Content warning: the following article includes topics some readers may find triggering, including sexual assault.
You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. And yet, in the irony of it all, we know each other. We’ve tasted the same agony and we’ve wept the same tears. Our story has consumed both of us like weeds, so much so that it is as if we have lived the same small life. Did we ever think it would be us? The ones who ended up on the other side of the drain, standing beneath hot droplets of water, begging for their smell to come off? The ones who would compulsively talk about it for months, annoying everyone, or the ones who never uttered a word because of an agonizing shame?
Although we may not recognize each other as survivors of the same crime, we’ve shared classes with each other. We’ve worked together through painful problem sets and the hysteria of finals week. Together, we have proved we can accomplish anything. And because of how much you have helped me, been there for me, listened to me — trying to end your pain as best as I possibly can is the least I can possibly do. Let me give you my love. Reach out to me. Hand me your suffering. For you, I will turn it into lilies.
Too often I have heard you ask whether what happened to you was “really assault.” I too have asked this question because it seems to be a nearly universal component of the survivor’s experience. But there is something I need to tell you.
In order for us to recover, this persistent doubt of our own experiences has to end. While our stories may involve trusted friends or exes we never got over or confusing feelings of desire and fear — the television we watch and the news we read bombards us with exceptional predator or stranger perpetrators who hold their victims at knife-point.
Those stories have embodied what we think counts as “valid rape” or “valid assault,” not our own. And when our stories don’t seem to conform with what we identify as “valid assault,” we think we’re imagining our own status as a victim and decide not to report.
Under-reporting is a serious problem at Hopkins. According to the Office of the Provost, approximately 66 percent of our sexual violence victims do not report their attack to the Office of Institutional Equity. That is, 66 percent of all perpetrators roam freely on campus, sitting in our biology classes, reclining in our dorm room chairs, happily eating pizza at the Fresh Food Cafe.
Additionally, around 49 percent of Hopkins victims do not report because “events like this seem common.” Even if what happened to you seems to lack the exceptionality this culture typically ascribes to assault and rape, imagine if your perpetrator did the same thing to your friend. Would you think that what happened to them was common enough to be... okay?
The sexual violence perpetrators on this campus are not who we think they are. They’re not charismatic sociopaths wearing masks or large scary men who live in dark alleys. Just over half of sexual perpetrators at Hopkins are friends or romantic partners. They’re people we love and trust so much that even if they did something terrible to us, we may go for weeks, months, or years ignoring feelings of violation.
At the moment they violate our consent, we might not feel pain; the trauma might be something we are desensitized to. We might find ourselves ignoring what is happening, because we trust them so much. We might feel confused and afraid — so much so that we don’t have the courage to verbally object to their advances.
We may even feel pleasure, despite not giving our consent. Many victims feel involuntary arousal during the act, even if they didn’t want it to occur. Current medical research approximates that 20 percent of women during an assault experience such physical responses — including, but not limited to, arousal, lubrication or an orgasm. Unfortunately, at Hopkins, roughly this same percentage of women who were sexual violence victims decided not to contact a campus resource about their attack because their body showed involuntary arousal.
Whatever you felt during the event is valid. If you felt fear, you are valid. If you felt nothing, you are valid. If you felt pleasure, you are valid. Endlessly pondering over our feelings toward our perpetrator or what happened will never answer the question, “Was it really assault?” I know because I have experienced these exact feelings. But trauma is not a contest. We aren’t trying to win the “most traumatized person in the room” award. Just because you weren’t attacked by a stranger in a dark alley doesn’t make your assault any less of an assault. Two people can go through the same event, and one could come out with PTSD and the other could come out with some increased anxiety.
If your brother or sister fell off the roof and broke their leg, you wouldn’t think that they shouldn’t be treated for their injury just because they didn’t cry. You are allowed to feel however you want after the incident because nothing you feel will invalidate what happened to you.
My perpetrator was someone who meant a lot to me. During the attack, I kept saying no and pushing his arms down. Over and over and over. When he finished, my body was shaking. I almost compulsively ask myself whether I am truly a victim. Was I shaking out of nervousness or out of fear? Does what happened make him a monster, or is he the good person I remember him as? If he lied to his friends and our investigator about what happened, he must be a terrible person, right? Was it really assault?
When I think about these questions, I try to convince myself that he is a good person who merely made a small mistake. I tell myself that I am not a victim, that my status as a victim is something I am imagining. When I succeed, all my pain floats away. But then, like a soft tide whose existence is doomed to endlessly crash onto the seashore, the pain always returns. And it returns because deep down, I know: It really was assault.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can seek help from the following Hopkins-specific, local or national confidential resources: JHU Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU) 24/7 Peer Crisis Support Hotline — (410) 516-7887; JHU 24/7 Sexual Assault Helpline — (410) 516-7333; TurnAround Inc 24/7 Helpline — (443) 279-0379; Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 24/7 Sexual Assault Hotline — (800) 656-4673.