Last November, the University Journal published three first-hand accounts of Southern Utah University students, some of which experienced sexual assault during their time on campus.
The warm and sincere response from readers to that article was overwhelming and combined with the courage of those anonymous students to share their experiences was deeply moving to all of us at SUU News.
Fast forward to now, and Homecoming Week is once again upon us. This year the events we’ve grown accustomed to seeing will look very different. We have no parade, tailgate or football game to look forward to, but SUU’s administration has taken strides to safely sponsor homecoming events in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We hope that this spirit of change will extend beyond the festivities and into the minds of each Thunderbird on campus. We hope for an end to sexual violence, especially violence perpetuated by a man against a woman.
Homecoming can be an especially dangerous time for women, according to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Violence. MCASA describes the period between the start of the fall semester and Thanksgiving break as “The Red Zone” because of how alcohol consumption increases during events like tailgates and homecoming.
A study by RAINN.org indicates that among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation at some point during their studies. Another study found that 90% of rape victims knew their offender, and that 75% of attempted rapes occurred during a date, party or social function.
So as Homecoming Week kicks off, we hope to combat sexual abuse by recounting the experience of these three anonymous students in hopes that those who read it can fully understand the pain that comes with assault and do everything they can to prevent it.
We challenge all those who read it to respect women, to listen to them with an empathetic heart ant to be willing to take “no” for an answer, and to commit to doing everything they can to put an end to sexual violence on the campus of SUU.
The following article contains three first-hand accounts of sexual assault written by anonymous SUU students. These stories are not just for survivors of sexual assault; they are for allies, bystanders, and abusers alike.
It happened the weekend before the fall semester of my junior year. It was a Saturday night. I spent extra time on my hair and makeup. I was wearing an old t-shirt, leggings, pearl earrings and a necklace I had worn every day for a month.
I remember what I was wearing because I remember how it all felt different afterwards.
I wanted to go on a non-committal date to start the semester on a positive, confident note. I wanted a night that would remind me that dating can be fun and exciting and help me feel good about myself. This was what I wanted.
So I went on this date with a guy I had only met a few times, but he seemed nice and friendly on campus. I told my roommates where I was going and when I thought I would be home. I was being safe.
The night started out fine. We talked, listened to music and got ice cream. Normal first date stuff.
But when we were in his car, he unexpectedly held my hand. I told him I didn’t want to have sex and he hesitated before telling me that was okay.
Later, when I told him that he was hurting me, he said that was the point.
And when I said I needed to leave, he told me to stay longer.
I couldn’t say no. Not because I didn’t want to and not because I was having a good time. I couldn’t say no because my body wouldn’t let me.
I always thought my two options of safety were fight or flight, but it turns out the brain has a third: freeze. I was so afraid and embarrassed, no wasn’t even an option. I didn’t realize that no is a complete sentence.
But the few times that I could say no, he stopped. So, he didn’t do anything wrong, right? And this was what I wanted, right? A low-risk date that would just help me feel good and impulsive and fun. This was what I wanted.
So it felt like my fault that I was shaking when I got home. It was my fault that I was nauseous and guilty and scared. It was my fault.
“I’m fine, it’s not like I was raped or something,” I told my friends. And I was right. I wasn’t raped, and as far as he knew, everything that happened was consensual. I told him I had a good time and that we should hang out again. Also my fault.
The next day at church, full of guilt and anxiety, I realized I was bruised.
Later, I jumped when my roommate tried to hand me the remote because I thought she was coming to grab me.
Then I found out that I would have to see this person three days out of the week. He would see me. I would think about him and he would think about me. I had a panic attack.
I had never felt so alone and so afraid of another human being.
When I got to school the next day – the first of a brand new semester – I was on edge constantly. What if he came up to me and asked why I wouldn’t Snapchat him back? What if he told his friends about what happened and they called me a slut?
Or what if a complete stranger looked at me and decided to hurt me? It had happened once, it could happen again.
I also kept asking myself if anything dangerous even happened. Maybe I was just making a big deal out of a bad first date. I thought that no one would understand what I was going through and that I was just being dramatic.
But then I realized a horrifying truth: so many women know exactly what I was going through.
I started learning about friends, family members and co-workers who had all experienced something so similar. They had been through every “It’s my fault,” every “I didn’t say no,” and every “I feel so alone.”
Not only was I starting to feel the comfort and support that I needed so badly, but I was finally able to feel anger. I was sexually assaulted and that is not okay. I was not okay, and sometimes I’m still not okay.
I decided to reach out to CAPS and Title IX, which has helped me see myself and my story in so many new ways. Most importantly, I’ve learned that what I’m feeling every day is valid and being felt for a reason.
I thought that he must hate me because I won’t talk to or look at him, and he doesn’t understand why. Wrong.
He knows exactly why I don’t like to look at him because his violence was not an accident.
I thought that he was right when he told me, “I didn’t hear any complaints so I thought it was fine.” Wrong.
Not hearing a no is never the same as hearing a yes.
I also thought that I would forget what happened by now. Wrong again.
While he probably never thinks about me or that night, I think about it every single day. Some days that’s a really sad, hard, frustrating fact.
But other days, I reflect on how I’ve grown through love for myself and the amazingly strong women around me. Together, we hold each other up when we feel like absolutely everything is dragging us down.
So, what’s the point of this? Why did I write this and why did you read it? That next Sunday when I sat numb in church or when I was startled by my roommate, I would have given anything to actually believe the people that told me I wasn’t going crazy. That I wasn’t a wimp who just couldn’t handle something out of my comfort zone. That it wasn’t my fault.
You’re not crazy, you’re not a wimp and it isn’t your fault. It takes time, but believe it.
Not hearing no is absolutely never the same as hearing yes.
I was sitting in the Title IX office scared out of my mind with tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t want to be in this room sitting across the table with a person I had never met before, telling them the intimate details of my abuse. In fact, I just wanted to forget everything and move on with my life.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was completely numb. For a week following the end of the abuse, I tried to keep a smile on my face so no one could know that I felt nothing inside.
It happened over the course of five weeks and the only person I said anything to was my best friend after it had ended. All I would say was, “He just wasn’t very nice to me,” and leave it at that.
Luckily, my friend could tell something was wrong, and to my dismay she kept prompting me to talk about it. When I finally opened my mouth it felt so good to verbalize all the terrible things I went through.
After I told her what happened, she said the words that I think I had been in denial about.
I had been sexually assaulted.
At first, I fought her back. “No, no, I wasn’t,” I would tell her. “He just wasn’t very nice sometimes.” It wasn’t until she repeated my story back to me that a light bulb went off. What happened to me wasn’t my fault.
I said no, and he didn’t stop.
I would tell him I didn’t want to do X,Y, and Z, but he didn’t care. I would tell him I didn’t feel comfortable or scared and he would say, “Trust me. You’ll be fine.”
Once I realized what happened, I cried for hours. I was in complete and utter shock. My friend said I needed to talk to someone on campus, so I went to one of my bosses. I told my boss I wanted to get Title IX training for our office to bring awareness to sexual assault.
The thing is, once you tell a faculty member or staff on campus, they are obligated to report it. When my boss told me this, I burst into tears. I didn’t want to get this guy into trouble. I just wanted him to realize what he did was wrong.
But my boss helped me set up an appointment with the Title IX office that very same day, and was even willing to be in the room with me while I reported my abuse. It felt so nice to have support from SUU.
So there I was, sitting in the Title IX office with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was physically shaking because I was so scared. I didn’t want to, but I opened my mouth and began to tell my story.
After reporting, I had options on how I wanted to proceed. Within Title IX there are a variety of contracts and agreements that can be put in place, depending on how you want to proceed. I chose the option that was best for me, but that will change depending on every individual.
One thing Title IX highly recommended was to go to the Counseling and Psychological Services and see a counselor as soon as possible.
CAPS is the counseling center located just two blocks from campus that is free and available for SUU students. They have designated counselors for people that have undergone any type of traumatic event. Due to my trauma, I was scheduled for an appointment for the next day.
If you are wondering why I didn’t leave earlier or why I let the abuse last for those five long weeks, it was because of a term I learned in counseling called gaslighting.
In simple terms, it means we rationalize the bad things that happen with the few good things a person does. We focus on those few happy moments and forget about everything else.
I could lie and tell you that he was a monster and a terrible person. But the problem was that he wasn’t – at least not at first glance.
When we were around other people, no one would have ever guessed what happened behind closed doors. He was never mean or malicious to me. We had inside jokes and would hang out with his friends. Things never escalated until we were alone, when people couldn’t see.
Slowly, but surely, counseling helped me understand and process the emotional and physical pain I endured.
I could tell you that everything went back to “normal” after I reported and started going to counseling. The truth is, that was just the beginning of the healing process. My life never went back to “normal” again.
Over the next month, I lost ten pounds because I couldn’t stomach anything. The idea of eating made me sick. Thankfully, I have some amazing people that noticed and would sit down to eat with me. They wouldn’t let me leave without having a few bites of food. I am forever grateful for those people.
Over the next three months, getting out of bed every day was a struggle. I wanted to stay in my room where I knew I was safe and no one could hurt me. I wanted to stay curled up in my blankets so that no one could touch me. I even started missing classes and stopped doing my homework because I was struggling so much.
I was scared to walk around campus by myself, so my friends would walk with me to and from class. I would have anxiety attacks even thinking about walking down the student center alone. I felt so vulnerable and scared of who could be around each corner.
The aftermath of being sexually assaulted is an emotional battle.
I felt gross. I felt disgusting. I felt worthless.
I think the worst part is when I had thoughts about ending my own life. In my mind, if I was worthless, what was the point? I might as well just give up.
I am here to tell you this: even though something terrible happened to you, you are still worth more than you know.
You have so much to offer the world.
It’s okay to have negative thoughts, but you need to make sure to tell them to go to hell.
Counseling helped with the emotional rollercoaster I went through every day. I was able to talk things out and get the help I needed.
Honestly, the thing that helped me survive the lowest part of my life were my friends, family and co-workers. They were my constant support and backbone when I was too scared to walk out my front door.
Life still has not been easy and I still get triggered and have nightmares to this day. But I am so thankful for a friend who was able to see something was wrong, and wasn’t going to give up until I talked. I am thankful for my boss who reported it, even when I didn’t want him to.
I am thankful for the Title IX office and CAPS. Without these people and resources, I would not be able to sit down and write my story.
I don’t consider myself a victim. I am a survivor. And for those who need to hear it, no is a complete sentence. It is not okay to peer pressure or use physical force to get someone to be intimate with you. Unless both parties verbally say yes, the answer is no.
I can still feel his hand on the small of my back, guiding me from place to place. All it takes is closing my eyes, and there he is.
As we walked from one group of people to the next, I felt the comfort of his palm warm and steady. He never left my side.
In every conversation, he made sure to support everything I said. He was so clever and funny.
Everyone loved him. Over the course of that night, everyone asked when he would come around again. He assured them it would be soon.
I felt his support as we walked back to the car. He put his hand on my leg, and we left.
This was what love was.
I needed the support because I was alone. No one was there for me except for him. Nobody understood who I was except for him… not even me.
To this day I feel lost without that pressure – that constant nagging, pushing, and grabbing. I still feel him.
The truth was, he didn’t love me. I was tricked by his smile and the way he told me how smart I was. He could never trick me because I was so smart.
It didn’t matter how smart I was, because he came prepared. He knew exactly what I was afraid of. He knew what I loved.
He knew how to get me alone.
The isolation I felt wasn’t genuine either. He created that loneliness and reliance by separating me from everyone that cared about me. I wasn’t alone until I was alone with him.
It’s hard to tell sometimes when you’re being manipulated. The truth is, it’s near impossible to tell for certain every time. Sometimes when he tells you he loves you, he means it.
But sometimes when he tells you he loves you, it’s because he wants something.
I can’t say I’ve learned for sure how to avoid manipulation. I can’t say I’m now perfectly attuned to see it coming, because I’m not. I’ve been deceived more than once.
It would take psychic powers to be able to see that kind of thing clearly – or a P.h.D., which is why I went to CAPS for help.
What I do know now is how to say no.
When I finally came to terms with the fact that I was sexually assaulted, I was afraid that I would never be safe again. I didn’t tell him no. I never said the word out loud, not once while I was with him for four months.
I didn’t say it, so it was my fault. That’s what I told myself. To this day when I have anxiety attacks, I still have to remind myself, “It isn’t your fault.”
He deceived me. It has taken years to stop blaming myself for staying silent while he had his way with me. I fight that train of thought every single day.
Five years is a long time. You’d think after as much healing I’ve done, I would be better now.
The problem is, I’m not.
I’m not okay. I went through something big, something I never thought would happen to me. It was one of the scariest times of my life.
Time is supposed to heal everything, but even after five years – filled with therapy, tears, panic attacks, hospital visits, and counseling – I’m not better yet.
That doesn’t mean I’m not trying, though. I’ve come a long way in my journey, and while I still feel him sometimes, I have come to terms with who I am. I know it’s not my fault.
My family helped me to break away from him. They stood by my side and helped me through the pain of separation, because even though I knew he was hurting me, he convinced me I was nothing without him.
He had twisted my thoughts so badly that not only did I believe it was my fault, but I truly believed I deserved nothing besides him.
My family helped me to feel love in his absence, and kept me close until I began to love myself again. They helped me, but I wasn’t ready to begin healing yet.
I went to therapy. I turned to my friends. I tried to love again, but I wasn’t ready to accept the love of someone else yet.
I tried my best to heal, but the more I did to fix myself, the more I felt broken. I was damaged, and I told myself every day that I would never be okay again.
I’m still not okay. But I’ve learned, finally, that no is a complete sentence.
I still feel him sometimes, but I know that I am more than he ever believed I was. I have learned to say no to every person that tries to do me harm.
At the end of the day, and especially at night, it’s easy to feel afraid and to fall into my old trains of thought. But I’m learning.
I may not be okay, but I’m better than I was.
When I feel that pressure to do as I’m told, to lay back and take it because it’s what I deserve, I shake the helplessness. I finally say no.
But I have also learned to say yes. When my friends ask me if I need help, and when I am faced with a new opportunity that is best for me, I can finally say yes. I’m finally agreeing to help myself again.
After all this time, it’s becoming easier to accept my flaws and rediscover my strengths. I’ll never be the same–no one that has been assaulted ever will be.
But I’m slowly, steadily, finding my footing.
Accepting my PTSD hasn’t been easy. It’s hard to tell someone your mind isn’t always your own, even if it is becoming more accepted and understood.
Even though it’s hard, I am finally reaching the point where I can use my experience to reach out to others and support them. I cannot put into words how much I wish this wasn’t as prevalent as it is, but I will no longer sit in silence and wait for it to go away.
No more laying down. No more taking it. No more blaming ourselves, no more running, no more silence.
It’s time to say no.
If you find yourself identifying with any parts of these stories – whether you have been abused, seen abuse happen around you, or have abused others – we highly recommend you take the next step. Set up an appointment at CAPS and work through your thoughts and emotions with a licensed professional. We are past the point where abuse is acceptable. No is a complete sentence, and we must start using it now.
Photo Illustration by Christopher Dimond