Content warning: The following article includes topics some readers may find triggering, including sexual assault.
I’ve communicated with one friend since the shutdown. He’s my only friend. The roads outside are barren, the blossoming flowers and warm rays of sunshine an insult. Beyond our neighborhood, soccer fields and playgrounds are plastered with apocalyptic signs that read, “Indefinitely closed for COVID-19. KEEP OUT!” coupled with a marginally more romantic, “Practice social distancing and wash your hands :).” These days I have so much time to write and reflect upon my life.
It’s been about six months since I’ve sat behind this laptop to write about what happened to me. The words felt inconceivable, unspeakable. Even if I managed to write coherently about the assault, revisiting those drafts made me recoil. The words felt disorienting; each successive draft muddled my emotions further. So I turned to philosophy for consolation but found my memories of the event becoming even more painful and more inexpressible.
It’s said that sexual violence is traumatic for the victim. As if there were only one. Since the assault, my family and my friend have suffered an anguish of their own. I asphyxiated them with questions minute after minute after minute: Was it really assault? Maybe I’m at fault. No, I’m stupid. It was definitely assault. But is he really a villain? Actually, I’m a liar. I should cancel the investigation right now. Should I go talk to him? I’ll beg for his forgiveness. I need to STOP IT. I’m so sorry for boring you. But I’m right. Right?
I was extremely confused about what happened, but I wasn’t angry. Well, I was, in a sense, but much less than one would expect. My friend wanted to see him hanged. I wanted to see him punished but I gagged at the thought of him being suspended or expelled. Confused as to why I wasn’t as angry as I felt I should’ve been, I turned to philosophy.
Aristotle observes in Rhetoric, Book I, “No one feels resentment against those whom vengeance clearly cannot overtake, or those who are far more powerful than he is; against such, men feel either no resentment or at any rate less.”
Since I had no prospect of taking vengeance on him, perhaps I could heal by reconciling with him. If we just said sorry like small children on a playground, we could make up. I would finally be happy again. And he would be happy. And everyone would be happy.
Right, yes. In the apocalypse of my mind. Something wise, for me. Philosophy asked me whether reconciling would finally bring me peace. Understanding and forgiveness are good and virtuous things. Right? Or maybe not. Or maybe yes. Screw it, I decided to go for it.
I can hear you thinking, “Reconciling with your perpetrator is insane!” It might be. It probably was. For me, reconciling meant I would apologize for the ambiguity of my polite smiles and soft nos. As a victim, it was less painful to believe I did something blameworthy than it was to think that any man could do this to me completely out of nowhere, at any time, at any place. It was less painful to believe that the reason I didn’t kick or bite during the attack was because I unconsciously wanted it. If I apologized for not being loud enough during the attack, maybe we would become best friends again. A world in which I was to blame was much simpler to explain.
Women around the world have been raised to behave in ways that are not in their best interest. Despite strong evidence that fighting is the best way to reduce sexual violence, “modesty culture” propogates the claim that women should placate or smile politely towards men, even assailants. In modesty culture, women are asked to behave civilly to keep men “in check”; a transgression indicates the woman is at fault. For instance, women are chastised for being assertive, but absence of assertion during sexual assault implicates her consent. Women are asked to exercise gentleness and forgiveness to those who wrong them yet are questioned when they fail to report sexual harassment. They are conditioned to be the more apologetic sex, but during rape trials their self-blame is described by onlookers as a confession.
If only I had known that my civility during the attack did not mean I was in the wrong. One night my perpetrator observed rather sadly to my friend and I of having indeed misled his friends about what happened, but he succinctly considered that had I really been assaulted, I would’ve kicked him and bitten him and thrown him across the room. Indeed. Men, often taught to respond to attacks with violence, cannot comprehend when a woman responds with appeasing smiles and complaisant denials.
But I have a confession. During those moments it was hard for me to learn the truth, even as an aspiring philosopher. My alleged submissiveness during the attack filled me with horror. Am I really the strong woman I’ve always envisioned myself as? Hearing from my attacker’s own lips that he was unremorseful did not liberate me. It imprisoned me. If he doesn’t think he’s wrong, then I must be wrong. I went to Reddit to find answers. An r/jhu user politely explained that I should “be more reasonable” about the assault, which intrigued me as someone afraid of being improperly philosophical. My attempts at recovery had rendered knowledge and reason my enemy, not my hero.
But over several more months, I began to realize that even if knowledge presented itself as an adversary, I should embrace it. As Nietzsche opined, you should love your enemies, for what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
And for me he was right. Before I attempted reconciliation with my attacker, I desperately asked my only friend, “Does it ever stop hurting?” After the attempt, I can now proudly say: Yes. It does stop hurting. After six months I can impressively say that I go for about six hours without thinking about what happened. And I can do that because, thanks to my loving family and my phenomenal friend, I embraced knowledge and resolved the contradictions inside myself. Because of them, I now know I was not at fault in the slightest and that he was completely in the wrong. I do admit I’ve had bad days.
Sometimes I lay on my bed, head in pillow, with no motivation to move on. But when my life shattered, I was forced to pick up the glass pieces. I had to decide which pieces to keep and which to leave behind. I ended up discovering that both majors I was pursuing were irrelevant to my real passions. My friend and I took a self-defense class. I started ballroom dancing. My relationship with my parents deepened. I no longer spent the vast majority of my day digging for Instagram-delivered strawberries. I picked up a reading habit. And although an assault is not something I can put on my CV, it’s something that’s made me a more colorful person, something that I’m proud to have survived.
As I sit behind my desktop during quarantine, I discover that social distancing has helped me reconcile with the assault in ways I couldn’t on campus. From my window during a deep sunset, I notice an elderly woman jogging alone down an empty street. Something about her gaiety makes me feel fear. I must go and yell to her, No! You can’t! It’s dark out! I must ask her to come inside, where it’s safe from strange men. But I hold back and stop for a moment. I learn to let go, admiring her breezy cheerfulness. May she always be happy and carefree. She has every right to be.
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.