Andrea Pino, a 25-year-old Miami native and former student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been hailed as a heroine of the campus sexual assault survivors’ movement.
Pino, who has told a harrowing story of being raped at an off-campus party in 2012, was a main author of a landmark 2013 Title IX complaint that accused UNC of indifference to victims. A co-founder of the group End Rape on Campus with her friend and fellow UNC alumna Annie Clark, Pino has had the ear of politicians and journalists; she was one of the stars of the 2015 campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground, has co-authored an acclaimed book titled We Believe You, and is still a frequent speaker on college campuses.
Now, a new book on the controversies surrounding sexual assault on campus strongly challenges Pino’s credibility.
The Campus Rape Frenzy, by Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson and National Journal contributing editor Stuart Taylor, takes a critical look at claims of an epidemic of sexual violence against college women and at the current Title IX system’s presumption of guilt toward accused students. It also describes Pino’s complaint against UNC as “the highest-profile questionable Title IX claim.”
While there is no accused rapist in this case—Pino says she does not know his identity—the question of Pino’s truthfulness is important, given her status as a central figure in the narrative of a “rape culture” pervasive at American universities. It is also relevant to another issue discussed by Johnson and Taylor: The media’s tendency to suspend normal journalistic skepticism when it comes to (alleged) sexual assault survivors.
Johnson and Taylor point to implausible elements in Pino’s account of her assault (for instance, while she says she was left severely injured and bleeding, no one at the party or at her dormitory noticed anything amiss) and to major discrepancies in her claims about her mistreatment by the school. According to Pino, when she couldn’t complete her schoolwork due to anxiety and depression caused by the rape, she was told she was “lazy” and lacking in ability. Her Huffington Post essay published in April 2013 attributed these remarks to an academic advisor to whom she had apparently said nothing about being raped, only about dealing with “personal trauma.” However, in an interview two years later, Pino described the culprit as a professor to whom she had “explained … what was happening.”
Finally, Johnson and Taylor note that “Pino’s credibility has continued to unravel” since the release of The Hunting Ground, with a brand-new claim that “she had been carrying a Taser the night of her alleged rape.”
While the authors do not explicitly accuse Pino of fabrication, they certainly seem to imply as much—even pointing out parallels to Jackie, the University of Virginia rape hoaxer at the center of the later-retracted Rolling Stone story on campus rape. It is an explosive charge on a highly sensitive issue. Many argue that sexual assault victims are often re-victimized by being unfairly branded as liars because of the way trauma affects memory.
No one can know for sure what happened to Pino. But Johnson’s and Taylor’s analysis points to very real problems with her story, which has been uncritically accepted not only by the makers of The Hunting Ground but by other mainstream journalists. And those problems are even more extensive than Johnson and Taylor reveal.
My own skepticism of Pino’s claims goes back two years; while reading up on the women featured in The Hunting Ground, I was struck by oddities in the glowing profile of Pino and Clark published in Vogue in late 2014 and in Pino’s own earlier articles at The Huffington Post. I did some background research for an article raising questions about Pino’s credibility, then put it on hold. Investigating this story proved to be a nearly impossible task, partly because Pino’s account lacks virtually all verifiable detail. Pino did not respond to an email requesting an interview in November 2015—just as she did not respond to an email last month requesting comment for this article and mentioning the criticism of her account by Johnson and Taylor. And UNC officials have always refused to comment on her allegations, citing confidentiality.
The story Pino has told is certainly horrifying. Here’s how she tells it in The Hunting Ground:
My sophomore year, a really good friend of mine said, “Hey, you wanna go to this party?” And it was pretty late in the night. I started dancing with this guy, and he was really attractive and a really, really great dancer, and just a really good person—at least, I thought he was. It all happened really quickly … he just started kind of like pulling me toward the bathroom. He grabbed my head by the side of my ear and slammed it against the bathroom tile. And—it didn’t stop. I couldn’t move. I could hear laughter outside the door, I could hear people dancing. And it made me wonder—why doesn’t anybody see me, why isn’t anybody coming to the bathroom? Why am I not screaming? When you’re scared and you don’t know what’s happening to you, you just stay there and hope that you don’t die.
Elsewhere, Pino has described her unknown assailant pinning her wrists to the wall and ripping the buttons off her jeans before raping her. At some point, she says, she “blacked out”; after regaining consciousness, she returned to the party but couldn’t find her friend and made her way back to her dorm. The next morning, according to her 2013 Huffington Post piece, she “woke up in a pool of blood that dripped over onto the cracks of the wooden floor,” her bedsheets soaked with blood, her body covered with “marks and blisters.”
Pino writes that as her memories began to come back and she realized she had been raped, she thought about reporting it but hesitated:
What do I report? I don’t have a name, I don’t have any witnesses. Would the police make me take a lie-detector test? Would they think that I hurt myself?
She goes on to say that when she tried to reach out to friends, “I quickly learned that it was ‘my fault.’” In her interview in Vogue, Pino also claims that the morning after the attack she tried to talk about it to the friend with whom she’d gone to the party, only to have the friend suggest, “Maybe you just had a bad hookup?” And so, Pino says, she suffered and struggled in silence until going public several months later.
There are indeed some striking similarities here to the Rolling Stone story: Prince Charming who abruptly morphs into a monster; an extremely violent rape during a party; a victim who flees the house dazed, injured and bloodied without anyone noticing her condition, and who never goes to the police or the hospital; insensitive friends who either trivialize the assault or blame the victim; callous university staffers.
Obviously, none of this proves that Pino is another Jackie. Nonetheless, her account has many elements that don’t add up.
- How likely is it that during a crowded party with alcohol flowing, no one would try to enter the bathroom for an extended period of time? Or that no one would be alarmed by the blood on the tiles after Pino left the bathroom? Or that no one would notice Pino bleeding? (In her Huffington Post piece, she mentions leaving bloody tracks on the path on the way back to her dorm.)
- Pino mentions bleeding profusely but says nothing about cleaning up the blood in her room or washing the blood-soaked sheets; it should have been a grueling task, not easily concealed from fellow dorm residents. (Whether she had a roommate is unknown; Rick Bradley, associate director of housing at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in an email that while first- and second-year students living in residence halls typically have roommates, some get an exemption and some are left as sole occupants after a roommate moves out.)
- Pino makes no mention of seeking medical help, even though the heavy bleeding she describes would have left her extremely weak—and even though she claims to have sustained a concussion.
- Pino has repeatedly said that her assailant, a dark-haired, blue-eyed man wearing black denim pants and a black shirt, was a total stranger and that she never found out who he was. Yet, as Johnson and Taylor note, she somehow seems to know that this man at the off-campus party was “a fellow student.”
- It simply beggars belief that students at a liberal university in the 21st century would tell a woman who was dragged into a bathroom, viciously battered and raped that it was her fault, or dismiss this as “a bad hookup.”
- In her Huffington Post piece, Pino says that she didn’t go to the police because she had no name and no witnesses. Elsewhere, she has given a very different reason: that she did not immediately recognize what happened as a sexual assault. Thus, a recent account of Pino’s and Clark’s appearance at Penn State in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, quotes Pino as saying, “I didn’t know what to do… That’s because my assault didn’t look like what I thought sexual assault looked like it was (sic) in Law and Order SVU or what it was in movies. I didn’t see the signs and I didn’t consider myself a victim, much less a survivor.” This not only contradicts her earlier claims but seems far-fetched, given that her story actually sounds almost exactly like the classic stereotype of “real rape”: a surprise attack by a stranger using extreme physical violence.
The Collegian article may also be the only media report on Pino to mention a highly relevant fact: At the time of the alleged rape, Pino was active in a bystander intervention program focused on prevention of sexual assault and partner violence. Her LinkedIn resume says she was a “peer educator” for One Act Carolina & Helping to Advocate for Violence Ending Now (HAVEN) starting in August 2011. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Pino would have been well-prepared to handle a situation in which she was the victim. However, Pino’s involvement in this program makes it especially difficult to believe that other students were so callously unsympathetic when she tried to talk about being raped, or that no one encouraged her to seek help.
There is another shocking part of Pino’s account that has been completely overlooked. In the 2013 Huffington Post piece telling her story, Pino asserts that the rape in March 2012 was the second assault she suffered on campus. This is not mentioned in The Hunting Ground—or, it appears, anywhere else except for an obscure October 2014 blogpost covering a talk she gave at a conference, which mentions that “Pino was sexually assaulted twice” while at UNC.
The first incident, according to Pino, happened “a few weeks” into her freshman year:
I found myself in a fraternity brother’s room, pinned to a door, and given a drink that didn’t taste right. Within minutes, my eyes shut, and the morning after, I woke up on my dorm floor, scratched and bruised, and with a note from a stranger that said “We found you by the road.”
Pino writes that she was “terrified” and had trouble passing her classes, but ultimately managed to move on. Later, she notes that after she went public as a survivor and began to hear other students’ stories, “memories of my first assault experience resurfaced.”
If Pino’s account of her rape and its aftermath stretches credibility, the first assault sounds even more improbable. Even allowing that someone who finds an unconscious woman by the road could be reckless enough to take her home instead of calling 911, how would those mysterious good Samaritans get inside the residence hall, which requires an electronic key fob called a flex pass? And even in the unlikely event that they found and used Pino’s own flex pass and room key, how would they know where to take her? Bradley, the UNC associate director of housing who has worked at the university since 2002, has confirmed by email that “none of our keys or flex passes show the building name or room number.”
An alternate explanation is that the fraternity brother who presumably drugged Pino got her back to her room himself and left the note to cover his tracks. But it seems extremely unlikely that even the dumbest sexual predator would try to cover up his crime by dragging an unconscious woman around a university campus—or that anyone could manage to do this undetected.
Additional doubts about Pino’s reliability are raised by a UNC campus incident which she has described as part of the harassment she endured after filing the Title IX complaint—and by the very different accounts in the local media.
The 2014 Vogue feature on Pino and Clark asserts that “somebody broke into Pino’s dorm on campus, leaving behind a fake bloody knife just outside her room” and quotes Pino as saying that she “didn’t feel safe anymore” after that. Earlier, in April 2013, The Huffington Post ran a story criticizing UNC’s inadequate response to “vandalism directed at [a] victim”; the article, based partly on an interview with Pino, said that the door of her room was defaced with offensive graffiti and that “a fake bloody knife was left at the scene.”
Yet the UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, reported that the dorm vandalism incident, which happened on March 31, 2013, involved graffiti being spray-painted on several mirrors and other surfaces on the building’s first floor. (The offender was believed to have gotten inside in by “tailgating” a student with a flex pass.) Pino, who was the dorm’s resident adviser, did have her door spray-painted; she and one other student insisted that the residence hall was targeted in retaliation against her activism. However, reports by The Daily Tar Heel and the local news station WRAL indicate that a number of other campus locations had been also vandalized with graffiti in the preceding weeks.
And the knife? It did exist, but it was found on the stove in the communal kitchen, not by Pino’s door, and there was no fake blood. A photo used in a report on WRAL shows a streak of red or hot pink spray paint on the stovetop that also runs across the blade of the small knife. (It’s unclear whether the knife had already been there or was placed there by the intruder.) The vandalism may or may not have been connected to Pino’s activism, but it seems fair to say that her account portraying it as a personal, terrifying message of intimidation was dramatically embellished.
Learn Your Lessons
At this point, any speculation about what actually happened to Pino in March 2012 is pure guesswork. If she was, in fact, raped at a party near the UNC campus, the real lesson of her story is that rape should be reported to law enforcement—not only for the victim’s sake, but for the safety of other women who could be at risk from a violent sexual predator. (Pino’s description should have been enough to identify the perpetrator, and there would have been DNA evidence.) The only action Pino took was to drop an anonymous report in a box—a largely useless option created at UNC and some other schools at the behest of activists.
But the other lesson is that even after the Rolling Stone fiasco, journalists are still failing at basic fact-checking when it comes to claims of sexual assault—even when the stories have numerous red flags. It seems that no one has tried to track down the advisor or professor who supposedly berated Pino for being “lazy,” or the friend who Pino says was with her at the party where she was raped, or her fellow peer educators in the HAVEN program.
Given Pino’s high profile as an activist, this is a story in desperate need of some real reporting. Perhaps the questions raised by Johnson and Taylor will finally set it in motion.