Last Wednesday morning, I was handed a white piece of paper in the Student Center while I was eating my French toast with honey almond schmear bagel (I still hate the word schmear). I initially wasn’t very pleased that some woman had interrupted my “class was cancelled so I’m eating breakfast” solitude, but I listened and agreed to take one. It read, “I stand with survivors because,” and offered some free space for you to write a response. This was part of the social media campaign HU Brave is conducting concerning Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Quite frankly, I find these kinds of things rather hokey and pointless, but something brought me to reconsider. I don’t really know how or why, but I felt compelled to instead write my column about the topic.
You’ve seen the statistics about the frequency of sexual assault, and specifically on college campuses. They are appalling, but this crime is also severely underreported. Victims (and I hesitate to use this word because it implies some type of weakness) are never at fault for crime committed against them, yet reporting sexual assault is still stigmatized. We blame it on the clothing they were wearing, we interject that they may be lying or we just simply don’t care or listen. Some don’t want to go through the trouble of the law enforcement system, and others don’t want to relive the pain and trauma of the experience.
But sometimes reliving these experiences is necessary for others to conceptualize the reality of sexual assault, to put a friendly human face they know on a nebulous statistic.
In middle school and early high school, an older football player would make sexually aggressive comments at me, most of which I don’t remember (or have blocked out). I would set my backpack next to me on the seat so no one would sit there, yet he continued to take my bag and sit himself down so close to me that I sat with my body pressed up against the cold, hard window. One day he said to me, “Let’s play a game. I’m going to put my hand on your knee and see how far I can move it up your leg without you flinching.” I kept on telling him to stop, but after a while, I just let him continue because I was too small to physically retaliate. That wasn’t the only time something like this happened to me. My sophomore year of high school, I was in a relationship with a guy who threatened to break up with me if I didn’t engage in certain acts with him. Being the vulnerable fifteen year old that I was, I always did whatever he asked of me, even though I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. There were several smaller occasions, but but these two always stand out in my mind.
I’ve written articles about the topic of sexual assault on campus, and won awards for them too. None of these experiences I just described were my fault, and mentally I know that. Yet I carry this burden around with me every day, the feeling that I am only a sexual item at the disposal of those who have the social or physical force to take it. I’ve never reported any of these instances mainly because I didn’t know that any of them could have been considered criminal, and I didn’t want them to threaten me even further. I try to not feel sorry for myself, but these experiences have really affected my mental health. I haven’t dated or even kissed anyone since high school. And I’m uncomfortable when people casually touch me on the shoulder or arm, which makes being here at the touchiest campus on the face of the planet really difficult.
I’ve never shared these stories in such a public forum before, maybe because I never thought my experiences were novel or serious enough to share. But it’s still a story, and by sharing it, I still create awareness. Awareness is necessary because some don’t know what sexual assault is or that it is a crime. Awareness is necessary because we need to teach our young men (and women) about consent and what it looks like to violate it. Awareness is necessary because people need our support and this crime must be stopped.