Trigger Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
Towards the very end of my freshman year of college, I was sexually assaulted by someone I considered to be a friend. After a night of hanging out with a group of friends, drinking, and a game of “Truth or Dare” that had crossed well over the PG-13 line, this friend offered to walk me back to my room, which is where he assaulted me. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea, asked him to stop, kept turning away, and then, eventually, just laid there wishing for it to be over as quickly as possible. As soon as it was finished, he left. The semester finished shortly afterwards and, thankfully, he flunked out and never returned to campus. For my part, I told no one. I had been drinking, I had willingly participated in the game that had some sexual overtones, I initially had kissed him back… all of these things, in my mind, left me feeling that I had invited what happened, and even if people believed me, they would (rightly I believed at the time) think it was my fault.
I had been selected to be an RA the following year, and was really excited. I spent my summer pretending my assault didn’t happen and everything was just peachy. When I returned to campus for training, things were great. And then, the sexual assault portion of our training happened. I had done such a good job pretending that everything was fine that I had pretty much convinced myself of it as well. But as the presenter played a video showing a re-enactment of a sexual assault… all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I felt my face get hot and felt an overwhelming sense of panic. I got up (in what I thought was a very quiet, unobtrusive way – trust me, it was not) and left the room to try to compose myself. A few minutes later, a senior RA found me, sat down on the floor next to me, handed me a bottle of water and just waited. After a few minutes, my breathing returned to normal, and I was able to thank her. And she said the kindest thing she could have said to me at that moment, “I’m not going to ask you any questions, but I just want you to know I’m here if you want to talk.” I was so grateful for her care and concern but, most of all, I was immeasurably thankful that she did not ask me anything. It would have put me in a position to either have to truthfully answer her questions (which I wasn’t ready to do) or to feel compelled to lie to this person who was trying to help me. That choice was a lot more responsibility than I was prepared to handle at that moment.
I continued to pretend everything was ok for about another six months. Starting in the spring semester of my sophomore year, it all started to unravel. I began having panic attacks on a regular basis. I stopped going to some of my classes. I found it hard to leave my room. Eventually, I reached back out to that senior RA, and then my hall director. They helped me to figure out what my options were and supported my decisions. I did go to counseling, and ended up taking incompletes in two classes that semester. What I found was that everywhere I turned for help, I got it. My supervisor, my counselor, my faculty members uniformly expressed care and concern and did whatever they could to help me. Even despite that, I struggled for quite some time. I was severely depressed and dealt with near crippling anxiety for a good year after I began counseling. It was a lot of hard work over a long period of time, but, bit by bit, it got better. Now, I am pretty confident in saying that I am as healed as I possibly can be. And there is not a doubt in my mind that the student affairs professionals, counselors, and faculty who supported me are a huge reason for that. It never goes away, but it becomes more and more the history that has shaped me – something of the past.
As a professional, I frequently work with students who are survivors of sexual violence. I do my absolute best to provide them with the care, dignity, and resources they deserve. I also know that the vast majority of my colleagues across the country are working to do the same. But I also know that far too many survivors are not getting what they deserve from their campuses, and that breaks my heart. As a professional, and as a survivor, I know that we can do this better than we are, and, in my opinion, it starts with listening. Listening to the survivors on our campus, and letting them tell us what they need and, whenever we possibly can, letting them drive the bus regarding how we respond. Listening to the broader voices of student activists with organizations such as Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus. Listening to the White House, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and Congress to hear their concerns and their proposals. Listening to the sometimes dueling voices of organizations like the Victim Rights Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and working to uphold both the civil rights of survivors and the due process rights of their alleged perpetrators.
There is no quick fix to the issue of sexual violence on campus, but these discussions, this attention to the issue… we’re on the right path. As a student survivor, I was given a gift by the professionals on my campus, and it’s one I intend to pass on again and again, wherever I can. And, as student affairs professionals, we all owe that type of support and care to those young women and young men who are currently finding themselves navigating a new identity – survivor.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence, know there are many resources available to help. For current #sagrads, your campus counseling center is a great resource. For #sapros, you may have access to an Employee Assistance Program as part of your benefits package – check with your Human Resources department if you’re not sure. Additionally, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available to 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673. Lastly, anyone can search online for their nearest crisis center at http://centers.rainn.org/. Please take care of yourself and know you’re not alone.
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