Trigger warning: This post contains depictions of sexual violence.
My story is typical. It is ordinary, normal and average. I was a first year student out at a party drinking in the fall, and a guy who insisted on walking me home invited me to hang out in his room, where he forced me down and raped me. It's not unusual -- practically commonplace. And that's terrifying.
Three years ago this week, I sat down on the stone steps of the Amphitheater at the University of Virginia as a first year student. The sun was setting, and the darker it got, the more visible the hundreds of candles and luminaries became. It was my first time attending the Vigil for Take Back The Night, and during the course of the night, stories like mine carried in voices over the Amphitheater. Their words were horrifying and comforting, telling me I was not alone. Even though people had said it before I now believed, there were real voices, real stories like mine. Their words seemed to push and carve out a space that felt like home, that felt safe, that told me this place could be mine again, that it didn't matter that I saw my assailant on Grounds -- I was not alone, and The University was my place too.
Now, three years later, I serve as the co-Chair for the Sexual Assault Leadership Council that not only organizes Take Back The Night week, but also works with peer educator groups and administrators to coordinate and push for positive change. Since that first vigil, I've told my story hundreds of times in small panels, open discussions and at the vigil itself each year. Each time I've been contacted by other survivors who just like me, are learning and reaffirming that they are and have never been alone.
Take Back The Night, for me, is about more than just the sharing. Yes, the recognition of voice is the key element of the vigil, but it's about a community call. Survivors like me share tales of violence, pain, struggle, and healing because these stories happen in the same place the stories of classroom achievement, extracurricular success and weekend debauchery happen. It is about making the community aware that the girl getting a little too drunk one night might be trying to drink away memories, that the guy in the back of the class almost failing out isn't lazy, he's trying to get over a trauma. It is a call to community to recognize that we too exist, and that this violence exists -- that it's committed by our peers, and that we have a role in stopping it.
It is a call to community, to understand that if my brother is not safe, I am not safe; if my sister suffers, I too suffer. Just because I am not personally doing wrong does not mean I am blameless when wrong happens around me. As long as I am human, my fellow humans, their safety and their actions, are my responsibility. To be human is to be in community, and acknowledging sexual assault means that we as a community, as very human beings, are failing. In the words of Mother Theresa, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
This year, I'll be back in that Amphitheater standing behind the microphone, sharing yet again the same story once more. I will continue to share it until we have made these stories uncommon and have truly made a human community.
I Take Back The Night because it should have been mine to begin with. I Take Back The Night because we are not alone. I Take Back The Night because women like me should be able to enjoy their right to an education with the same feeling of safety as anyone else, because we should have the right to bodily integrity no matter what we were drinking, because male survivors too have the right to be heard. I Take Back The Night because it belongs to us all, and we have the right and the responsibility to own it.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.