Look at the women around you. Count: one, two, three, four, five.
One in five women in college has been sexually assaulted. I am that “one.”
I was three days in to my first week of college, wide eyes full of vigor, excitement, and curiosity. All the freshmen wanted to go to every party this week, it was our first week of absolute freedom — no curfews, no worried parents to go back home to.
An upperclassman saw me and my group of friends hanging out, and asked if we wanted to go to his house, he was having a party that night. His house was a short walk from campus, he told us that we had nothing to worry about. My friends and I reluctantly started walking with him, and with another whole group of freshmen kids looking for a party.
Once we got there, I could see all the freshmen carefully eyeing the handles of alcohol. My university issued a mandatory four-hour course on sexual assault and alcohol awareness, and even though we all made fun of it, we took it seriously in this moment.
Girls were watching out for each other, pouring each other drinks, and not letting our hosts pour. I specifically opened one bottle myself, and only poured from that bottle.
We were doing everything right. We did everything we could to protect ourselves from the horrible incidents that our mothers warned us about. But that just wasn’t enough.
There was a tall, handsome guy who grabbed my hand and started to dance with me. It felt innocent and sweet, like in the movies when prince charming shyly grabs the princess’ hand and asks her to dance.
My friends bumped my hip in approval. For once, I was the “cool” girl of the group. For once, I got the guy.
He tugged my hand, and we started walking upstairs. I threw my head back and giggled, naively nervous and excited for the rest of the night. I remember a girl stopping me at the top of the stairs, she asked me the signal question we learned in training: “Hey, do you need anything? Are you okay?” I laughed a bit because I knew what I was getting myself into, I was here voluntarily, she didn’t need to worry so much.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I replied.
Then, the door shut behind me, the room went pitch black, and I was pushed on a bed.
The rest is a blur.
At first, I didn’t know if what happened to me even counted as rape. I consented to dance with him, kissing him, even going upstairs. Everything before that door shut was consensual, and I was afraid that I would be the girl who cried wolf if I blamed him for raping me.
It took me three weeks to see someone on campus about what happened, and even then, I didn’t know if I was going for the right reasons.
I told the counselor all I could remember: Having a panic attack, but not being able to scream. I felt my chest go numb, I felt his weight on top of me and I thought that alone would stop my breathing. I remember lying there and not being able to move an inch.
There was no dramatic screaming or great efforts to push him off. No pepper spray or kicking feet. It wasn’t like how the media portrayed rape, which made me question whether I could classify what happened as rape.
With sorry eyes, my counselor told me that I was raped, and I burst into tears. I was crying out of relief, I could finally let myself feel that fright. But I was also crying out of anger. I was angry at myself, angry at him, and angry that I had become another number. Another statistic. Another girl in the one in five.
As I calmed down, she explained that our bodies have three different responses when we feel threatened: Fight, Flee, or Freeze. 88% of rape victims are prone to the “Freeze” response. This is also called Tonic Immobility, which means that our bodies go into a temporary paralysis. That’s why I couldn’t move my limbs, and even though I knew I was having a panic attack, I could not breathe heavily or hyperventilate like usual.
What we fail to learn in sexual assault training is that there can be a point where consent is blurred, and rape can happen. This is where women believe that they provoked it themselves and that they shouldn’t validate their feelings because they could have stopped it themselves. What women do learn, is that if it’s “not a hell ya, then it’s a hell no.” But it’s just not that simple. Preventing rape is not as easy as a “hell no.” And consent isn’t as easy as a “hell ya” either.
After that night, I never got nightmares or intense paranoia around campus. It hits me the hardest in between classes, laughing with my friends, or at night before I start my homework. It hurts the most during the mundane moments of my day.
I cannot extricate that night from me, it’s a memory that is so much more than just a bad night. This is something that will follow me, and be a part of me for the rest of my life, but I refuse to let myself, and mainstream media define me as a helpless, weak victim. I know my strength, and I know the woman who I was before this night and she wouldn’t let a statistic create all who she is.
On the days when I feel my chest tighten and stepping out of the dorms takes more effort than usual, I let myself have a moment. I let myself get angry, upset, and scared to be alone. Because what the media doesn’t tell you, is that you are in total control of each moment. You are in control of how you chose to live your life after being raped. Take a deep breath.
One, two, three, four, five.
Read more about Tonic Immobility here
Campus sexual violence resources here
Information about pressing charges, and going to trial here