When I was nineteen, I was raped, just a few days after returning to school for my sophomore year. It was something that took me almost seven years to fully process. And by fully process, I mean that I dealt with horrible anxiety/depression, an interruption in my education, weight gain, an inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, and this uncomfortable startle reflex whenever anyone approaches or touches me without warning. These last two issues, while less severe, still linger. It took me a long time to stop feeling like I did something to warrant what happened to me, the ever-expanding list of “I shouldn’t have” statements growing in my mind.
I never reported what happened to me, to the school or police. I told my friends, who supported me in the best way they could. The boy approached me a few days later, as I was pouring cereal into a bowl at the dining hall, to offer a half-hearted apology for “getting out of control”. I didn’t know his name. My body felt hot as I stammered back, “It’s ok”. It wasn’t. I couldn’t meet his eyes. I wonder if he felt absolved. I went to Planned Parenthood, where they tested me for every lingering consequence. Everything was fine, thank God. I still consider those women who treated me to be some of the most important people I’ve encountered in my life. They saved me in a lot of ways, when I had no one else, and changed the way I viewed the world. I couldn’t bear to tell my parents at the time, or the person I was dating. I felt like it would destroy them, that they would find fault with me. I kept this from them, and started therapy, thinking it would help lift the feeling of being suffocated. It didn’t.
I told my boyfriend. He promptly dumped me. I told my mother, and in response, I got “Oh, we’ve all made dumb decisions when we’ve been drinking. Stop beating yourself up about it.” I’d like to believe she was just misunderstanding what I was telling her, but I don’t know how much clearer it could’ve been. I didn’t dare tell my father, as I honestly had no idea how he’d react. I’m not sure if my mother did. These responses from the people I needed the most, sent a very clear message: you did this to yourself. It took me a long time to realize that was incorrect. I never believed that women could feel they were at fault, after a sexual assault. Until it happened to me.
I’ve told a small number of people this story over the years, and the response has always been the same: Why didn’t you report it? And while the 33 year old me has the wisdom to know that I should’ve, the 19 year old me didn’t. I had no voice. I felt like I would be blamed, my actions picked apart, my reputation destroyed. I was smart enough to know how these things panned out, but not smart or strong enough to know how to fight back against it. To say that nothing I did gave anyone permission to violate me in the most heinous of ways. The panic and trauma coursing through me sent one clear message: get away from this. Put it away. Otherwise, I feared at the time, it would follow me. I needed to just move past it.
But it did follow me, an apparition reminding me that life would always be divided into “before the thing that happened at school” and “after the thing that happened at school”. Until just a few years ago, I couldn’t even say the word “rape”, in regards to my situation. It was always “the thing that happened”. The more I thought I was distancing myself from it, the more I realize now that it was tethering me back even tighter.
I’m sharing this not for you to feel sorry or angry for me, I’ve done enough of that for all of us over the years, and I have finally made peace with it. But, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience the past few days, after reading this article from the NY Times, about the alleged mishandling of a sexual misconduct case of a young woman named Anna at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, here in Geneva. After reading the article, as well as the HWS official response on their website, I can’t help but feel like there’s a fair amount of accuracy in the NYT article, and a fair amount of backpedaling and “Let’s quote our policy and practices to cover our asses” in their response. In my opinion, HWS grossly mishandled this situation, and failed not only this student, but any student who has ever kept quiet about a similar experience, for fear of reprisal or dismissal of its severity. Regardless of all that, more than the pain I feel for the young woman, I feel incredibly proud of her bravery. She is so young and so vulnerable after such a trauma, to have found her voice, and gone to such great lengths to tell her story, her truth. I lay in bed last night, trying to imagine the firestorm that is surrounding her now, how dizzying that must be. I wondered if she second guesses her decision now, and the feedback she’s getting from people. I love that despite the fear and apprehension she’s likely feeling, that she plans to return to HWS in the fall, to continue her education. “Someone needs to help survivors there,” she said.
And she’s right. Interactive videos or other vague educational tools are not going to stop sexual violence. It’s going to take a cultural shift to change people’s attitudes about power, assault, and sex in general. That shift will only come from people speaking up about their experience, and taking individuals and institutions to task their slut-shaming, scrutinizing of a victim’s actions prior to an assault, and dismissing of claims. Boys need to be taught from a young age that girls are not merely there for the touching or invading of space, and girls need to be taught to be strong and comfortable in the claiming of their bodies as their own. Women (and men, in those cases) need to come forward, share their stories, and remind others that without exception, no always means no. Because as I’ve said before-if it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.
If you’ve read the article and HWS response, and are compelled to voice your support for the improvement of the colleges’ handling of sexual assaults, you can do so by signing the following petition: