Trigger warning: sexual assault
Following my own sexual assault, it became clear how poisonous the experience and every feeling after it. The smells, the yucky feelings, and the shame linger days after.
What also became clear was just how wrong the stereotypes surrounding sexual assault truly are. Often, movies portray it as a barrage of insults and abuses, but it’s almost the opposite; it’s loneliness. It feels like there is no lifeboat, no comfort, and no salvation; in these moments, any comfort is valued. During orientation, college campuses attempt to give road maps that point towards resources, but they seem unapproachable and out of reach.
It is important to note that not all sexual assaults’ look the same; every experience is different. The definition should be kept broad. The best one is from the Seattle government, which defines sexual assault as “sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the consent of the recipient. Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced, or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity.” Sexual assault can also include harassment, stalking, coercion, and rape.
A sentiment that bears repeating throughout this piece is sexual assault is never your fault, although it is understandable why it is so hard to accept this fact. Following my experience, it became hard to conceptualize the tactics used and why they worked so well, but we will discuss those later.
Sexual violence on campus is pervasive. In fact, 11.2% of students experience rape or sexual assault, and about one in six females receive assistance from victim’s services, but this number is thought to be much higher because only 20% of female student victims file a report. For men, 5.4% are thought to have experienced rape or sexual assault, but due to under reporting, the number is thought to be much higher.
According to RAINN, 50% of college sexual assaults occur between August and November. In general, college campuses offer perpetrators the opportunity to victimize and, due to large campuses, are able to get away with the crime. Freshmen are at increased risk during the first semester of college. This is thought to be because freshmen, especially those who have moved long distances, do not have close friends to intervene and provide comfort, and freshmen are not aware of how to protect themselves against those with ill intention, especially if they lived in small towns where such occurrences are rare.
It is common that sexual assault on college campuses is an older student attacking a younger one, but of course, the assault can happen in any form, throughout any demographic. Sexual perpetrators will often use manipulation to make the victim comfortable—buying meals, gifts and showing special interest. In addition, the perpetrator may make the victim feel like their behavior is normal and that it is no big deal. The normalization makes it difficult to grasp reality and process the experience and the feelings that follow.
The ramifications of sexual assault are vast. It is a dehumanizing experience that bears the utmost attention. The impacts of such an attack can cause lifelong trauma, and for victims who already struggle with depression and anxiety, the symptoms can become heightened.
It is difficult to know how to proceed in the wake of sexual assault, and it is understandable how hard it is to cope with such emotions. For victims of rape, the first response is to see a healthcare professional, and for all victims, the first step is to report to campus authorities. Next, reach out to friends and family members who can offer comfort. Too, most college campuses offer free counseling services and general resources for victims.
Preventative measures should also be taken for all college students. First, self-defense classes can be a helpful tool, and most campuses offer some classes. It is crucial to always make sure someone you trust knows where you are and what time you will be returning. Sharing your location, texting and calling someone can be important when maintaining safety. When meeting someone for the first time, it is also important to do so in a public area, not in a private residence, but when meeting in private and public spaces, carrying pepper spray and an alert whistle can be helpful. General safety provisions include keeping your room and apartment locked at all times, parking your car in well lit areas, keeping curtains drawn, be aware at all times(do not look at your phone when walking to car, keep your hands free), whenever possible take someone with you.
For all students, the most important concept is CONSENT. Consent means the individual knows and understands the action agreed upon. You cannot give legal consent to sexual activity if you are threatened, forced, not physically able to (drunk, drugged, asleep) or not mentally able. Simply, “no” means no. If someone says no, do not ask or try again. That is as simple as it gets.
There are many resources for sexual assault victims. The best ones are often the ones on your own campuses because they can capture individual needs better, but there are broad national ones that can become helpful if your college lacks adequate processes.
National Sexual Assault Hotline
A Message to Victims from Bella:
I know how hard it is to conceptualize trauma and how difficult it is to know what to do next, but what will always be true is that you can rise up, you are a survivor, and survivors are strong. You are worthy of being safe and cared for, and you did not deserve such a gross violation of human rights. There is a space for you to be heard, and you deserve all the help in the world.