Content Warning: Sexual harassment and assault
My hands start shaking when I think of going back to campus. Shaking out of fear and anger. I can’t help but feel furious when I realize how naive and underprepared we all are as freshmen trying to grapple with the so-called “college experience.”
It all started with the staring. I was desperate to make new friends after a conspicuous lack of Welcome Week, the series of parties and formal incoming student events scattered across campus at the beginning of every school year, due to COVID-19. When a student asked to sit with me at dinner after I felt his eyes boring into my midriff in the dining hall line, I hesitantly said yes — I needed to start meeting people and making friends.
It’s no secret that sexual harassment and assault are widespread on college campuses. The documentary “The Hunting Ground” explored two former students’ experiences with sexual assault and their university’s failure to help them. Many reports are released every year from the University of Michigan that highlight disturbing statistics about this issue — from July of 2019 to June of 2020, there were 157 reports of sexual assault and 135 other acts of harassment, misconduct or stalking. While these statistics are illuminating, they are incomplete — only 20% of female student victims report their experience to law enforcement. Still, I always thought with certainty I’d be able to tell if I was in an inappropriate situation … right?
After the staring came the inappropriate questions within only an hour of knowing each other, seeming so innocuous at the time. Wow, I thought, I’m finally making grown-up college friends! So I talked to him again.
You’re probably thinking, “Why would you put yourself in that situation?” I ask myself that question too. All I can tell you is that I was isolated. I didn’t have a roommate and, due to COVID-19 housing restrictions, the only souls I saw were dining hall workers and the cluster of silverfish that scuttled across the floor of my room at 4 a.m.
Then, the more I hung out with him, the more I noticed the jokes. I saw the smirks he traded around the group of our mutual friends after he asked me, “Tampons or pads?” Everyone laughed. The guy who I thought was my friend started making remarks to my face about my chest, and eventually, he started forcing “hugs” on me, trying to feel me up while I stood still with shock. I finally realized what was happening. Once or twice a week, I would have to choose: Should I continue living in total isolation or get harassed?
People act like harassment is something you immediately notice. That’s not always true. In your desperation to understand what happened, you try — and sometimes succeed — to convince yourself it wasn’t that bad. Our parents’ generation went through this stuff all the time, right?
Confused, I made myself speak about the issue with mutual friends; they were eager to excuse him, telling me that “the guys just didn’t know how to act around girls.” Whatever. Upset, I confided in a close friend whom I believed would support me. “Oh,” she responded. “That’s not that bad. Like it’s kinda bad, but not terrible.” I suppose what my friend was trying to say was, “I’ve heard worse,” or “You’ll get over it.” She wasn’t shocked or concerned because she had heard of so many similar experiences. I shut up.
If nobody believed that what I experienced was worth talking about, what was the point in making a fuss? I didn’t have the energy to make a fuss. I receded further into myself, only leaving my bed in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. My ever-present anxiety increased ten-fold every time those people I thought were my friends called me in the middle of the night or knocked forcefully on my door. Classes seemed distant; I couldn’t convince myself to work in between my multiple teary anxiety attacks every day. While the silverfish swarmed on the floor, I fell further and further down a spiral that never seemed to end. Embarrassed by my terrible grades and disillusioned with my classes, I floundered.
I went home after the fall semester. When I was younger, I didn’t get along with my family — our opinions clash on everything under the sun. I couldn’t wait to go to college and leave the lonely suburb where I lived. But for now, I’m just grateful to be in my childhood bedroom, living with people I feel safe being around. Ultimately, what helped me move on was the critically acclaimed episode of the TV series “Sex Education” where Aimee’s friends help her come to terms with her assault. Her friends insist on taking the incident seriously. When I rewatched the episode, I started crying. Our peers can break us, but I won’t ever stop believing they can build us up, too.
Still, that doesn’t change what happened this year. I’m sick of college. I know it may sound ridiculous that the freshman who hasn’t even been here a year has complaints. But I’m sick of trusting the University of Michigan and believing things will be okay.
The fact that countless professors and administrators at the University have been accused of sexual misconduct or the fact that the director of the Office of Institutional Equity, which handles sexual assault cases, is facing multiple lawsuits for mishandling cases doesn’t surprise me. Stories of assault among the few people I’ve met at the University are common. In the short online seminar required of all freshmen, incoming students are “warned” against the dangers of drinking, burnout and toxic relationships, but the topic of sexual assault is barely featured.
When things fell apart for me, I had no concept of where to begin — I wasn’t sure if I wanted to report the incident, and even if I did, I had no idea of where to go. My head spun when I looked at the endless forms on the University’s website — I had no idea where to start, or what each option entailed. Overwhelmed, I stopped looking. There must be a better system of outreach for those affected by sexual assault, but this would require the University to accept the pervasive culture of sexual misconduct throughout campus, which seems unlikely.
With the University’s desperation to preserve their reputation, they ignore issues that plague their student body. Before my residence hall experience, I used to define myself as a risk-taker — now, I don’t fully know who I am anymore.
I just want to feel safe again. I want to be able to get a breath of fresh air without being approached with comments about my body. I want to be able to fall asleep without being worried if people who touch me without my consent are going to knock on my door. I want to feel supported. I worry that I won’t find this support at the University of Michigan.
Residents of Ann Arbor, I’m sorry that I can’t love your beautiful city. Because of the University’s harmful decisions affecting the student body and their allowance of a prevalent sexual assault culture, quite frankly, it’s hard to believe that I could ever feel safe in Ann Arbor.
Meera Kumar is an Opinion Columnist.