How To Talk Honestly About Campus Sexual Assault

Sarah Scicluna /
Sarah Scicluna /

There’s a revolution happening on college campuses nationwide. It’s being reported in the news. It has inspired others to share their own stories and experiences. This is the revolution to end rape and sexual assault on college campuses across America, epitomized by the student-led protests concerning university administration’s failure to sufficiently address crimes of rape and sexual assault — a failure to bring justice to fellow human beings.

I have always proudly called myself a feminist. I was raised in a loving family, with a father who took me out on dates to the ballet to show me how a man should always treat me and a mother who showed me that being a strong woman is admirable. I was a good student who never cared that she was almost always at home on Saturday nights doing homework in fluffy pajamas. And yet, early in the fall semester of my sophomore year in college, I was sexually assaulted. I was 19 years old, I was naïve, and flattered that a guy I had a little crush on for a while was actually paying attention to me. We were stone-cold sober.

It started out as consensual, with me having butterflies in my stomach and thinking how crazy it was that he actually found me attractive. But when he pushed me down and held me in a headlock, I realized that something wasn’t right. I didn’t like how his fingers felt, and I didn’t like how they travelled lower and lower. I tried to extract myself from the headlock, I said “stop,” but he did not listen. So I tried to give in and enjoy what was happening — didn’t I always want him to pay attention to me? Didn’t I initially give permission? And yet the situation still felt incontrovertibly wrong, so I renewed my efforts to get him to stop, and he eventually did. I tried to kiss him so he wouldn’t be too angry with me, but he pushed me away and said I was trouble. So I walked back to my dorm room. I remember unlocking the door and silently sitting at my desk in the dark while my roommate was asleep. I resorted to my default coping mechanism — homework — in an attempt to clear my mind, but realized that thinking of anything else (let alone thinking in French) would be impossible. So I went to the showers and stood in the deluge of scalding hot water in an attempt to sterilize my being from the outside in. When that wasn’t enough, I scrubbed every square inch of my skin raw. I didn’t cry. I did, however, tell myself a mantra that not a single person would know about what happened, that this would be a secret that I would take with me to my grave, that I would start the next day as if it never happened.

Some secrets can be too much to carry alone, and almost four years later I’m finally coming to terms with what happened. When I read news articles and magazine editorials about courageous students reporting incidents of rape and sexual assault to their indifferent campus administrations, I have no choice but to feel absolute disgust for the complete lack of administrative action, compassion, and justice. One can certainly argue that the increasing media coverage of this problem is a good sign; a few years ago I doubt such reports of rape and sexual assault on college campuses would be permitted to even surface in national media.

I never reported my sexual assault because I was so inundated with shame that I couldn’t even imagine coming forward about it, and frankly it didn’t even occur to me that what happened even qualified as sexual assault. For a while I thought that I had asked for it, that I deserved it. It was only during graduate school in a seminar that addressed concepts of gender and sexuality in language that it occurred to me that as a human being, I have the right to give and revoke consent any time I want.

I believe language has tremendous healing powers. I never realized how much the silhouettes of my sexual assault haunted me until I was able to talk about it to a few of the people closest to me. The reports about campus sexual assault and administrative indifference are necessary steps towards healing the wounds. But they are not enough. It is time we move from thinking about campus sexual assault as something that only drunkenly occurs at wild parties and is only done by men to women. It is time to change the dialogue, and begin talking about it not as something that can only be evaluated on a “he said versus she said” basis, but as something that affects humans. Male or female, gay, straight, or bisexual, we are all humans capable of reason, compassion, and empathy. When we stop dichotomizing humans as either men or women with their respective stereotypes, then maybe — just maybe — we will realize that a human sexually assaulting another human is incontrovertibly wrong.

Almost every religion has its own equivalent of the Golden Rule, which says to “treat everyone as you would want to be treated.” It does not say to only treat men as you would want to be treated, or to only treat women as you would want to be treated, but to treat everyone — every human being — with the same respect and compassion that you expect for yourself. If everyone — administrators and students, men and women — could remind themselves of their own humanity, then I think the accepted norm of campus sexual assault could become an exception. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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