Editor’s note: The name of the author has been omitted to protect their identity.
Trigger warning: description of sexual assault
In the Hindu epic “Mahabharata,” a prominent turning point occurs when the princess Draupadi is inadvertently gambled away by her husband to his evil cousins. She is dragged in front of the entire kingdom and disrobed to be assaulted. Though she yells at her husband in anger, she doesn’t fight back against her assailant. Instead, she prays to the Lord Krishna, who blesses her with infinitely long cloth for her sari, so she cannot be fully disrobed.
I was the type of girl whose reputation preceded her. In the Indian-American community at the University of Michigan, I was the girl who partied too hard, who’d hooked up with too many guys.
We met at a party my freshman year and I already knew who you were. You were the type of guy whose reputation preceded him, too. In the Indian-American community, people called you an asshole.
I always liked the bad boys. And you were the worst.
Over the next few weeks, we would sneak away to talk alone at parties and make out in the corner. You told me I was different. You told me I was “so much better than all these other Indian girls, so much less of a prude.” You attempted to uplift me by putting down countless other women in our community. I laughed along.
You took me back to your fraternity house after a party on Halloween. I had gone as a Disney princess and you didn’t have a costume. It was late, and it was dark, and I didn’t know that part of town very well. Your roommates were smoking weed and blasting Lil’ Wayne. You led me into your room, to your bed and I followed. You reminded me that I was pretty for a brown girl, carefree for a brown girl, chill for a brown girl. I accepted these as compliments.
We began to fool around a bit. In a few minutes, you easily unpinned the costume that I had taken an hour to assemble. No one had ever taken as keen an interest in my body before, and I was flattered. I was content to just let you look at me. I was 17, and you made me feel, for the first time in my life, beautiful.
But I was 17, and I barely knew you. You looked at me, all of me, and your eyes told me you wanted more. I had never done more than this. I had received enough of your approval tonight. I wanted to stop here, while I was still comfortable, while I was still happy. South Quad was 30 minutes away, and I didn’t want to make that journey alone. I asked you to walk me home. You asked me to have sex with you instead.
I said no, and started gathering my costume strewn across the floor. You asked again.
I said no, but I didn’t want to come off too forceful. I didn’t want you to suddenly think I wasn’t “carefree” or “chill.” You asked again.
I said no, and I asked you to please take me home. This was before the days of Uber and Lyft, and I couldn’t trust my tipsy freshman self to find my way home on my own. You asked again.
I said no, but this time you cut me off. You said you would take me home, but only after we had sex. You asked again.
I said no, but this time you reminded me that I didn’t really have a choice. You said if I wanted to get home safe, we had to have sex first. You hovered closely over me, giving me no room to escape. You asked again.
I said yes, and I have chosen to forget the rest.
You and I had bonded earlier that night over a shared interest in Hinduism. But Lord Krishna didn’t bring me more cloth that night, like he did for Draupadi. Prayer isn’t always practical advice, and our faith ultimately gave us little guidance on notions of consent and assault.
The secular aspects of our culture didn’t help either. The Indian- and Hindu-American communities are notoriously conservative when it comes to sex and gender roles. My parents never gave me “the talk,” and maybe yours didn’t either. In my family, the men make all the decisions, and maybe it’s the same in yours too. Even Draupadi was treated as just an object to be gambled away, and it seems not much has changed in the millennia since.
My family doesn’t think I should date someone unless I’m going to marry them. My mom still thinks I’m a virgin. Any conversation that began to border on sex was immediately shrouded in judgment. Where was the room to talk about sexual assault?
And though so many of our peers claimed to be far more liberal than their parents, they have often still inherited the same judgment and exercised it on people like you and me, people who in their view partied or hooked up too much. At the University, being part of the Indian-American community meant navigating constant judgment and moral double standards. Having sex was rebellious; talking about it was taboo and would inevitably lead to slut-shaming. Sexual assault was something we opposed in theory, but wouldn’t dare acknowledge in our community.
Our parents had so many rules for us growing up, and our peers in college weren’t much better. By breaking their rules, I thought I was rebelling against our community. You probably thought you were rebelling too, but you broke me instead.
I walked home after sunrise wearing your T-shirt, the Greek letters displayed proudly across my chest. I kept that T-shirt, perhaps in denial, in the back of my closet for the better part of a decade. If a friend ever saw it, I’d tell them about how I’d stolen it from some random frat guy freshman year.
I finally threw your T-shirt away last year. Cloth may have been a physical barrier for Draupadi, but it wasn’t going to keep hiding my experience. Our community cannot keep wrapping up sexual assault with infinite cloth, pretending it doesn’t exist.
The author is a College of Engineering alum.