What does it mean to be the victim of rape or sexual assault? It seems like a simple question, but in fact, it is not simple at all. The problem isn’t the question itself, but the range of answers we get when we ask it. Was I raped? It seems strange that something as horrifying and traumatizing as rape doesn’t have a cohesive definition among people, especially among young people. Explanations become even more convoluted when we extend the conversation to sexual assault. Why are so many people out of touch with what it means to be sexually assaulted or to sexually assault another person?
I found myself asking this question on a Sunday morning during my senior year of college. That morning I woke up to a man in my bed. He was pressed up against me, with one hand under my shirt and the other in my pants. I jumped as soon as I recognized that I wasn’t dreaming. I realized that the man in my bed it was someone I knew, a friend even (for sake of conversation, let’s call this friend Stephen). Too shocked to say anything, I watched Stephen as he climbed out of my bed, walked out of my room and shut the door. I lay in my bed for several moments as I started to panic. What had just happened to me?
I had gone out with friends the night before. We had drinks throughout the night, true. But I had come home early (a friend walked me home), and falling asleep was the last thing I remembered. I knew that I hadn’t seen or talked to Stephen at all the night before, so why did I wake up to him touching me? I felt scared and violated. I immediately asked my roommate to clarify. She explained that she and the rest of my roommates had left the bar about 30 minutes after I had. On their way back to our apartment they ran into Stephen. As a friend to everyone in the house, Stephen tagged along back to the apartment.
My roommate told me I woke up around 2 a.m. to use the bathroom because I felt sick, none of which I remember. I am told Stephen followed me into the bathroom, so my roommate followed him to ask him to leave me alone. When she came into the bathroom, she saw him sitting on the ground staring at me as I vomited. She asked him to leave the bathroom three times, but he ignored her. After a failed third attempt she grabbed him and physically dragged him out of the bathroom. After I finished vomiting, she said I returned to my room and shut the door. I did not speak to Stephen at all during this entire time. After I returned to my room, my roommate asked the guests in our apartment to leave because she was tired and clearly I had had too much to drink. The guests started to file out of the apartment and my roommate went to her bedroom and shut her door. What happened afterwards I may never know, aside from the fact that I woke up to Stephen touching me. When I asked him for an explanation, he apologized aloofly, blamed his actions on being drunk and explained, “I couldn’t sleep and you looked so peaceful.”
The problem is that many rapists, especially those on college campuses, don’t actually see themselves as rapists. According to OneInFour.org, 8 percent of men on college campuses admit to committing acts that meet thelegal definition of rape or attempted rape. Of these men who committed rape, 84 percent said what they did was definitely not rape. To me, it is clear that we are all working with different definitions, and the consequence is the disturbing number of sexual assaults that are committed each year.
As women (and young girls), we are constantly told to be on guard because there are men out there who may try to take advantage of us. Don’t wear something too low cut or short. Don’t walk home alone and don’t let your friends walk home alone. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Don’t respond when men whistle at you on the street because it may invite unwanted aggression (as if to suggest that this behavior isn’t already aggressive and unwanted). The list of “do not’s” that we teach women to follow in order to protect themselves is endless. Despite all the lectures and all of the rules, 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 33 men) become victims of sexual assault throughout their lifetime. I followed all of the rules, yet suddenly I found myself becoming one in four. It turns out that even in my own apartment, I wasn’t safe.
To clear up any confusion as to the definition of rape and/or sexual assault, I’ve included the legal definition, provided by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The definition of rape is: “forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration. Penetration may be by a body part or an object.Sexual assault is unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling taken place without consent. Consent cannot be given (legally) if a person is impaired, intoxicated, drugged, underage, mentally challenged, unconscious, or asleep.” This last point is the one that I want to emphasize because it is one that many people seem to be unaware of or simply choose to ignore. My friends are I are guilty of making jokes about not letting certain male friends near us while we sleep. How is it that so many girls don’t trust “normal” guys, close friends even, once the drinking has begun?
When someone is assaulted we ask, “Well, what were you wearing? How much did you have to drink? Why weren’t you being more responsible?” This aspect of rape culture is one I am going to challenge. We teach young women that it is their responsibility to protect themselves from being raped, but we fail to teach young men not to rape. And this is not surprising. What parent ever imagines that their young boy could grow up to be a rapist? Most parents have had the “make safe decisions” talk with their daughters (as they should), but how many of these parents have sat their sons down and explained the importance of respecting boundaries and obtaining consent? My initial urge to blame myself and ask what I could have done better to protect myself demonstrates this point. But doing so simply removed all responsibility from the man who hurt me. I had never demonstrated any interest sober, but for some reason this man felt it appropriate to come into my apartment, see that I was sick and incoherent and jump on a “prime” opportunity to climb into my bed. This sense of entitlement angers me, especially because many people may argue that I should have been on better guard for my personal safety, even in my own bedroom. However, to argue that I had placed myself in a compromising situation is simply absurd. I had come home early that night to protect myself from that very situation. I followed all the rules, but following the rules didn’t protect me.
I am going to assert that we add some more “do not’s” to the list: don’t rape, don’t violate and don’t assault. As obvious as these guidelines may seem, too many people have failed to abide by them.
In some odd way, this horrible experience has fueled me to speak up against rape culture. We all have women and men in our lives that are victims of rape and/or sexual assault. I am going to challenge rape culture and assert that if someone is a victim of sexual assault we shouldn’t blame them, we should help them.
Sarah Brattain is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.