How To Help Protect Yourself Against Sexual Assault At College—Stories From A Survivor
Approximately 1.5 million women are raped or sexually assaulted while attending college each year. 50% of these assaults happen in just the first four months of the school year (August-November). So the question is, in an environment seemingly primed for tragedy, how can we protect ourselves?
A quick Google search will tell you that no one actually knows exactly how many females fall prey to sexual violence each year while attending college. Various sources will report that this number is anywhere from 5-26%, so with that in mind, I’ve chosen the year 2021 and the median of the reported percentages to base my statistics on.
In 2021, 9.6 million females were enrolled in university. The median of the various reported assault percentages is 15.5. So, the very rough average that I have come up with for the year 2021 is 1,488,000 incidents. Why is this important? you may be wondering. Well, it’s important because I want to be as open and honest with you about this subject as I can be. Because no matter what the actual number is, a half a million, or a million, or a million and a half, or two million, the number is too high.
According to RAINN, “Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime.” This is important to note because survivors of sexual violence are also more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder after the assault such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and self-harm disorders. A study in The Lancet reported this number to be as high as 80% among teens. Assault/rape victims are also 10x more likely than the general public to use “major drugs.” Additionally, the problems caused by assault extend to more than just the survivor, as 38% of survivors report experiencing significant problems with work peers and 37% report significant problems with family members and close friends, such as getting into arguments often and not being able to trust the same way as they could before the assault.
Universities are ripe hunting grounds for opportunistic predators, and as taboo as it has become, it has to be said: There are ways that we as females can decrease our statistical chances of being raped and sexually assaulted.
First Things First
Firstly, I myself am a victim of multiple, minor sexual assaults. I did not “deserve” anything that has happened to me. No female who was ever assaulted/raped “deserved” to be, nor was she “asking for it.” The blame for these horrific acts rests solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. That being said, in my own healing journey, I have come to realize that if I could go back and do things differently, I would. I’ve realized that certain actions I took, certain voices that I didn’t listen to, increased my risk of being assaulted. Hindsight is always 20/20, and when you’re young and naïve, you only know what you know, and no college student ever actually expects to be assaulted…until she is, and then it’s too late. So that’s why I’m passing on my experience to you. No one deserves the trauma and questions that sexual assault leaves behind. We all deserve better, and that’s what I’m hoping to give to you, a better chance.
The blame for these horrific acts rests solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.
When it comes to parties, I could just tell you not to go, but I happen to know that’s not realistic. I remember how it feels to be fresh out of high school. I, personally, had never been to an “adult” party before and I was full of anticipation. Before leaving for college however, my parents advised me not to party, but they also knew I most likely would, so what they did in addition to the typical warning of “nothing good ever happens after midnight/at rowdy parties,” was tell me how to keep myself safe while attending them. The good news is that these rules worked for me. Nothing too bad ever happened while I was out partying. However, the bad news is that my parents' rules could not prevent boys from drinking too much, and they couldn’t stop how bold their hands grew in dark, crowded places where so many bodies are pressed so tightly around you, you have no idea who just grabbed a handful of your rear or grazed your breast. Every single party I went to, this happened. So eventually, I stopped going. Crying myself to sleep just wasn’t worth the thrill anymore.
I wasn’t heartbroken after the first, or even the second time I was groped, but after the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh time? Each one hurt worse than the time before, and with a history of boys pantsing me throughout middle school (one of whom decided to provide commentary to the bystanders in the room regarding the appearance of my body as I scrambled to pull my shorts back on), eventually you just start to feel like chum in the water.
As I tried to fall asleep those nights, after leaving yet another party early because I’d been groped yet again, all sorts of unkind questions blanketed me before lulling me into a deep and lonely slumber. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to my friends, why is it only happening to me? Do I not deserve to be respected? Why do men seem to feel entitled to my body? What’s wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be normal?
So, my advice to you? Just don’t go to the parties. Really, you won’t be missing out. But if you do, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Go as a group. Get ready with your girlfriends and make plans to stay together. If one of you gets too drunk and decides to go on an adventure, guess what? You all are going on an adventure. Or y’all are at least convincing her that some other place you all want to go would be a much better adventure. You don’t go in a group just to be protected, you go to provide protection.
Know your drinking limit and don’t exceed it. The great part about this is that there are charts online that will calculate your limit for you so that you can avoid the dangerous task of experimenting for yourself.
If you feel unsafe or are getting “bad vibes,” leave.
This situation happened to a woman I interviewed: “It was in the middle of my first semester away at college, and I went out with some new girlfriends to a party with a group of guys I didn't know. I was a little drunk, and it didn't help that a lot of the guys there kept pressuring me to drink. It felt weird because that hadn't happened at any of the other parties I'd been to where I knew the boys, but it didn't feel like a big deal. A guy asked me to dance, and the next thing I knew we were making out and he wouldn't stop kissing my neck. I froze and didn't reciprocate… The next thing I knew, his fingers were trying to get into my underwear. I got away before he could penetrate me, which is why I refer myself as a sexual assault survivor. I don't blame my friends who were there, only him. My biggest regret is not listening to my gut. It took me a long time to figure out what happened to me was assault, and even longer to realize that it was his fault, not mine.”
Her advice from this experience is not only to “always listen to your gut (I'd rather have FOMO than sexual assault trauma)” but to “try to only go to parties where you know and trust some of the guys there. If you don't know any guys there, don't dance with any and stick with your girlfriends.”
She also notes (like me) that “looking back on my college experience, something creepy (but never to this extent again) almost always happened if I went to a party where I didn't know any of the guys. I always felt safe at parties where I knew the guys. It takes work to socialize and make guy friends outside of class at college, but it's worth it. There are more good guys than creeps on your campus, so go out and meet them!”
I noticed this too, that whenever one of my friends' boyfriends joined us, his invisible force field of protection not only extended to his girlfriend, but to the rest of our group as well.
Something creepy almost always happened if I went to a party where I didn't know any of the guys.
The next thing to remember is this: Always have a “going home” plan. If the party is on campus, great, just walk along the well lit paths, that also usually have the blue light phones on them, with your girl friends till you get home. If you need to drive however, always make sure to assign a designated driver. Buzzed driving is never okay. I know Lyft and Uber are a thing now, but with the regular assaults that seem to happen on those drives, it’s not the safest environment for intoxicated females.
Lastly, my final piece of advice is this. If bad things keep happening to you at certain events, then you need to stop putting yourself into those positions. I wish I had done this earlier, after maybe the third time, not the tenth. However, I was stubborn. I thought that if I “fixed” something about myself then maybe I could fit in, stop being assaulted, and prove I was normal after all. I just wanted to get it right. What I failed to realize though, is that the assaults really, in all actuality, had nothing to do with me at all, but everything to do with the heart of the men perpetrating them. Yes, there are things I could have and should have done differently, but does a failure to be assertive, the desire to give the benefit of the doubt, the longing to have a normal college experience, mean I deserved to be taken advantage of and assaulted? No.
It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle with almost 100 other female athletes lined up, filtering in and out of various exam rooms in order to check off the myriad boxes on our medical records for vision, orthopedics, cardiology, and more. It’s easy to lose yourself.
Almost as soon as I entered the final exam room for the day, the general practitioner sent his assistant on an across-hospital errand. It made me uncomfortable and even the assistant was unsure, but the doctor insisted, so that’s what happened. The fact that the assistant seemed surprised when asked to leave was disconcerting to say the least, but everyone was in such a hurry on physical days, and I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I just let it go. Plus, who in their right mind would actually try something with so many people just, everywhere, anyway?
The doctor listened to my lungs and then my heart, but instead of then asking me the usual questions and sending me on my way just like every other GP had done for my past three years of sports physicals, this one said that he wanted to “check some things.” He checked my radial pulse while listening to my heart some more and then said he wanted to check “something else” and instructed me to straighten out my leg while explaining that he was going to check my femoral pulse (I was sitting on a doctor's stool and he was seated next to me). He then proceeded to press his hand into my groin and spent at least a solid minute poking around, trying to find the pulse before settling his hand so close to my sensitive area that I could feel the heat radiating from his palm. I never knew that hands could get that hot.
At this point, I was extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know why he was checking my pulses, he didn’t tell me. All I knew was that no one in my entire life had checked various pulse points on my body before (and I had been to several cardiologists at this point), but because of my POTS condition, I thought that maybe he was just doing his due diligence in some way that I didn’t understand. So, I remained quiet and let him check the pulse on my foot next. Then, he checked it at the same time as my femoral, and seemingly satisfied, he abruptly signed my paperwork and sent me on my way. That was it. No explanation, no “findings,” just boxes checked next to the word “unremarkable.” I handed in my charts and papers to the attendant outside and went off to track practice.
To this day, I don’t know if anything actually happened to me. Nothing was technically touched, nothing inappropriate was said, but why did my insides squirm? Why would the memory and the feel of the heat from his hand occasionally surface during buzzed college parties and ignite a confused rage in me so powerful that I tried to quench it with more alcohol?
You have a right to refuse any ‘care’ that makes you question the doctor’s intentions or makes you uncomfortable.
To this day, I run every doctor and nurse I befriend through that scenario, asking why a doctor would do that. I don’t frame it in any sort of way, I want an honest opinion, so I present it as an unbiased, third-party case study. Did any of the patient's symptoms indicate that pulse points all over her body needed to be examined? As it turns out, all of my friends were just as confused as I am. In fact, I even learned from one, that this doctor technically wasn’t even checking the femoral pulse correctly, or at least, the way he positioned me would have made it extremely difficult for him to find.
So what did I learn?
During the fast-paced event of sports physicals, always ask for either a female doctor or for two people to be present. Usually every doctor does have an assistant in the room with them and you won’t need to ask, but if someone doesn't, speak up.
Ask the questions. It’s your body. You have a right to know what is being done to it and why. You also have a right to refuse any “care” that makes you question the doctor’s intentions or just plain makes you uncomfortable. It’s called “informed consent” for a reason, and if your doctor doesn't seek to gain it, that’s his problem, not yours.
One night, at a girl friend's house party, I got really drunk. I’m definitely not proud of it, but anyways, it happened, so here we are. Toward the end of the party, I was trying to nap on my friend’s living room floor. Thankfully, she found me right before I fell asleep and kindly helped me settle onto the floor in her room. I was all cozied up and trying to doze off again when a male friend of mine that had been really friendly all night came into my friend’s room and started asking me if I wanted a ride home. This wasn’t just a casual ask though, ohh no, he seemed to really, really want to give me a ride home. At that moment, for some reason, convincing me that letting him give me a ride to my dorm would be better than sleeping on the floor became his life’s mission.
Luckily for me, when I’m drunk I am 100% instinct, and my instinct was yelling hell no. After drunkenly arguing with him for several long minutes, just trying to get him to leave me alone and let me sleep, my friend came back in to check on me, found him, and was not happy. The guy then started trying to convince her that I needed to go with him, stating that I’d be happier in my own bed. She argued with him as they both stood over me, and finally she squatted down and asked, “Do you want to go with him?”
“No!” I said for what I hoped would be the last time, “I just want to go to sleep!” Then I watched as she stood back up and told him to leave.
So, what should I have done differently? Not gotten drunk, clearly. That’s actually my number one piece of advice for this entire article. Nothing good, and I mean nothing, comes from exceeding your limit. Thankfully, no assaults happened in this story, but looking back today, I shiver at what may have happened had I gone with him. No “friend” is ever that concerned about breaking up a sleepover among girlfriends. Especially if they know the friend they supposedly care about is with people she trusts.
Being in a public area does not mean you are 100% safe.
Grooming and the Female Personality
I don’t know how your university's cafeterias are set up, but for mine, everyone who wanted to get food had to first swipe their ID card at a staffed podium. The vast majority of the workers at these podiums were friendly, and it wasn’t unusual to strike up a brief conversation as they swiped your card before moving on to the next student. So when an older guy started talking to me, I thought nothing of it. He was kind and lively, so talking to him was fun, and I also suspected that sitting there for hours on end swiping card after card would be pretty dull, so I made sure to be my bubbliest self around him.
It was the same routine every time we saw each other: He’d break out in a huge grin, say my name, shake my hand, we’d have a few sentences of conversation, and I’d move on. It was like that for months, until the day he didn’t let go of my hand immediately. I noticed, of course, but I also thought he was possibly from a different country (due to his strange accent) where the social norms were a bit more “touchy-feely” than the U.S.’s. So I let it slide. Besides, if shaking my hand was the highlight of the few numb hours he sat there for, what harm could come from that? I didn’t want to be rude.
I also didn’t want to be rude when he started clasping and shaking my forearm several weeks later. Again, odd, but then again, maybe just a different culture. It’d be hard to adjust, I thought, and I wanted to help ease that transition if I could.
Only after the card swiper guy started touching my entire arm, starting with my hand, then moving all the way up to my shoulder, is when I started trying to avoid him. The conversations had been getting longer too. I didn’t want to be rude by cutting him off, and I also didn’t want to make a situation into something it wasn’t if my discomfort was simply due to cultural differences, so I just avoided him all together. I noticed that if I went to get food when the card swipe line was the longest and the cafeteria was therefore the busiest, I could make it past without too much fanfare. I also used different entrances to the cafeteria as often as I could, but sometimes I just couldn’t. Some days I couldn’t check all the boxes just right and that was the day he assaulted me.
Now, obviously, I was being groomed. My feminine thought process was being taken advantage of, but here’s the thing and what I hope to emphasize: Sometimes bad people just do bad things, and there’s not much we can do about it. I didn’t like the direction our “friendship” was headed, but I also didn’t expect him to assault me in public, in broad daylight. I didn’t expect him to assault me at all. Yet there I was, quickly pulled into a side hug from his grasp on my shoulder with his lips on my breast. And I just stood there. I couldn’t slap him, I couldn't even bring myself to look him in the eyes and glare. I just walked numbly away, got my usual water from the soda fountain as he proceeded to ask me on a date, and politely turned him down by explaining that I was in a relationship already. I walked into the cafeteria, got my food, and internally wished I was wearing a parka instead of a t-shirt as I walked by him again toward the exit.
I had to talk to my girlfriends before calling the campus police that day. I still couldn’t believe that what had just happened, happened. No one would ever do that in such a public place, right? I had to be the one mistaken. Maybe he meant to kiss me higher up? Not that that was much better anyways… But maybe, just maybe, some part of this was a mistake? A misunderstanding? Thankfully, my girlfriends were there to reassure me that I was right and he was wrong. Cultural differences, what he meant to do or not, it didn’t matter, he was the one in the wrong. He shouldn’t have done what he did.
After the investigation, the dean of my university let me choose whether or not the card swiper (who was also a graduate student) was barred from campus for everything but class or expelled, as well as moved to a different location/job or fired from working on campus ever again. All I remember thinking was that I didn’t want to “ruin” this guy's life, I just wanted to make sure he couldn’t harm another woman the way he had me. So in the end, I chose for him to be barred from campus and fired. I made sure, the best I could, that no female on campus would be victimized like I was.
Don’t underestimate the risks bad people are willing to take in order to abuse you.
Before we move on to what I could have done differently, I’d like to address something I only learned about after someone made a hurtful comment to me. When faced with something traumatic, we all know that the body goes into something called the “fight or flight” response, and while this is true, it’s also a little bit of a misnomer. It should be called the fight, flight, or freeze response. And while it’s the least helpful of the bunch, it’s still a natural, instinctual, well-researched reaction to overwhelming experiences, like trauma. So, when I was asked by a close friend, “Why didn’t you slap him!?”, it hurt. I have no idea why I couldn’t slap him. Everything in my personality says I should have, I would have, but I didn’t. I was as confused and upset as they were, but now I know – I’m not a bear or a bird, I’m an opossum.
So, what could I have done differently? Honestly, not much. It’s hard, almost impossible, to realize you’re being groomed while it’s happening. However, I did feel uncomfortable, and I should have expressed that to him. No one has a right to make you uncomfortable in your body. Their rights to comfort (or whatever it is they’re seeking from you) end where your discomfort begins. Even if it had been a case of cultural difference (which it obviously wasn’t), I should have enforced my boundaries, but I didn’t. I've talked a lot in my story about how I didn’t want to be “rude” to the guy who assaulted me, but here’s the thing: Kindly letting someone know your boundaries, and holding them, is not rude. Anyone who tries to make you feel like it is, isn’t your friend. Lastly, don’t underestimate the risks bad people are willing to take in order to abuse you. Being in a public area does not mean you are 100% safe. Being in a semi-private area where anyone could come through the door at any minute, does not make you safe. Just because someone is in a trusted position of power and has a lot to lose, does not make them a safe or good person.
As an aside, I also want to emphasize how instrumental my friends were in this scenario. When I had no confidence and no trust in myself, my girlfriends built me up. They showed up for me when I couldn’t even show up for myself, so it can’t be said enough, find yourself some good girlfriends and never let them go.
On really bad days, on those days where everything just seems to pile on top of you all at once, I feel like an animal carcass. A pile of meat and bones that buzzards have carved up and squabbled over, and above, more are circling. I don’t know what causes me to discover anew the handprints of the strangers who believed they deserved the small pieces of flesh and soul they stole from me, but when I do, I am reminded that I am the most fragile of fragile glass. And in those moments, I hate myself for being so breakable. I hate the world out of fear that it might see through my intricate façade of steel and stone. And I hate most the men who used me, an exquisite human being not made from glass nor stone but soft breath and lively thought, to fulfill the basest of animalistic desires.
On good days though, I don’t even think about the things that have happened to me. I don’t feel their lips, hands, and eyes, and I can’t imagine their thoughts. I’ve completely forgotten them. Thankfully, that’s most days now. But what I want for you is something different entirely. What I want for you is much better.
I want for you to never be haunted. For your body to always feel like your own and for your mind to be free. I want you to live with the innocence you were born with, and I want you to do everything you can to defend it.
So while bad men will always do bad things, and while sometimes there is absolutely nothing we could have done differently, sometimes there is. Ignoring that fact (no matter how painful) does nothing to help females as a whole. That is what I’m hoping you will take away from this. I am hoping you will use my stories to make better decisions than I did and turn my trauma into your triumph.
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