This piece was originally published in The Harvard Crimson.
On a chilly night in 2013, as the stress of the semester was coming to a peak, I had the most scarring experience of my life. In the moment, I wasn't aware that it was happening. Yet I will always remember the trauma. Being sexually assaulted -- raped -- shattered my self-image and confidence in my own voice. My self-worth was stolen from me by someone I previously trusted. In hindsight, it's painfully obvious that he did me wrong. He violated me. He is to blame.
Still, I was the one who dealt with the repercussions.
Since then, I have healed. I went through a process of denial, acknowledgement, sadness, anger, therapy. I now love myself more than ever before. Though I will always carry the burden of my experience -- and the knowledge that human beings are capable of exploiting each other without the slightest hesitancy -- I have healed.
I want to share my story for several reasons: to paint an accurate picture of how rape happens at this prestigious institution, to encourage my peers to take an active role in prevention, to dispel the notion that sexual assault is a spectrum, and to tell other assault survivors that they are not alone and they are not to blame.
It's first semester sophomore year, right before reading period. A friend and classmate asks me to be his date to his team's fall formal, held at a final club. My first date event! How could I say no to dressing up and getting free booze with Harvard athletes?
I agreed, but despite my anxious desire to experience what the chosen few did, I had reservations: On the second-to-last afternoon of freshman year, we had been smoking weed in his barren single, and his body language screamed of interest in initiating a make-out. I asked another guy friend on the same team whether, by going to the event, I'd be sending mixed signals where I wanted none. He assured me that my friendship with the soon-to-be perpetrator was solid enough such that I wouldn't feel pressured to "do anything."
Tuesday night, we get to the final club, and we're each handed a bottle of Rosé. I look around and don't recognize any of the girls. Take a sip from the bottle. I have a handful of friends on the team, but they're lost in the sea of made-up girls and rowdy guys. Take a sip from the bottle. I stay by his side. We mingle with other couples, take a sip. The guys start singing a repetitive chant, I don't know what to do. Smile and nod with the beat, I guess. Take a sip. The bottle is gone. I'm 5'3", 115 pounds. I don't remember leaving the final club.
I also have no memory of the walk to his House, or the walk up the stairs, or the walk to his room. Next thing I do remember, I'm naked in his bed. I see his face -- he's on top of me, he's inside of me, he's sweaty. I vaguely realize what's happening, and I explicitly realize that I don't want to be where I currently am. Despite my confused state, I have an overwhelming instinct to leave. I get him off of me, and look for a way out. I walk into his roommate's single, still naked. Wrong place. I walk through the common room, still naked, out the front door and into the hallway. I walk down the hall. I sit down and lean on a wall, maybe someone's door. I black out again.
The next morning, I wake up alone in a foreign common room in a t-shirt that isn't mine. I have bruises staining my sore legs, evidence of a nasty fall or two -- evidence to anyone I was with that I was too drunk to consent. Still drunk, head pounding, throat dry, I quickly remember, in blurred bits and pieces, what happened. I'm confused, I don't have any of my belongings, and I want to go home. So I do.
I've always been a strong woman. Like many of my peers, I've been the captain of a team, I've been the president of a club, and I've been confident in my academic and social abilities throughout my entire life. Perhaps so firmly believing in my power and worth as an individual made being a rape victim more difficult to accept.
But even more powerful was the nauseating notion of sexual assault inhabiting a "gray area" in which alcohol blurs previously clear boundaries: What if he didn't notice I was that drunk? Why was I that drunk to begin with? He was drunk too, so how can he be to blame? The gray area is bullshit.
Alcohol is an integral part of the college experience and the society we live in, for better or for worse. Alcohol also makes people more vulnerable. But everyone has the right to get as drunk as they want to without the threat of being raped. It's easy to understand, but not so easy immediately after you've experienced an assault: Victims are not guilty for being drunk. Victims did not "put themselves in that situation" as a result of having been drunk. Victims should not ever feel ashamed of having been drunk.
In my case, and in many other cases of sexual assault on campus, alcohol played a role for the perpetrator as well. This does not excuse his guilt. Whatsoever.
Look at it this way: Everyone that consumes alcohol is aware that it distorts cognitive function. When a drunk driver enters a car, he knows he is impaired, which is why he is responsible for the death of the person he runs over. Likewise, at a party, a perpetrator knows he is impaired, and should be held accountable for the drunken assumptions he makes and acts on. He alone is to blame for the assault -- not the alcohol, and certainly not the victim.
Of course, while I believe ending drunken hookups would be an extremely effective way to prevent sexual assault on campus, I'm not naive -- this is an unrealistic goal. More importantly, while alcohol is a risk factor, it is not the ultimate cause of the sexual assault epidemic. Rather, the social factors underlying the manner in which we engage each other create an unhealthy party environment that far too often leads to assault. Education that emphasizes mutual respect and camaraderie among the student body, as well as the responsibility and accountability of the perpetrator, is indeed realistic. It's also essential, and it's also lacking.
To avoid being a rapist, learn how rape happens, and don't do it. There are no gray areas.
Take active steps to seek consent before you and the other party begin drinking. As sexual assault education on campus increases, we should develop the maturity, respect, and compassion to overcome the social awkwardness of asking someone how they feel about engaging in a physical relationship. The discomfort of soberly communicating that you're "down to sleep together tonight" is nothing compared to the discomfort of being penetrated against your will. If this approach does not align with your party habits, then stop having sex with people after parties. If you feel like you need the aid of alcohol to convince someone to hook up with you, then you shouldn't be hooking up with that person to begin with.
At a school that breeds goal-oriented individuals, it's no surprise that this characteristic seeps into our hierarchical social scene where many seek and thrive on the self-validation of getting laid. Rather than hunting for the immediate gratification of sex on a Saturday night, here's a thought: Get her number on Saturday, invite her over the next day to watch a movie, and see where it goes. We must curb the short-sighted perception that party nights are the only nights to have sex, and understand the fact that we are all equals in the same community with unique human desires and boundaries. It is imperative that we respect each other to make our school safe again.
Yes, it's on Harvard to provide better education. Yet it's also on individual students to be better people.
Primarily with the support of my loving sister, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and Mental Health Services, I did accept what had happened. I did accept I was raped. Upon doing so, I felt even more pain. But then, I felt relief.
If you feel unsettled or wronged after any sexual interaction, you are absolutely entitled to your reaction. It's your body. If you feel unsettled or wronged, or confused, or unsure -- much like I felt the days following what was clearly a case of assault -- reach out. It feels so, so, so much better to do so. Reach out to OSAPR, to MHS, your family, your blockmates, even to me. You don't have to carry the weight of your experience alone, because you're not alone. And no one should ever have to handle sexual assault alone.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
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