Editor’s note: The author is anonymous for safety reasons in light of the sensitive nature of this article. In accordance with our ethics policy (which can be found in full in our bylaws), the Editor-in-Chief and Editorial Page Editors are aware of the author’s identity.
Content warning: sexual assault
For all the claims from the University that we are experiencing a paradigm shift in how sexual assault is discussed and handled on campus, my own experience has qualified those conclusions. I have been a survivor for about two years. The person who assaulted me was an ex-boyfriend turned close friend I met my first year on campus. It’s hard to use clinical language like “assault,” “attacker” and “victim” when you’re talking about what happened between you and a friend on a night only one of you remembers. He asked me to trust him when he said he hadn’t done anything I didn’t want. I knew what he was asking of me was wrong, but I wanted to believe him so badly. Instinctually, I realized what had happened within a few hours. But it took nearly a year to say it out loud.
Though I have been an advocate for survivors for years, part of me had always darkly thought, “I’ll never be one of them.” It’s rational after having received so much messaging that survivors could have prevented their own victimization if only they were smart enough. Strong enough. Loud enough. Yet, a key element of many assaults is some preexisting trust between the victim and the attacker where these conventional guards have already come down. Consider that students have drunk sexual experiences with exes, friends and random people frequently. In the interest of limiting the University of Michigan’s exposure to liability, the training course we are required to complete at the beginning of each year says all those drunk interactions are assault in some form. But once it became more than a hypothetical situation, our friends struggle to apply these bright line, University-endorsed consent rules to us. I did too.
In processing my trauma, I discovered that feeling like a victim and a survivor were distinct stages. Identifying as a victim brought me some validation as I worked through my self-doubt and internalized victim-blaming. At the same time, I feared asserting this new identity. I did not want to hurt him with the words “rapist” and “assault,” nor did I want to put our friends in the awkward position of acting as an informal judge and jury. Most significantly, I did not want to give away any of my own strength by admitting my autonomy had been compromised. It felt like he had power over me after that night because he was the only one that knew every detail. Though I have made great strides in my progress, I have not totally quieted that voice that tells me it was my fault because I drank and cannot remember.
I have searched endlessly for a guide telling me how to be a survivor. There had been so many charts and handouts on how not to become one. Turns out there isn’t a flowchart with step-by-step instructions on cutting off a close friend who raped you. Being around him was extremely difficult because I still cared about him, but I was also confused and mad. I gritted my teeth through lectures on how I was a bad friend for distancing myself from him. When I finally confronted him, I used neutral language. I did not yell or scream even though I felt anger bubbling up inside. I thought that if I did not directly accuse him of anything, maybe he would take responsibility for what he had done. During the minute and a half of silence that followed, I resisted the urge to give him an excuse for his actions that night. One of the last things he said to me was that I was lying to myself because it was easier than admitting I had wanted it. I cried the entire walk home.
After putting everything in the open, I waited. If you’re expecting people to bring up the fact that a friend sexually assaulted you, I can tell you they won’t. I carried the weight of wondering whether he had told our friends, and whether I should, for so long. Even though I felt I had the word survivor blazoned across my forehead, the truth is that survivorship is often an invisible identity. I have been in so many conversations where people are talking about me and my experience without knowing it. I realized the debates around me about consent were only thought exercises for those whose understanding of reality and self did not depend on the answer to “Did you consent that night?” Mandating a generic training class on such complex topics and believing that will help prevent assaults seems so ridiculous to me in hindsight. My friends took the training; they still didn’t intervene. He took the training; he still raped me.
People always talk about the ripple effects that someone sets off in a community when they assault another person. I contend that there is a similar ripple effect when a survivor begins to grapple with their assault. It felt like I had become the face of assault for the people I told, reminding them of the dark reality that survivors are everywhere. Once-vocal supporters of victims became hesitant to discuss the scope of my consent and what should have been done to prevent my harm. It was during these uncomfortable and halting conversations that I realized how much work still needs to be done on behalf of survivors. If we discussed situations where the attacker is confused or uncertain about how drunk is too drunk, but still acts, many people would be forced to join me in the uncomfortable gray area between a sober yes and a sober no.
With the help of other survivors, I have come to accept that I am a different person than I was that night. I found a community that moves through the world similarly to me. One of the first days I met with other survivors, I described the paranoia I felt walking around campus, thinking every man that resembled him was him. They all nodded. I finally felt like I was being heard. I am suspicious of alcohol. I can’t hear about someone with the same name without thinking of what happened. I am also braver than I thought I could ever be. And I am not alone.
This piece is part of the Survivors Speak series, which seeks to share the varied, first-person experiences of survivors of sexual assault.