I did everything you were supposed to do, twice, and the system failed me in two separate spheres.
The details of my college rape, which unfolded in 1997 on a small Midwestern liberal arts college campus rather than a large Southern state college campus, are somewhat different than “Jackie’s,” the survivor quoted in the now-infamous Rolling Stone piece “A Rape on Campus.” I wasn’t at a frat party — I had gone on a road trip to visit an old friend, and we were all drinking on a different college campus. I was with my girlfriend and a boy she was also seeing whom she’d been pressuring me to have sex with.
I was not interested in him.
The last thing I remember before it happened is: I was on her lap, laughing, my arm curled around her neck and my cheek resting against hers. The next: I was lying flat on someone’s bed, naked, the boy on top of me, my girlfriend holding my hand and stroking it. I do not know how long I had been passed out for. I do not know how I got there. I do not know how I got unclothed. I definitely did not want this. I felt numb.
I lay flat and pretended I was still asleep, disconcerted and temporarily paralyzed with his weight on top of me and the electric fear racing through my body. When they went outside afterward to smoke a cigarette together, I got up, stumbled to a tiny toilet, and vomited until my eyes watered.
It was a few weeks later when I reported what had happened to my campus administration. In the meantime, I learned I was pregnant from my rape. I was 18, terrified, traumatized, sick. I couldn’t handle seeing the two of them around campus. I stopped going to a lot of my classes. I stopped showering. My roommate moved out. I drank a lot. I called my mom, feeling like I had no friends as a freshman in a strange state in a small, cliquish world that was suddenly very unfriendly, and she told me that I could come home if I needed an abortion, and that she would go with me. My mom believed me without question.
The campus administration’s response was much more brusque and much less supportive. This was a problem between people who had been dating, they said. Privately, comments got back to me about how this was all about my sexuality, and experimentation, and not about rape.
We were forced into mediation. I miscarried before I could have that abortion. The college health center sent me to a “women’s health center” nearby, which turned out to be a crisis pregnancy center. (I have written about that experience elsewhere.)
I didn’t stay at that college, and my academics barely pulled through the year. I transferred back to a state school where many of my high school friends were, and I started as new as one possibly could.
My ex’s family and the family of the boy involved had more money than my family did. Am I wrong to wonder if continued tuition from two people trumped one scholarship student?
This was not the first time I had been raped. The first time, I’d been in junior high. It had taken me months to report, but a guidance counselor alerted to my suicidality by a worried English teacher finally urged me to.
You were hanging out with a bad crowd, said the cops.
Look at your cutoffs, said the cops. Boys will be boys, said the cops.
You were doing drugs, said the cops.
What did you think would happen, said the cops.
No paperwork other than a report. No investigation. I knew their names, I knew unequivocally what had happened, and I was willing to stand up for myself as a terrified preteen.
Those boys and their families, they had money too.
I reported because I had loving parents and a supportive guidance counselor who told me that to stand up for myself I should always tell the truth and always tell it loud, and that they were behind me all the way. I was not wrong to do so, just as those who do not report because they fear exactly what happened to me — dismissal, discrediting, blame, threats, a lack of action, or worse, retribution from those who assaulted them initially or other members of the community defending said assaulters — are not wrong either.
I did everything you were supposed to do, twice, and the system failed me in two separate spheres — private (collegiate) and public (criminal/political). It took a while for me to understand that it hadn’t failed because of me, but because it was set up to fail people like me.
I started a small rape survivors group on my new campus. I volunteered at shelters and on rape crisis hotlines, because I felt as if it was my responsibility to help. I was hurting, and helping others in my situation helped with healing for everyone involved. Through the circumstances of all of this, I made lifelong friends, bonded by experiences of trauma that differed in specific detail and circumstances but shared two major commonalities. One is that very few people wanted to listen to us. We were saying, “I’m in pain, I’m hurting, a terrible, violent thing happened to me,” and yet people would scramble to defend those who had hurt us, people would turn away from us. Nobody wants to hear about your rape; it’s too ugly, too uncomfortable, it scares us, it’s too dark, it’s too intense. There’s a myth out there promulgated by men’s rights activists that rape survivors talk about what happened to us because we like the attention. Who would want this kind of attention, the kind of attention that causes people to dig up the worst unrelated things you’ve done and hurl them at you as if they are proof you are lying simply because they do not want to believe the truth — the truth would shatter their worldview, and their worldview is more important than your life.
And the second is that power protects its own. Part of the reason for the impulse to blame the victim and to find ways to attempt to discredit us is that rape is a crime of power, an assertion and manipulation of power, and power protects its own. To rape someone is to say, “I can do anything I want to you; your will does not matter,” and to stand up, to refuse, to heal — in any way that healing is right for you — is to assert your own power.
A college is a powerful thing. The police are a powerful thing. Money is a powerful thing. A frat is a powerful thing. The media is a powerful thing. When those powerful institutions protect an assaulter, when they close ranks, when they manipulate narratives in ways our culture primes us to understand by playing on our ideas of who is fully human and who is not, power reinforces itself, reiterates itself. I can do anything I want to you; your will does not matter.
Those in power rely on all of this in order to maintain their power, and they rely on media narratives in order to do so. Law reflects culture, after all, and culture reflects law. Both will need to change in order for power to shift to balance out, for rape survivors and victims of police brutality to be taken seriously and to receive anything approximating fairness.
The house of cards is stacked against us. Our collective power when we raise our voices together can topple it, together.