cw: sexual assault; rape
When I first visited Hollins on a campus tour in Spring 2009, I was struck by the image of t-shirts strung across the quad in awareness of sexual assault. That fall, I was raped by a fraternity brother while visiting a high school friend who attended a nearby college. I was 17, and my boyfriend at the time told me that it was my fault. My high school friend said I must have known it was going to happen. I attended my first Take Back the Night event a couple months later.
I remember walking toward the group of women already gathering on the ground, blanket around my shoulders as we sat at dusk and waited for someone to start. It was such an important space for me, and I cried and I shook once I finally decided to speak into the mic, but I felt safe in that space. People who I didn’t know reached out to me and encouraged me to visit the Center for Awareness of Sexual Assault on campus. They affirmed my experience. They believed me.
We walked around campus after with candles, and I remember the feel of hot wax burning my finger.
I attended Take Back the Night the following fall—this time with a different story. I was visiting the same high school friend to celebrate my birthday, and he sexually assaulted me while I was asleep. I sobbed and screamed on the highway as I drove the hour back to Roanoke in the middle of the night. I did not go home for my birthday that year, but I spoke again at Take Back the Night.
I spoke about the betrayal of a friend assaulting you. I spoke about the guilt of not seeing it coming, even with what I thought were jokes (“You owe me.”).
I sat back down, wrapped myself with a blanket, and listened to others share their stories.
Last week, I downloaded the open source app Self-Control. It allows you to block certain sites for a period of time that you determine. I’ve toggled for the last few weeks between allowing myself access to Facebook and Twitter and staying away from all social media that I use.
I appreciate content and trigger warnings, but reading 50 instances of tw: rape in a row can be just as triggering.
I don’t feel like I can participate in these conversations in the ways people expect me to. I can’t watch a woman stand trial and be mocked by thousands of people who think she’s lying, mocked by a president who seems to get away with whatever he wants. My stepmom sent a meme about Kavanaugh through a group message. It was a liberal meme; a comparison to Brock Turner; and I left the group message one minute after it was sent.
I can’t be part of those conversations. I have stopped reading the news, although my phone alerts me—as I type—that Kavanaugh has been confirmed. It does not surprise me.
I decided to attend the university’s Take Back the Night event a couple evenings ago. I thought about taking a blanket, but it was 90 degrees. Instead, I took Queenie and some anxiety oils and medications. I wanted to be there—partially for myself, but mainly for the students. It is such a terrifying and traumatic time to be a woman (well, to be a lot of things), and it’s traumatic to be told that you’re lying or just vying for attention or even that you’re responsible for your assaults, your rapes. I wanted to be there to show that I support every single survivor—female, male, nonbinary, queer, disabled, and trans.
I went, imagining that I might be triggered but knowing that I was making the right choice. It wasn’t, but not for the reasons I expected.
My memories of Take Back the Night were supportive, comforting. The tone was serious and deliberate. On Thursday, I sat for 30 minutes and watched the student coordinators stalling for time before the event started and ultimately deciding to engage folks with bystander intervention scenarios.
As the scenarios started, I realized that my lived experiences were being enacted as hypothetical situations. As I listened to students read situations about verbal abuse, stalking, and violent partners, I started to shake. I gasped for air as the situations turned into playful jokes about how to address stalking. My face turned red as students laughed.
I spoke, but not anything I wanted to say. No one wants to be the feminist killjoy—particularly at a feminist event.
I’m not sure why everyone else is here, but some of us may be here because of situations like you’re discussing. And joking about it in this context doesn’t feel right.
They didn’t intend to joke, of course. Their faces fell, and I was assured repeatedly that that wasn’t what was happening.
But intentions and actions are different.
When the scenarios picked up again, this time with a focus on an overbearing, presumed-to-be-abusive partner, I blinked rapidly as I rushed to untie the dog’s leash that I had wrapped around my leg—fingers fumbling as black took over my vision, making way for the visual memories of watching an abusive partner trash my dorm room, push me into the street.
I bolted before the event had even begun.
After the panic subsided, I felt embarrassed. Girls who were not yet 20 came over to apologize and assure me that they have friends with similar experiences to mine (I did not share mine). As I held the dog’s head in my hands, forehead touching hers, I repeatedly said that I did not need their help. They stayed. After asking them repeatedly, they left.
I’m struggling with intention. I’m struggling with allyship. I’m struggling with desires to demonstrate solidarity, but what happens when that solidarity is more harmful than helpful?
I wanted to be supportive at the event but didn’t realize I was the one who needed support.
When I take ten-second glances at my Twitter feed, I see men tweeting their support for survivors (or, more commonly, I see men tweeting their support to sexual assault victims). I appreciate that visibility, but is it demonstrated beyond the words they type from their phones?
Where are the men at Take Back the Night events? At my university, male demonstration against sexual assault takes place on a day where fraternity boys wear high-heeled shoes to raise awareness. Again, there is laughter—but not the laughter that arises in shared empathy and frustration and anger and pain and comfort that comes in the form of laughter with someone who understands. It is laughter at how silly the gesture takes shape.
There are so many different ways to demonstrate solidarity, but solidarity digs deeper than surface-level actions.
It’s difficult to critique moments when someone is hand-on-their-heart trying to create space where people can share experiences with rape and sexual assault, experiences with racism or ableism or (cis)sexism, experiences navigating the world in bodies that are so frequently dehumanized.
It’s not enough to create a space (like a Take Back the Night event) or occupy a space (like a hashtag) in hopes that it is helpful. Creating feminist spaces requires collective action, supporting other women (but not in the ways that we decide is supportive), and being open to learning from other voices and perspectives and bodies—and listening, really listening to what those voices say.
I am part of these conversations, but I’m not. My (our) experiences are theorized, broken down into hypothetical parts, and reconfigured into different narratives.
I think of the cool anarchist punk who walked straight up to the mic during my first Take Back the Night event and tried to rally the crowd around this idea of picking up the pieces and kicking ass because we were all empowered women. The intent was there, but I didn’t feel empowered. All I felt was shame.
I think of the radicalized Ph.D. student who, when the administration closed the advocacy center for sexual assault at Syracuse, co-opted a rally for survivors to theorize about the systematic oppression of graduate labor within academia. I watched the faces of the undergraduates gathered in the crowd, wondering how they felt about his impromptu speech and if they felt as uncomfortable as me.
I think of how I must have looked the other night, a 30-year-old professor wearing cut-off shorts and a cropped t-shirt, fumbling to collect my things as I had a panic attack in a small group of students from the Feminist Student Union.
It was not a space that was designed for me, and all I felt was shame.