“We were friends.”
Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, Daniel Kopin returns to this point again and again. Ten months after an evening that irrevocably changed two young people’s lives, Kopin, a 21-year-old former Brown University student, still sounds genuinely shaken as he recounts his reaction to an August 8 email that confronted him with a stark accusation: “Dan, you raped me.”
Stories like these are currently at the center of an intense national campaign, unfolding in the media and on the political stage, to publicize and combat the problem of campus sexual assault. In the past two years, dozens of young women have come forward with shattering accounts of being abused both by their assailants and by indifferent or unsympathetic school administrators—and, more and more often, with federal civil rights lawsuits against the institutions. The alleged perpetrators in these accounts nearly always remain shadowy figures, their names protected by anonymity and their version of the events unknown. In a rare exception, Kopin decided to speak with The Daily Beast.
“I was in shock—total disbelief,” Kopin says, growing visibly agitated as he recalls reading the email. “I couldn’t—I mean, I called my mom. Being accused—something must be wrong, something must be off. That was my initial thought. But it became clear, as I looked over my facts, the text messages I had—as I racked my memory—it became clear that this was not true. What she was saying was not true.”
Kopin, the accused man in one such story that has recently made headlines—that of Brown student Lena Sclove—did not volunteer to go public. The decision was made for him by the student newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, which identified him in an April 23 article detailing Sclove’s charge that the university had mishandled her sexual assault complaint. (Kopin, found responsible for “sexual misconduct” involving non-consensual sexual activity after an October 11 hearing, was suspended for a year and was set to resume classes next fall.) Publications like Slate and Salon picked up the story the next day with the shocking claim that Brown was allowing a rapist who had choked his victim to return to campus after a one-year suspension. In a May 6 appearance on MSNBC, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has championed the cause of sexual assault survivors on campus, said that Sclove was not only “brutally raped” but “nearly choked to death”; while she did not name Kopin on the air, she asserted that “he should be in jail, not with a one-year suspension.” (While Sclove made a police report seven months after the incident, no criminal charges were ever filed against Kopin.)
By the time Sen. Gillibrand expressed her dismay that Sclove would have to attend classes with her attacker on campus, Kopin had already decided to withdraw from Brown, faced with a blitz of negative publicity as well as campus protests. He was still reluctant to speak to the media, though providing a statement quoted in an earlier article in The Daily Beast. At the end of May, however, Kopin and his parents, Alan and Elizabeth Kopin, agreed to an interview with The Daily Beast in the downtown Boston office of a communications specialist who has been the family’s informal advisor. They also provided the full record of documents from the disciplinary hearing. Together, these documents and narratives paint a picture that illustrates the daunting, wrenching complexity of sexual assault cases involving people who know each other well and may have a sexual history together—cases that often involve emotional ambivalence, mixed signals, and radically different claims about what are supposed to be shared events.
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One irony of this particular story is that Kopin and Sclove share a common background of progressive activism—an interest that helped form a bond between them after both transferred to Brown in January 2013 (Kopin from NYU, Sclove from Tufts). Kopin, the younger of two sons of physician parents, attended the Rashi School, a Boston-area Jewish school that has a strong social justice orientation; both at home and at school, he was raised in an environment where “believing the victim” in a sexual assault case is a widely shared principle. Today, he speaks earnestly of his gratitude for the support he has received from friends who are “who are a part of this feminist community that I’d like to consider myself a part of.”
A mild-mannered young man with a self-effacing smile and a preppy manner, Kopin sometimes sounds as if he still doesn’t quite believe all of this is real. “I don’t why this is happening,” he says, more than once. “I don’t understand.” He says that, after the night of the alleged assault on August 2, he had no inkling that anything was wrong until receiving Sclove’s email several days later.
On some points, Sclove’s and Kopin’s accounts coincide. Both acknowledge that in late July, Kopin told Sclove he wanted to end their sexual relationship, which had started about three weeks earlier, and return to a platonic friendship.
Both acknowledge on August 2, despite this decision, they began flirting at a party, engaged in physical displays of affection, and left the party to go to Kopin’s apartment with the intention of having sex. Both acknowledge that Sclove had an intensely negative reaction when Kopin put his hand on her neck while they were kissing and touching each other in the street. Kopin says that the touch was simply a caress, no different from the way he had touched Sclove before; Sclove has described it as a rough squeeze that was both physically painful and frightening (and led to a spinal injury identified several months later). Both agree that, after Kopin comforted Sclove and she calmed down, they proceeded to go to his place—and that, once they were there and seated on the couch, Sclove told Kopin she did not want to have sex.
At this point, their versions of the events diverge dramatically. Kopin says that he told Sclove he was absolutely fine with her decision and offered to walk her home—but she refused to leave and, moments later, began to kiss him and initiated sex. Sclove acknowledges in her written statement to the disciplinary board that Kopin told her she could go home; however, she writes, “I was far too in shock to walk back alone, but I didn’t want him to walk back with me, remembering what he had done the last time we were walking.”
She claims that Kopin pulled her into his lap, undressed her despite her repeated verbal protests, and had sex with her while she was too shocked, tired, and “fuzzy” from alcohol to push him off. She also says that at some point during the sexual assault, he choked her again. According to Kopin, he put his hand on her neck, in a “gentle manner,” while she was giving him oral sex—at which point she stopped and told him she did not want to be touched that way, and he apologized.
Both Sclove and Kopin agree on one startling detail: that at some point during sex, Sclove began to cry. In her initial statement to the disciplinary board, Sclove wrote that Kopin probably remained unaware of this. In his statement, Kopin wrote that he noticed Sclove was crying and asked if she was all right and if she wanted to stop—to which she responded by kissing him again and continuing to move “energetically” on top of him. (Obviously, it’s a different picture than the one Sclove paints of that evening.) He also reiterated this in our interview: “I asked if everything was okay. We were talking, and she continued to kiss me and was totally fine.” Returning to the subject sometime later, he stressed, “Again, it’s important to point out that I was friends with her. Our conversation that night—in essence, the core for me is that it was a back and forth.”
In her second statement to the panel, in response to Kopin’s account, Sclove seemed to acknowledge that Kopin asked her at that point if she would like to stop; but she insisted that, far from being on top of him, she was pinned underneath him and was “simply not responding.” In the same statement, she admitted that she asked Kopin to get a condom and agreed to perform oral sex—but claimed that she did so only because Kopin seemed intent on having sex with her and these seemed to be the least “horrible” of her options at the time. Kopin, meanwhile, has consistently claimed that Sclove initiated the oral sex and told him she wanted to be on top of him during intercourse.
What is not in dispute is that shortly afterward, Kopin’s three housemates got home, heard sounds indicating a sexual encounter in progress, and knocked on the door to give Kopin and Sclove the opportunity to make themselves decent. The two grabbed their clothes and ran up the stairs to Kopin’s bedroom, where Sclove made it clear that she did not want to continue. She got dressed and left.
Sclove was, at the absolute least, ambivalent; even Kopin acknowledges that. Yet he is also adamant that, despite these moments of hesitation, she clearly demonstrated her consent with no coercion or pressure on his part—and indeed initiated much of the sexual activity. A couple of times during our conversation, he admits that having sex under those circumstances was probably not a good idea: “I’m responsible for that.”
Kopin also claims that a similar pattern of mixed signals was present at the start of their brief sexual relationship: he says that while out for a walk together, they acknowledged their mutual attraction, whereupon Sclove said she wanted to be just friends—but quickly proceeded to kiss him and then initiated sexual contact after they got in his car. This is partly corroborated by two of Kopin’s housemates, who testified before the disciplinary panel in his support. One wrote, “I recall Dan being quite startled recalling this story, as Lena’s physical action conflicted with her words.”
All three of Kopin’s housemates, two men and one woman—the closest there could be to eyewitnesses in this case—provide a further accounting of the events of August 2. They testified that Sclove did not seem frightened or disoriented when she came back downstairs after getting dressed. One reported that “she seemed very uncomfortable, and made a joke about how it was awkward, and we assured her that it was fine. She said she didn’t want us to think of her as ‘that girl.’” Another wrote that Sclove asked them not to tell their other friends that she and Kopin had been together “because she wanted to tell them herself.” The third recalled her smiling.
Also on the record was a text message Sclove sent Kopin after leaving his house, which made no reference to sexual assault but asked him to retrieve her underwear which was still on the couch (“Please find it before they do”).
However, what is also clear from the record is that by the next day—Saturday, August 3—Sclove was already distraught about the incident. Kopin has suggested that Sclove’s therapist encouraged her to see it as a sexual assault (based on her comment in the August 8 email, “I have seen my therapist twice, and she is 100 percent sure that this was rape”). Yet two of Sclove’s friends whom she contacted over the weekend, before seeing her therapist on Monday, confirmed in their statements to the panel that she told them she had been raped.
The record is also decidedly muddled on the key issue of Kopin’s alleged choking of Sclove. One of the friends in whom she confided that weekend wrote that, by Sclove’s account, Kopin “pushed her against a telephone pole” while they were kissing in the street and “put his hand on her upper chest/neck; however Lena felt like she was being strangled and got very freaked out.” The other corroborating witness recalled Sclove saying that Kopin “grabbed her neck” and wrote, “When she said it I looked at her neck and saw the faintest hint of a bruise.”
In a May 2 interview with Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now radio show, Sclove said that her friend “saw the bruises on my neck and said, ‘You need to go to the emergency room’”; however, the friend’s written statement indicates that the suggestion to go to the emergency room was in response to Sclove’s general distress and her story of being raped.
In the August 8 email to Kopin, Sclove did not mention choking, referring to the neck touching as “You crossed a boundary for me.” She also mentioned another detail that never came up during the hearing or in any of the press accounts: that because of the touching, she was “triggered about [her] experience with sexual harassment that week.” This mysterious second incident is described by Kopin from Sclove’s account, and confirmed by a statement from one of Sclove’s own character witnesses: Sclove had recently agreed to go out for coffee with an adult student in an “English for Action” (English as a second language) class she was teaching, after repeatedly turning down his earlier requests for a date. What happened between her and the adult student is unclear, but according to her friend’s statement “she immediately felt uncomfortable with him and shared her frustration with the fact that he was not respecting her no.” Kopin recalls Sclove telling him that she was “afraid to be in Providence” because of the experience.
At the April 22 rally that led to Kopin’s “outing” by the Brown Daily Herald, Sclove asserted that a second woman had submitted a statement to the panel about being sexually assaulted by Kopin—a claim the Herald repeated. That statement is part of the record, though it was ultimately not admitted into the evidence. But, far from alleging sexual assault, the second woman’s testimony explicitly notes, in describing her hook-up with Kopin in February 2013, “It was consensual—in fact, he asked if he could kiss me.”
The woman also wrote that she voluntarily took off most of her clothes and that, while she almost immediately began to regret the encounter, she never told Kopin she wanted to stop. Her grievance against him boiled down to the claim that he “moved [her] body around into whatever positions he felt best in” and seemed interested only in his own pleasure, and that he pushed her head down too forcefully while she was giving him oral sex, causing her to stop and tell him that “that was rude.” Kopin, who disputes parts of this account, comments, “It was very strange to me to see a letter which basically says that I’m a jerk.”
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To say that nobody knows what really happened that night on August 2 except for the two people involved is a cliché; but it also fairly sums up what can be gleaned about this case from the available evidence. The discrepancies between Sclove’s and Kopin’s accounts seem too great to be explained by differences in subjective perception. Is it possible that Sclove felt pressured or intimidated in ways Kopin did not notice or understand? Perhaps. Is it possible that her bad experience with her adult student fatefully colored her perceptions of her interaction with Kopin? That’s the explanation favored by Kopin’s mother, Elizabeth Kopin, who says that as an ob-gyn with over thirty years of practice (she retired last year, due partly to her health issues caused by multiple sclerosis), she has “a painful awareness of what women who are assaulted go through.”
One can certainly argue that even if Kopin’s account is entirely true, he should have been more sensitive to Sclove’s fragile state—especially in view of his earnest protestations that their interaction that night took place “within the context of our friendship”—and should not have pursued what he describes as “a passionate hookup” under the circumstances, even if she mostly initiated it herself. But if Kopin’s account is right, and he acted like a bit of a dolt, that doesn’t add up to “non-consensual sex” for which Kopin was found responsible by the Brown disciplinary panel, let alone to the brutal rape of which he stands convicted in the court of public opinion.
Kopin recalls that, shortly after he was notified of Sclove’s formal charges on August 20, he and his parents went to talk to a Brown official who told them that he would be suspended and that his life would never be the same. “I did not want to believe it,” he says. “But they were right.”
The disciplinary process, he says, was heavily stacked against him. Brown assesses sexual misconduct charges under a “preponderance of the evidence” standard—the lowest legal burden of proof. Theoretically, this means that fact-finders must find in favor of the complainant if they believe it’s even slightly more likely than not that the offense occurred; in practice, many say, it means a great deal of guesswork. That’s the standard by which the federal government has directed schools to judge such complaints ever since a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter to college and university presidents, a precept reiterated in subsequent documents from the Department of the Justice and the Department of Education. (Until then, most schools had used the much higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard.)
“I think the panel just took everything Lena said as gospel,” Kopin says. Perhaps. But what’s indisputable is that Brown’s justice system bears little resemblance to a traditional court. Kopin’s advisor during the investigation and the hearing was the campus director of dining services, who he says had little knowledge of the disciplinary process. Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate, who was retained by the Kopins but was barred from any role in the campus disciplinary process, says in an email, “Dan, because factually innocent of everything except some bad judgment, was suspended for ‘only’ one year, which quite often in today’s academic environment is the penalty for the innocent.”
The Kopins say they remain strongly supportive of the goal of a more effective response to sexual assault. Yet Liz Kopin, who says that talking to her son about Sclove’s charges was “the most painful conversation I could ever imagine,” also acknowledges that the experience has changed the way she views sexual assault allegations. “To have someone misconstrue a situation, perhaps because of a prior assault or abuse, and then make an accusation in such a process where she can destroy a young man’s life—stunning,” she says. “I never, ever would have expected this.”
Even as the White House and Congress step up the pressure on colleges to get even tougher on accused offenders, a backlash is already brewing. In the past several years, there have been more than 20 lawsuits against colleges by male students claiming wrongful expulsion or other damage due to what they claim were false accusations of sexual assault. (As it happens, one of the earliest lawsuits of this sort, in 1996, was against Brown.)
In many ways, the current system of campus trials—in which claims of sexual assault are investigated by gender equity bureaucrats with no background in criminal justice and judged by professors, students, deans, and campus activists, with no clear rules of evidence or protections for the participants—does a grave disservice to both the wrongly accused and to victims who are misleadingly promised a friendlier alternative to law enforcement channels. On at least one point, Sen. Gillibrand is right: if Daniel Kopin is a violent rapist and near-strangler, he should be doing time in prison, not getting suspended or even expelled (the toughest disciplinary sanctions still leave a rapist free to find other victims off-campus). If he is innocent, he has been effectively branded a criminal without any of the safeguards normally accorded to criminal defendants. In the end, nobody wins.