International Women's Day: Story of Activist Katie Koestner
Updated: May 26
An incredible number of women have made our world a better place, simply by being themselves and standing up for what they believe in. For having the courage to carve their own path and choose the road not taken. For shining their light in moments of darkness. If you are reading this, you are one of them. What these powerful women share is the heart of an activist. They remind us that we matter, our voices matter and that our words and actions are our legacy.
When I was in college at the University of Texas at Dallas, I attended an event called “Take Back the Night,” with guest speaker Katie Koestner. Take Back the Night is one of the earliest worldwide movements to stand against sexual violence. In 1991, Katie was a survivor of date rape at the College of William and Mary, Virginia. This was before there was any real definition or concept of date rape - it was too taboo and misunderstood by society to say it out loud. Katie was the first survivor of date rape, now termed as “known-offender rape” to appear on the cover of a national news magazine. She didn’t shy away from the world and the people who didn’t support her; she let herself be seen and heard, advocating for herself and for other survivors.
Standing before us with a quiet confidence and a beautiful vulnerability, she began: “I’m telling you my story from the beginning, so you know you can change the world with your story, your truth. I’m not the only one with a story.”
Each of us has an experience that transformed us, that shook our worlds and knocked down the belief system we worked day and night to build and support. For Katie, it was a boy she met at college, a boy she liked, whose sophisticated shirt buttons impressed her teenage girl standards, she says. After they met and started spending time together, he asked her out on a date.“Do you want to go to dinner? I thought it would be nice if we went on a date to a restaurant with cloth napkins and reservations,” he charmed her.
She was taken aback by his formality, thrilled to go out on a date with who she thought he was. At the restaurant, he ordered champagne, even though she didn’t drink. “But it’s not every day I order champagne for someone,” he told her when she tried to decline politely. He manipulated Katie to believe it was a privilege to be out on a date with him, to drink champagne tonight. Katie had two sips of champagne even if that went against what she believed in.
“Because I wanted to be nice and accepted,” she admitted. Because isn’t that what we all want when we’re young and in college, away from home, away from what’s familiar? Yet, it is never okay to compromise who you are, Katie reminds us. After one of their dates, Katie invited him over to her dorm room and he pushed their relationship farther than she was ready for that night. She said no and tried to stop him but was overpowered.
When we think of rape, we immediately strive to create distance between the world and ourselves. With date rape, that is even easier to do because it doesn’t fit the stereotype of rape - the “stranger danger” myth. Date rape most likely happens with someone you know, that you may even like and be in a relationship with. We don’t want to believe that rape can happen to us, so we victim-blame. We blame the alcohol, the drugs, the time of day, the location, or the victim’s attire – anything to take away our own fear of the crime happening to us. In Katie’s situation, she was blamed because she trusted him enough to invite him into her home. And yet, the truth is steadfast: Nothing gives anyone the right to violate another person. No one is responsible for the crime but the person who actually committed it.
It is easy to get jaded by all the stories we hear in the news, and to judge and shame someone without hearing the full truth: to say how could she have been so naive to be alone with him? But the reality is, when we are young and inexperienced, we don’t know any better. We do the best we can with the knowledge and life experience we have at the time and sometimes, we are thrown into situations we may not be prepared for. When I was a freshman in college, I didn’t know any better either. I had yet to take criminology classes, sexual assault advocacy training, and self-defense training that would forever change the way I viewed the world – and myself.
When Katie locked eyes with us and asked, “Have you ever said, you should’ve seen it coming? I want you to know there is no way you can know. I promise you it wasn’t your fault,” I believed her. Katie’s parents blamed her and did not support her: Her mom called her damaged goods that would no longer find a husband, while her dad told her she could have avoided it by not allowing him in her room. Everyone around her expected her to stitch her life back together in the span of days, as if to pretend this hadn’t happened.
But Katie realized she had a choice to make. Either she could listen to everyone else and stay silent, or she could listen to herself, to the voice that repeated, “If you do nothing, you can be sure he will do it again.” She decided that wasn’t something she could live with and reported her case to the police. Katie now speaks all over the world on sexual assault and violence and she was invited by the United Nations to work with China on the issue and prevention of sexual violence.
“Bring Back the Night” movement is about what you decide to take back and shine light on. What helped Katie get through her past is being an “agent of change.” “Life is too short to not change the world,” she told us. Her speech was a moment of pure invincibility. Years later, I feel just as inspired by her and women like her. The one thing Katie taught me that day is that we all have the courage and heart of an activist deep within us, and no one and nothing can ever take that away from us. When she first entered the lecture hall, she asked us why we were there. Were we there because we have a passion for changing the world, or the desperate need for an extra credit for class? At the end of the lecture, she asked us to think about why we are here again, and to let that intention drive us. “I want you to do more than you ever thought you could. I want you to be fearless,” she said.