Thursday, November 30, 2023

Count to five: the story of a campus sexual assault


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Cover image by Samantha Wycoff / Design Editor 

Story by Ashley, MTSU senior 

I sit in the back of a packed 100-person lecture hall. I look at the women around me. I count them off in fives.

One in five women who have been enrolled in college since 2011 have been sexually assaulted, according to a 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser poll.

That means I am sharing this room with 10 other female survivors, give or take. I wonder if any of them are also counting.

When I think about my assault, I often think about all the people who tried, in vain, to prevent it. I think about my mother and her constant “stranger danger” warnings. I think about my father and the cotton candy pink sword he gave me when I brought my first boyfriend home. I think about my high school health teacher and his spiel on avoiding alcohol and not staying out past midnight. I think about my college orientation leader and the safety questions she taught us to ask each other at parties.

I think about my roommate and the “all is well” text I sent her an hour before I was assaulted.

My friends were throwing a small, post-midterm party in fall 2015. We lingered in the living room of an old house less than a mile from the campus where I spent the first three years of my college career. I immediately handed over my car keys. I had known these people for years, and the few I hadn’t seemed harmless enough. All should have been well.

As a junior in college, I fancied myself something of a personal safety expert. I followed all the “rules” on personal safety: I poured my own drinks and never left them unattended, made sure someone always knew where I was and who I was with, and if I intended to be behind closed doors with someone, I told my friends.

I thought that was enough. It had always been enough. But one Friday last October,  it wasn’t.

I laid down on the living room couch as the night lost steam and designated drivers rounded up their charges. My best friend handed me a blanket. Her boyfriend flipped the light off, and they went to bed. The only other person staying the night, a man I hadn’t formally met before but had seen around campus, settled into a spare bedroom. The house was quiet. My biggest worry was sleeping through my 8 a.m. alarm.

I was someplace between waking and sleeping when I felt someone pulling me up. I opened my eyes and saw the guy staying in the spare bedroom. His hand wrapped my wrist, but the grip wasn’t  threatening. He asked me why I was sleeping on the couch as he guided my half-asleep and still intoxicated body to the bedroom.

He sat on the bed and pulled me down beside him. He wrapped his arm around my waist. He asked if it was OK, I said yes, and I felt safe. After all, he asked.

But then his hand slipped into my jeans.

My breath caught in my throat. I told him to stop. He didn’t.

I tried to move or scream or do anything at all, but I couldn’t. The connection between my brain and my body failed. I laid still, frozen. I stared at a spot on the wall where the beige paint was peeling and whispered, “I can’t do this,” over and over and over. For 25 minutes, those were the only words I could will my mouth to form as he moved on top of me. And then he got up and walked out without saying a word. I heard his car start outside.

I stayed completely still and stared at that naked spot on the wall until my alarm blared the next morning. I don’t remember so much as blinking. I didn’t feel anything. My best friend walked out of her bedroom as I was pouring my coffee. We made eye contact, and suddenly I felt everything. I felt angry and ashamed and dirty. I felt like I could never look anyone I loved in the eye and be okay again.

I steadied my shaking hands around my coffee mug and recounted the story to her through hot, angry tears. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but I know I didn’t expect her to justify his actions. I sat silent as she told me about his recent break-up, told me how he was having “a hard time” and how I was acting like “a bit of a tease” the night before. It was clear that I wasn’t going to find support there.

I drove back to campus, still wearing my clothes from the night before. Someone asked me if I had “a little too much fun last night,” and I laughed. My head spun with the voices of my mother (he was a virtual stranger, after all) and my father (“if anyone ever tries to hurt you, you better fight back”) and my high school health teacher (I was drunk and it was way past midnight) and my college orientation leader (I didn’t even remember what the safety questions were, much less insist my friends use them) and my best friend (“you were being a bit of a tease.”)

I decided not to report my assault. I decided not to let my friends and family know I failed.

I knew the only people to blame for rape were rapists. I knew it was never the victim’s fault. Still, I convinced myself that this was a lifetime of ignoring everyone’s advice coming back to haunt me. I convinced myself that my story wasn’t valid because I was drinking. Because I didn’t scream. Because I let him lead me to that bedroom. Because I didn’t follow the list of prevention tips I had been taught.

I tried not to think about that night and coped as best I could. But, despite my best efforts, what he did to me began to control me. I not only threw away the clothes I was wearing, but every pair of jeans I owned. They reminded me of the sound of his fingernails on denim. I stopped going to classes knowing there was a chance I could run into him every day because the campus was so small.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was barely functional. I was missing most of my classes and avoiding my friends. I knew I needed help, but I was still too ashamed to tell anyone I was close to, so I went to counseling. I think it saved my life. I know it saved my sanity. I learned coping mechanisms. I stopped looking at my body as the thing that betrayed me when I needed it most, stopped seeing his hands when I looked at my thighs in the mirror. I started wearing jeans again. It took a long time, but I finally stopped believing it was my fault.

I was cautious about who I told and how much I told them. It took me nine months to tell anyone but my therapist the whole story.  

I am still learning to take my life back. I switched schools and came to MTSU. I’m doing well, but I will never be the same girl that walked into that party because I know I’m vulnerable. I freeze even when good guys grab my hand too abruptly. I get nervous when my friends stay out late. I don’t go to parties.

I count to five in class.

This story originally ran in the Sex Edition on September 21. To see other content from the Sex Edition, click here. The next installment of Sidelines’s Sex, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll series will be available on campus in October. 

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