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Can women use sexual coercion against men? Lawsuit forces Indiana U. to face possibility


From Army dreams to community college catch-up

The Friday before Thanksgiving 2015, freshman Aaron F. sat for his trial in a campus court. He was accused of sexually assaulting his student neighbor.

A few weeks later, Aaron was called into Indiana University-Bloomington’s Office of Student Ethics. “They told me I was expelled,” Aaron told The College Fix.

In spite of a police investigation that found “inconclusive evidence” and numerous inconsistencies in his accuser’s story, Aaron was still ruled “responsible” for sexual assault.

He is now suing IUB for depriving him due process based on gender bias, and the student who accused him, Marion Zerfoss, for defamation.

Aaron’s story raises the question of whether colleges will ever take the idea seriously that females can, and sometimes do, coerce males into having sex against their will.

‘I could get some studying done’ at her house

With his sights set on joining the Army, Aaron chose IUB for its special ROTC program, which would allow him to serve as a student cadet officer.

“I was serious. I wanted everyone to know I was a hard worker,” he told The Fix.

He got good grades his first semester and enrolled in the ROTC and police cadet program as soon as he could. Aaron was looking forward to “making everyone proud.”

To save money during his second semester, he moved off-campus and met Zerfoss, though only in passing.

One afternoon, Aaron ran into one of her housemates on campus. The housemate was throwing a birthday party for a friend and invited Aaron. “Why not?” he recalled thinking.

MORE: She initiated sex when I couldn’t consent, expelled student claims

During the party, Aaron said he had “about five shots of vodka” and “two or three” bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. He didn’t see Zerfoss drink much, and when the party slowed down, Aaron headed home because “I had a test in the morning.”

But when Aaron got home, he got a call from the housemate saying Zerfoss wasn’t feeling well. She asked if Aaron could come back over and watch her, since everyone else was leaving for a bar.

“I grabbed my dog and my textbook,” he told The Fix. “I figured that if I was just going to watch her, I could get some studying done.”

‘She kept calling my name’

But when Aaron arrived at her house, psychology textbook in hand, Zerfoss called him into her room. “The first thing she said was ‘Is everyone gone?’” Aaron recalled.

The second thing she said: “‘Do you want to fuck me?’”

Aaron didn’t want to have sex with her. He had been taught in his ROTC program that “drunk people aren’t supposed to sleep together,” and while he didn’t think either was drunk, both had consumed alcohol and he wanted to play it safe. (He claims to remember the entire evening despite the several drinks he consumed.)

Zerfoss, in fact, “seemed fully cognizant,” he said. She wasn’t slurring her words or fumbling, and she was insistent that they have sex.

MORE: ‘Title IX retaliation’ against trustee for defending disabled son

“She kept calling my name,” grabbing his hands and putting them on her body, Aaron claimed. When he tried to spurn her advances by making small talk or offering her water, she rejected.

“Eventually, I gave in.”

‘My world turned completely upside down’

The following week, Aaron was called into the campus police station where he worked. A supervisor said a female student had filed a sexual-assault allegation against him with the Title IX office, which then went to campus police by virtue of Aaron’s job.

Aaron was immediately suspended from his job as a student police officer.

“I felt like it was serious from the get-go,” he told The Fix. “I knew sexual assault allegations can stop your career in their tracks.” His dad helped him call a lawyer that night.

Within a few days, Aaron was arrested by the Bloomington Police Department. He learned Zerfoss had claimed to be “completely blacked out” during the sex and didn’t remember anything.

“That was when my world turned completely upside down,” he said.

He was released from jail a day later. The police investigation was closed due to a lack of evidence.

But the campus administrative system was still processing its investigation of Aaron. His mugshot was published in the school paper. He stopped going to class. “I felt like I couldn’t face my peers,” Aaron said.

“I felt like I was being treated guilty until proven innocent.”

Didn’t bring his lawyer

The disciplinary proceeding played out similarly to how other accused students have described their own proceedings in due-process lawsuits.

On one side of a curtain in a room was Zerfoss and her lawyer. On the other, Aaron and his dad. “I didn’t think I needed to bring my lawyer,” even though IUB offered to let him do so.

MOREAfrican student expelled and deported for one minute of kissing

They testified in front of three administrators. Trial administrator Amber Monroe, who would leave IUB two months later, didn’t allow Aaron to cross-examine his accuser, nor confront her with any of the inconsistencies in her story that Aaron had come to learn.

He was limited to creating a list of suggested questions for Monroe to ask Zerfoss, and she declined to ask many of them, Aaron said.

Soon after Thanksgiving break, Aaron was called into the Student Ethics office and told he was expelled: “I was floored.”

Scorned by Purdue

Because the proceeding concluded near the end of the semester, Aaron was able to finish his classes. But as soon as they were over, he was banned from campus.  “Half the city of Bloomington is off limits to me,” he said, referring to an expansive no-contact order.

Zerfoss has since talked to numerous local media outlets, telling them her side of the story and smearing Aaron’s name in the process. Their disputed encounter was featured in a special section of the Indiana Daily Student.

Zerfoss herself took its reporters to the Office of Student Ethics and let them listen to “the audio from the disciplinary proceeding” and review the case-file documents, according to an editor’s note.

The fallout has been “devastating,” Aaron told The Fix.

His dream of joining the Army has been dashed. He’s had trouble finding work, and he believes the “black mark” on his transcript may have led Purdue University to invent an excuse for rejecting his application.

MORE: Purdue kicks out ROTC student for snuggling without consent

He’s now at a community college taking classes part-time, trying to rebuild his academic career from the bottom up.

“If you’re a male and you’re accused, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Aaron said about his campus adjudication.

Now, his dream job is a position in which he can help reform the criminal justice system.

“I saw many aspects [of the criminal justice system] having gone through such a large portion of it that I felt could have either been improved on, or seemed flat out broken,” he said.

Litigation ‘often the only avenue’ to remove the ‘taint’ of false accusations

Lawyer Eric Rosenberg, who is representing Aaron, filed a lawsuit against the university and Zerfoss in December.

It’s one of 16 he has filed across the county on behalf of college students who want to “clear their names of the taint of false allegations of sexual misconduct,” Rosenberg wrote in a statement to The Fix.

MORE: Gay student branded a rapist for waking boyfriend with a kiss

“This taint often eliminates their ability to attend college and terminates life-long educational and professional dreams,” and litigation is “often the only avenue available to right this wrong,” he said.

Aaron says he expects the university to file an answer to the lawsuit in late March.

“If there’s anything good that could come of this,” Aaron said, it would be “for everyone to have a chance for constitutional American rights” and a process that is “fair for everyone.”

The university did not respond to a request for comment. Zerfoss’s lawyer responded to an initial query but did not follow up.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended.

MORE: Federal judge validates due-process suit against Brandeis

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Toni Airaksinen -- Barnard College