WARNING: Material in this article may be triggering to some readers. If the topic of sexual assault is a sensitive subject, please continue with caution or avoid reading altogether.
The idea of being sexually assaulted is often pushed to the side of our minds. We tell ourselves, “It will never happen to me,” and, “I’m smart and careful, I’ll be fine,” in order to separate ourselves from the issue. No one wants to believe they’re at risk, especially on their own campus.
We’ve heard the warnings, the tips and all the statistics. But the truth about being a sexual assault victim is that you can listen to all the warnings and follow all the tips and sill fall into the statistic. However, these individuals are not just statistics. They are not just another story to tell incoming freshmen to scare them into being careful. They are real people who have been subjected to treatment that no human should ever have to face. They are strong survivors.
I had the opportunity to interview two female students at different universities who had been sexually assaulted. In order to break the taboo of speaking about sexual assault on college campuses and shed light on what it is really like to be a victim, they agreed to share their stories in the hope that they can help others out there who have faced similar horrors. They asked their names to be changed in order to remain anonymous, so we will just refer to them as Emily and Mary.
OK, so first question, how old are you?
When was your assault?
Emily: "It was last November, right before Thanksgiving."
Mary: "Eight months ago now, so around August."
Did you know your assaulter before the assault?
Emily: "Yes, we had been on a couple of dates before the incident."
Mary: "Yes, he was a mutual friend of my roommate."
What year are they?
Emily: "They’re also a freshman."
Mary: "He’s a freshman too."
If you don’t mind sharing, what happened?
Emily: "I went to his dorm to hang out because I thought we were going to start dating. We’d been talking for a few weeks. We watched two movies and then started making out. Then we talked for a long time but started making out again. Things got heated. I asked him if he wanted to have sex. He said no. I then asked if he wanted me to sleep over (but we agreed that we'd only sleep); he said yes. So, we went to bed. As I was falling asleep I felt his hand on my butt. I moved and he took it off. I fell asleep not thinking much of it. I woke up with his hand around mine, moving it up and down around his penis.
I pretended to be asleep because everyone on his floor was either gone or sleeping and I didn’t know how I was going to get home. It was about 4 a.m. He kept touching me all over. Under my bra, over my bra. Under and over my panties. He rubbed himself on me. At one point, I thought he was going to flip me over and rape me. Every time I tried to move he stopped so I know he wanted me to be asleep. I spent the rest of the night shaking. Eventually, we 'woke up.' He kept touching me, but in a normal way. I didn't know how to act. I was just so scared and tired. I just pretended to be fine, like I had no idea what he did to me. We said goodbye and I walked all the way home."
Mary: "He and another one of my roommate’s friends were visiting for the weekend. He and I had kissed the last time we had seen each other, which was also the first time I ever had any alcohol. He and the other friend, who was a female, were only staying one night. We were all hanging out, goofing around and playing silly games. There was absolutely no alcohol involved. While the other two girls were asleep, he beckoned me down from my lofted bed. I figured he just wanted to talk and I couldn’t sleep either, so I climbed down. We talked for a while and then he kissed me, which was pretty forward of him. After a couple of seconds, I pushed him away and shook my head — something that usually means no. He has a scholarship for being on the rowing team so he was definitely stronger than I was and that let him overpower me pretty easily.
So, since he could and since he apparently felt entitled to it, he kept kissing and started touching me. I said, 'no,' 'stop,' shook my head and pushed him away but he wouldn’t stop. He ended up being so aggressive with his hand that I began to bleed. It hurt for days afterwards. He unzipped his pants and then, while I was silently crying, he gave himself a hand-job with my hand. The whole time, there were two other people asleep in the room. After he was done, I got up and ran to the bathroom where I hid and cried for most of the night. He sent me a text saying that, 'No one knows and no one will know,' which felt more like a threat than a comfort."
Did you tell anyone? Like a law enforcement officer or your parents?
Emily: "No… I was afraid of what my mom would think of me. And there was no way to prove what he had done. I had offered consensual sex earlier in the night and I didn’t know how that would stand up in court if we ever got to that point."
Mary: "I don’t think I will ever tell my parents, but after a couple months, I did tell my RA. He filed a report. Most of the friends I told said something like, 'It’s not your fault.' A lot of them just wanted to listen and be there for me. My RA was obligated to report the assault to the police but I didn’t file it myself."
In what ways does this even impact you now?
Emily: "It has a big impact. It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to trust people. In my new relationship, it’s been hard to fully open up to my boyfriend. I’ve had anxiety attacks in the middle of the night. I’ve had nightmares. Every time I see someone on campus that looks like him my stomach drops. What others don’t get is that it’s not just being grabbed in a club… it’s also people you kind of trust. I also struggle with guilt about the whole thing. When I told my roommate she kept asking why I didn’t call her or call an Uber. You never really know exactly how you’re going to react in the moment and I have to constantly remind myself I that I did everything I was emotionally capable of doing at the time."
Mary: "I still have flashbacks. For months afterward, I could still feel his hands on me. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of something or someone that smells like him and I have a momentary rush of panic. It’s made dating and trusting others harder. I never moved out of the dorm either. I even had one incident where I could feel his presence in my room so strongly and felt it radiating so much evil that I had a panic attack, even though I knew he obviously wasn’t there. I wouldn’t come down from my lofted bed and had to call my best friend to come calm me down."
What would you say to any other victims out there?
Emily: "I would say report them. I would say go to therapy and get help. It really helps to talk about it. And I’d say to realize it wasn’t your fault if you consented before during a totally different point in time and they violated that or if you put yourself in a position you blame yourself for. Hindsight is 20/20."
Mary: "Probably that time heals all wounds, but you’ll still be left with scar tissue. You will never be the same, but that doesn’t have to define who you are or what kind of person you are. Don’t think about what more you could have done because that does absolutely nothing to help. And tell someone; you don’t have to keep it to yourself. Also, don’t think it’s normal or OK for someone to do this… it’s not."
OK, and just one more question: if you could tell your assaulter anything, what would you say?
Emily: "I would say that I hope he understands the damage he caused to my life. I’d also tell him that I hope he would go see a counselor because a lot of people who do these sorts of things have an underlying mental illness. And I would hope he would get better so he wouldn’t hurt anyone else like he hurt me."
Mary: "I don’t know. I don’t ever want to see him again, but I do want him to understand how I feel.”
As you can tell, these girls weren’t “asking for it." They never thought they’d be the ones telling this kind of story. They were taken advantage of by people who they knew. Sexual assault isn’t always some creepy guy who attacks you when you’re all alone. It isn’t always getting drunk and waking up the next day to the realization that something terrible happened. Sometimes it’s just putting too much faith in the wrong person and keeping that “it won’t be me” mentality.
The biggest thing I want to stress about these young women is their strength. They are not just victims — they’re survivors. They don’t let what happened define them. They are both some of the smartest people I have met and plan to go on doing amazing things. They are funny and creative and are living proof that there is life after something so awful.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please consider contacting your local authorities. I also encourage you to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Lead Image Credit: Alex Jones via Unsplash
Editor's note: some statements have been edited for clarity.