On Sexual Assault

On Sexual Assault

Published on April 28, 2015

Warning: This article deals with issues of sexual violence.

You were sexually assaulted in September. It happened in his room around midnight. The assault lasted a total of three hours. You were in shock for most of it, confused and out of body.

He told you he liked you. Really liked you. He said he just wanted to sleep, nothing sexual—he promised. That night in bed, he told you that he was suicidal, guilt-ridden by his own depression. He forgot to take his medication that day. “Please don’t leave me,” he cried, pulling you closer from across the bed.

* * *

Where do you go? What do you do? You stay, afraid to leave him alone, afraid he will harm himself. After all, he just made himself vulnerable, revealing his insecurities to you.

But this is a man who wants to lay you down. He is not concerned for you. He speaks and acts only insofar as it benefits him, insofar as you comply. “This is not love—true love, compassion: Those are founded in self-respect and certitude,” you tell yourself in retrospect.

He cries as he pulls you closer. You stay and are sexually assaulted. Such an action requires the passive voice because it is a passive act. Rape is enacted on someone, not with someone. It may be uncomfortable for you to tell people you were raped, so instead you tell them you were “sexually assaulted.” That is what the administration calls it; it is the legally appropriate term, and it seems more academic, safely distanced from the experience.

* * *

Even after the physical wounds disappear, sexual assault leaves an emotional and mental scar. You try to forget about it, or you talk about it—whichever makes you feel better at the time. But trauma calcifies into reminders of your sexual assault, into the bricks of his dormitory, and into the faces of his friends. You are caught between the very vulnerable person who has been sexually assaulted and the extrovert you so often project. You’ve learned to live with this duality.

Frustrations multiply. While the administration’s inadequate response to sexual assault on campus is shameful, it is the apathy of the student body on an individual level that disturbs you. Their discomfort is silencing. But you must persist in telling your story and dispelling it from your body, the site of trauma.

It can take days, weeks, months, even years to unpack one night’s trauma. You have several choices of how to deal with it. You experience every one. Therapy can help. But sometimes it doesn’t. You distract yourself. You focus on work. You focus on friends. You dye your hair. You start dating again. You stop dating. You cry. You are emotionless.

“While the administration’s inadequate response to sexual assault on campus is shameful, it is the apathy of the student body on an individual level that disturbs you. Their discomfort is silencing.”

Repeatedly, you imagine a reporter asking, “What’s it like to be raped at Columbia?” Probably the same as anywhere else, you answer. Rape is rape. But that’s not exactly true. Living at college means sharing friends, classes, and activities with your rapist. Rape becomes a simultaneously private and public event. You repeat the question. You replay your rape.

To recognize rape in real life is to divorce oneself from pantomimed rape as seen on TV; the clear-cut, violent attacks by strangers are not exactly true to life. Rape in real life can be those things, but it can also come from the unsettling embrace of familiar arms. How, in the moment, can you dismiss familiarity? You know him.

* * *

You had told him no before, repeatedly, throughout the two weeks you dated. The night the assault occurred. The moment he held you below him. There was never consent. There was, however, the continued feeling of obligation to stay and the shock that caused your body to shut down, to become limp and compliant. Unprepared for abuse, you had no idea of what to do. So you lay there, stupefied. You were too afraid to move until he gave a last, too-hard thrust that jolted you from your inertness. You left. The pain stayed with you for the next week.

* * *

His perceived vulnerability, his stated mental issues: They are no excuse for what he did. To play both the victim of his own depression and the aggressor of sexual acts is not permissible. It is manipulation and blurring of consent that cause the victim to question, in that moment, their ability to leave their abuser.

After rape, it may be common for the victim to sympathize with their rapist as a way to avoid or negate the experience. You know him. You knew him. Like someone with a version of Stockholm syndrome, you feel a clichéd pity for him. Before you let yourself feel any pain, you first try to empathize with your rapist. You make excuses for him— the struggles he must be going through that have led him to rape you. You know it is illogical, but it cannot be helped.

* * *

The day after the rape, you begin to tell a few close friends. Your University’s student body is progressive. Supposedly there is widespread support for sexual assault victims. We understand victims—no, we defiantly call them survivors—to be oppressed, depressed, angry, and abused. Rallies are held; students attend. But as you tell people what happened, you begin to notice a certain cognitive dissonance at play.

Some friends disappear after you tell them. Others continue to hang out or work with your rapist. Each time you tell someone else about the rape, you are trying to prove to yourself that you are still worthwhile, untarnished by your experiences. You try to transform the feeling of abuse into empowerment. You are making the unbelievable event real.

Your peers feel uncomfortable with such an unpleasant subject. Your story is met with disbelief or rushed condolences. You start to question other people’s reactions: their continued friendship with him and pictures on Facebook. Post-traumatic feelings resurge at the strangest moments. When sharing your story with friends, you feel the pressure to change the subject. Often they do it for you. “But how are your classes?”

You begin to question the loyalty of your friends. You politicize your rape. There are now sides: his and yours. You try to parse the reactions of your peers.

Your female friends do not feel threatened by your rapist because he is homosexual. He will not rape them. Your straight male friends feel similarly. They are not gay and would never let themselves be raped. Your gay friends, well, their reactions are more complicated. Within the gay community, you sense a general complicity and silence concerning sexual violence; it is mislabeled as “roughness.” Calling sexual violence “rough sex” makes it consensual and different in nature from assault.

Friends dissociate from your abuse. The victim allowed himself to be raped. Your friends would never let themselves be raped.

* * *

A month after the rape occurs, you file a report with the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct. The investigation takes months. You fear that your time at Columbia may end before your rape investigation does. There is no sense of closure.

And so your rapist continues to live on campus, attend classes, and participate in the theater community. You try to do the same, but you feel shut out. He is still friends with your friends. He continues to perform in shows. As such, he represents you and your community.

You both audition for the same musical. You are cast before he is. After explaining to the director why you cannot sing and dance with your rapist on stage, you are thanked for your time and taken out of the cast. The director sticks by the decision; your warnings go unheeded.

The next semester, you hear that your rapist attacked someone else. No one in the theater community tells you. They have seen him drunk and violent. They now know what you know, but no one speaks. It feels like he has won.

* * *

What underlies the reactions of your peers is a discomfort with the taboo of rape. As progressive as we may hope to be, as many rallies as we may attend, as vocal as we are against the administration’s stagnancy, rape will still occur on campus despite our ultimate goal of ending it. The threat of rape remains silently, abjectly present in the minds of students. What we can change, however, is the way we personally interact with survivors, rapists, and alleged abusers.

Rape, or sexual assault, is an act we negate. The rapist is the first person to negate it; why would he ever admit to raping someone? Then you negate it; how could you let yourself be raped? Next your friends, your community, and society in general negate your experience. News outlets label victims as accusers. Consequently, we invent conspiracy theories about them. Lovers scorned. Revenge plots. We no longer ask why anyone would falsely accuse another of rape. Instead we incoherently presume that accusers want attention. What we ignore is common sense. We ignore the untelevised experience of the victim.

* * *

You feel pitiable and unpleasant. You are edged out of the theater community by your rapist. Your role is easily replaced. You begin to have dreams about the rape. Again.

You go back to therapy. Again.

The author has been granted anonymity due to the personal nature of this content.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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