year introduced me to my perpetrator, and when I met him, I knew he wasn’t the best guy, but I didn’t think he was capable of this.

We developed a casual relationship for about three months prior to the incident happening. One night he texted me, asking me to come over when I was at a party. I told him I would come whenever I was leaving.

Eventually, we went up to his room. Later in the night, he just completely changed his mood. It was very clear that he had an agenda. He used a lot of coercion tactics. I said “no” probably 15 times and eventually I just gave up and kind of froze in that moment. And he raped me.

When he sat on the bed next to me after he finished, he just said, “Since you don’t want to have sex with me, I’m not going to do any of that cuddling shit with you.” So then, I got out of my freeze response. I got up and left. And I kind of pushed that whole night into the back of my head for several months.

Q: Did you file a report with the San Luis Obispo Police Department or request a Title IX investigation?

A: I didn’t report because I was intoxicated that night and I knew it would be difficult for me to recall specific details, not only because it’s traumatizing to think about, but also I don’t think Title IX or law enforcement would’ve deemed me as credible since I had been drinking. I also didn’t report because I had no evidence.

I didn’t take photos of the blood on his sheets. Plus, he used a condom because we were in the habit of having protected sex. Even if I could’ve done a rape kit, I most likely wouldn’t have because it took me nearly six months to address the harsh truth that someone who I thought of as my friend raped me.

Q: You call your project “The Clapback” because you wanted it to feel like a slap in the face of truth to those who you felt unheard by. What wasn’t done that should’ve been done? Who were the people you felt ignored by, or that perpetuated the problem?

A: In my personal experience, mainly friends who I was really close to at the time invalidated what I went through because they were also friends with my perpetrator, so they often took his side and told me that I should have gotten over it by now. Just really invalidating statements that made me feel like I was acting crazy for being angry at my rapist, which makes no sense.

For other survivors, I want to highlight that Title IX fails us almost all the time. It’s very rare that we get justice and that perpetrators are kicked off this campus.

I also want to highlight that administration often would prefer to financially preserve itself rather than help us. Perpetrators are developing a tactic where if they have the financial means to get a lawyer, they will file a lawsuit against the university. Once we have that happen, the university doesn’t want the reputation to look bad, they don’t want to lose money in this lawsuit, so they’ll do anything they can to resolve the case and brush it under the rug.

Q: Most perpetrators of sexual violence are men. What do you want to tell men about consent?

A: Verbal consent is absolutely key to knowing that your partner is OK with what is going on, but the second that your partner says “no,” you need to back off. If your partner is staying silent you need to back off, if your partner is showing hesitation, you need to back off, and there are so many times, just personally, men do not respect that.

If you say “no” 10 times and they eventually get a “yes” from you, they don’t recognize that as coercion. They recognize that as a verbal consent. If you’re staying silent, they say, “Oh, I might as well keep going, but a lot of us exhibit a freeze response in these instances where we just completely lose connection between our mind and our voice and our body.

You need to be very cognizant of whether or not there’s any type of hesitation or intoxication because if your partner is incapacitated, or not really saying anything, or not answering you right away when you ask them, “can I do this,” you need to slow down and step back.

‘The Clapback’

For more information about “The Clapback: An Investigation of the Sexual Assault and Rape Culture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo,” go to

This story has been update to include comments from Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: