Saturday, September 6, 2014

Brave post # 462

Content note: Sexual assault, bullying, victim blaming.  Be gentle with you, please.

As a feminist, I follow a bunch of feminist blogs.  I've "liked" them on Facebook or frequent their pages, and several times a week, I see something about rape on college campuses.  These stories, often first person narratives, are overwhelmingly about young women who were raped on campus, whose college or university disbelieves them and refuses to handle the issue.  The issue is coming to light more, leading to things like the Know Your IX campaign and the White House's Not Alone campaign.  It's so important that this issue is being discussed.

I am teaching a college class this semester, and I just had to complete a 90 minute sexual violence webinar on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and dating violence, as well as on Title IX and the Clery Act, my obligations and responsibilities, the college's policy on sexual violence and harassment, etc.  It is important, and necessary, and I was glad to do it.  As glad as I was, though, and as interested as I was in learning what is being taught, it was hard for me to get through.  In fact, being on a college campus again has been a challenge in more ways than I care to count. 

So here's the thing: I'm tired of seeing these articles.  I'm tired of thinking about it, and reading about it.  I'm tired of the comments, or discussion, or lack of discussion on these issues.  I love that it's being discussed, don't get me wrong, but I always get the sense (and perhaps this is my bias) that people think this is the issue that happens to other people.  This happens to other girls.  The slutty girls.  The ones that go out drinking all the time.  The ones with a history of poor decision-making.  Given that most of my friends are around my age or older, this is talked about as something that happens to college-aged folks.  And yeah, it's bad, and as feminists, we're outraged...but we're outraged in a theoretical sense, almost.  We're angry that this happens to people.  We're sad that this happens out there.  We're pissed that this issue is a problem for the young'uns today. 

We never want to think that bad things have happened to the people we know.  We never want to believe that our friends have been hurt.  But, statistically, it's true.  It has to be somebody's friend that this happened to, right?  It could have been yours.

I know this because I'm that friend.  And I know that people never imagine that I'm that friend.  The shock on their faces when I tell them can't be disguised, because, you know, this issue is one that happens to people.  It's not one that happens to friends.  Right?

I've gotten to a point now that I can tell people that I was sexually assaulted.  I can raise my hand and say "me too," or even mention it sometimes in conversation.  It's taken a long time, but I can do that.

The shame, for me, lies more in everything that happened after the assault.  It lies in the way things were handled.  It lies in the way I was made to feel and led to believe that I was unworthy of love and belonging.  Psychological jargon calls this "secondary wounding" or "secondary trauma," and it's real.  Research suggests that one of the most important things after a traumatic event is the presence of social support.  The absence of social support is devastating.

In short, Title IX says that no person shall be excluded from participation in, subject to discrimination within, or denied the benefits of an educational activity on the basis of sex.  It states that schools (schools receiving federal funding) are legally obligated to respond to and correct "hostile educational environments," or risk losing their funding.  In fact, schools are given 60 days to investigate and respond to reports of hostile educational environments.  Under the Clery Act, schools are required to inform survivors of sexual violence about their reporting options.  Schools must make accommodations to remedy the hostile environment - and the burden of the "remedy" must not be put solely on the victim/survivor.  Title IX protects the individual making the report from retaliation.  A hostile environment can occur based on an event that took place on campus or off: if it is having an ongoing impact on a student's ability to access their education, it is a hostile environment.

For me, the "hostile environment" looked like this: walking into the classroom of my cohort of 3 years on Monday morning to find that my seat of 3 years had been taken.  No one looked at me or said anything.  I had nowhere to sit, and all around me were whispers.

The "hostile environment" consisted of: being followed out of class to the bathroom, when no one was around.  Being pushed against the wall and cornered, while being told that I am "fucked up," that I'll never be successful, that I made it up, that I'm lying, that I'm being unfair.  It meant having her sneak up behind me, and put both arms around my neck, telling me she won't let me go until I forgive her.  It meant phone calls and text messages.  It meant people talking over me in class.  It meant people laughing and whispering whenever I spoke.  It meant rumors.  It meant being completely isolated.  It meant no safe place.  It meant being afraid to go to the bathroom.  It meant panic attacks before class.

The "hostile environment" was no one ever asking me my side of the story.  It was no one ever reaching out.  It meant friends turned against me, and the one who didn't was harassed until she did.  We had all seen how issues with students were handled in the past.  We had all seen what our colleagues were capable of doing.  No one was willing to stand up with me against either side. 

The "hostile environment" consisted of being told that I should kill myself.  It was having my butt grabbed in the hallway, and then hearing the laughter as she walked into the room full of my peers and said, "oops...I just (air quote) sexually assaulted her in the hallway."

This wasn't college.  This was graduate school.  I was 24.  I should have known better.  I should have known how to handle it, right?

I did.  I confronted them, and things got worse.  I told a grown up, just like they teach us to do when we're young.  But the first grown-up didn't know how to handle it, and the second grown up told me that I should know better than to "go to a bar with my boobs hanging out."  They had a "slap on the wrist" conversation with the people in question, and I was told not to talk about it.  I was never given resources or told that I had options.  I requested that I not have to work in groups on projects with the two people most closely involved, and this request was denied.  I was immediately placed in groups with them, and I had to figure out how to survive the panic and the hostility enough to get the work done. 

The "hostile environment" consisted of being told that "faculty gossip."  "You don't want word of this getting around, do you?"  It consisted of learning months later that it was discussed at faculty meeting.  That the story was misrepresented and mis-told.  That everyone knew, and no one did a damn thing. 

So I didn't talk about it.  I went to class with the same people every day.  I was ignored, I was talked about, I was made invisible.  I was scared, and always waiting for what would happen next.  Above all, I was terrified that faculty or administration would find out.  I was terrified that I would be prevented from getting my degree.  I was scared beyond reason that they would deem me broken and kick me out.  So I stayed quiet, and I dealt with it for a little over a year.  I passed my oral comprehensive exams in the middle of the worst of it.  I collected data for and wrote my 200 page dissertation.  I took enormous class loads.  I worked several jobs and went through the necessary clinical rotations.  I served on Student Government.  The more stressful things were, the better my grades became, because I dealt with it all by studying, by reading, by devoting every inch of me into being the best student I could possibly become. 

And then I went on internship and moved halfway across the country.  But I still didn't talk about it.  I couldn't talk about it.  Because it still -- even still -- feels somewhere deep inside me like I did something wrong.  An entire institution of people couldn't have been wrong, could they?  My entire cohort...they couldn't have all been wrong, right? 

I graduated two years ago, and I am just beginning to get over the fear that they could take my degree from me.  That they could somehow prove that I am not competent (even though I know that I am both highly competent AND successful).  I feel that, by telling the story, I am selling short my education.  I am indicating that maybe my education was not what it should be.  That maybe people will think less of me as a professional because of this story.  How good can an educational institution like this be?

Two years ago, shortly after I graduated, I knew I had to do something.  Through a series of events, I found out about the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA).  I called and spoke with people there and told them what I wanted.  Given that all of the above events occurred in another state, and a considerable amount of time had passed, my options were limited...but they gave me options.  At the time, what I felt most comfortable doing was writing a letter.  The attorney I spoke with informed me about Title IX, pointed me in the direction of the Office of Civil Rights' "Dear Colleague Letters" providing additional guidance on Title IX, and I wrote a letter that I sent to the president of the university, the dean of my program, members of the board of trustees, a vice-president, and a few other important people I could think of.  It was 8 pages long and had references and everything.  It took months for me to write.  I am probably prouder of this letter than I am of my dissertation.  I'm not afraid to admit that it's kick-ass.

There have, reportedly, been changes made as a result of this letter.  I don't necessarily believe it...but I try to.  I try to believe that I did what I could do.  I try to believe that I took the steps I could to ensure this will not happen to anyone there ever again.  I don't believe I made that sort of change, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

When I talk about being sexually assaulted, people are surprised.  They are saddened.  To some extent, they think they understand.  Talking about this other piece of the experience is even harder than I can explain to you.  It's harder than I can even put into words.  I fear that people won't believe me.  That they'll think I'm exaggerating, or too sensitive, or that I did something to make this happen.  After all, who is usually "right?"  One person?  Or an entire institution of people?

And yet, it's necessary.  I need to tell this story.  I need to stop thinking, "I could never have that strength" when I read articles about girls doing amazing things at their colleges.  Because I do have that strength.  It is here, living in my chest and pumping through my veins.  I, too, can be "proof" to my corner of the world that this does not only happen to the "slutty" girls, or to the girls who are abrasive or loud or beautiful or ugly or dumb or quiet or unassuming or timid or whatever other adjective you can put there to make yourself believe that this only happens to people you don't know.  It doesn't only happen at the large institutions.  It doesn't only happen to girls with prior history of trauma.  It doesn't only happen to drunk college students.  It doesn't only happen to girls under 21. 

Truth is: it happens.  To me, to women (and men) like me, and to women (and men) very different from me.  The stories you read are stories of people like me. We speak and advocate as loud as we can, but we need more voices to create change.  The ways in which I attempt to change the world are small.  Writing.  Reading.  Sharing.  Telling stories, and encouraging others to do the same.  Signing petitions.  Talking.  Teaching.  We need systemic change to happen in our educational institutions and in our world in order for change to be realized. 

How are you working towards this goal?

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