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“And We Must Do Better”

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault

Disclaimer: The ambiguity of this article is designed to keep the identities of those mentioned protected. However, because the article clearly indicates that my perpetrator was someone I’ve dated, I want to make undeniably explicit that this person does not and has not ever attended this college. 

It took me three and a half years to admit to myself that I was raped. Neither my experience of rape nor my rapist matched my preconceived notions of what rape looked like: he was no stranger, there was no alley, there were no drugs involved. In fact, he was someone who I was deeply in love with at the time of the event. I pardoned, sugar-coated, and remembered everything he did gazing through rose-colored glasses. It was easier to remember him and his actions as choices I was making than to admit to myself the disconcerting powerlessness he inflicted upon me. 

How could I conceive of myself as a strong and independent woman, a good feminist, if I let myself stay in a situation that was textbook abusive for two and a half years? How could I claim such abhorrent labels, such as abuse and rape, if he loved me? What about all the other victims of assault who experience bodily injury and debilitating mental trauma? I wasn’t them. I signed up for my situation. As I saw it, I really was asking for it. 

It was around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings that I remember the heaviness of exhaustion sinking in; it became harder to do school work, harder to sleep. I felt unrecognizable and visceral bouts of anger creep into my bloodstream when discussing sexual assault. I listened to the detail with which Dr. Ford recounted her story. Her memories were so vivid, clear, and credible, and yet hundreds of thousands of people wrote her off. 

I would lie awake at night wracking my brain for details, too. I couldn’t remember the month that it happened to me. I couldn’t even tell you how old I was, let alone describe the narrow staircase of the high-school house party as Dr. Ford did. All I recall were the boots I was wearing, the direction I was facing on my couch, and that it took nine minutes from start to finish.

A few weeks after the Kavanaugh hearings, a close friend divulged her experience of assault to me. I was utterly chilled when she told me that she, too, could hardly remember the time-frame of when she was assaulted. The more I listened to people, the more I noticed the desperation with which survivors tried to recall details of their experience, and their consequent inability to do so. 

It was only then that I understood the body’s physical response to trauma. Sometimes we can’t remember the place, the night, the person’s face, the things they said, or how many drinks we might’ve had. But the art on his walls, the peanut butter on his breath, the temperature of the hot tub, the hand on the back of her head, or the nine minutes it took for him to satisfy himself are the details that are seared into our psyches. What did I say to him?  Did I kiss him back? Did I orgasm?

These lingering questions prevented me from accepting the significance of my experience for years. Even today, I struggle with using the word rape, unsure if that is a label I get to claim. For years, I listened to other stories and compared them to my own. I grew up with robust sexual education and a supportive network that believed survivors unquestioningly, yet I simply couldn’t situate myself within the crux of the problem. I couldn’t say #metoo, out of a fear that maybe I was wrong. 

I downplayed my experience. I chalked it up to melodrama. Maybe I’d misremembered. It wasn’t until I became cognizant of the fact that so many other survivors struggled with the same self-doubt that I realized the immense capability that systemic power-based violence has to silence. It wasn’t until I noticed the common thread of all the stories I heard was the terrifying sense of bodily dissociation. The moment we left our bodies and became receptacles. The moment we left our bodies and became observers and involuntary participants. The moment we left our bodies and simultaneously watched and experienced what was being done to us. 

I might not remember everything, but I will never forget the feeling of leaving myself, closing my eyes, letting my limbs go limp, and counting down the seconds until the pounding would stop. We might not remember everything, but survivors will never forget the moment we left our bodies to survive the dislocation and unparalleled fear.

This year, I tried to explain to him my realization. I thought that talking through some of what happened might bring me some peace. I thought that two and a half years of reflection might bring an apology, or, at the very least, an admission. Instead, I received, “Okay Maddy, go ahead and #metoo me if you want,” in return.

It is that utter lack of accountability that drove me to write today. The immense feeling of hopelessness that I have been enduring, working through in therapy, and falling asleep to has begun to take its toll.

I was on a run in Lewiston the other day when a man catcalled me. For him, the outburst was a fleeting moment. However, I spent the rest of my run looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was behind me. He did not understand that his moment of sexual lasciviousness triggered a chilling fear for my own safety.

My freshman year at Bates, one boy tried to get me alone in his room; another cornered me in an elevator; a third convinced me to leave a party, and upon realizing I wasn’t going to sleep with him, left me drunk and alone in the street. This year, I found out that all three of the men described are known predators on this campus, some even having assaulted some of my closest friends.

I do not conceive of myself as the poster child for sexual assault. Others have experienced different, life-changing trauma. I am simply exhausted by the fact that each time I go into Commons, I see multiple men who freely walk around this campus having faced no consequences, social or official, for their actions. I am exhausted by the fact that the Title IX office has closed the cases on some of the most egregious forms of sexual assault I have ever heard happen in my life— instances that would shock the world in the same manner as Brock Turner’s did if they saw the light of day.

I am exhausted that I am unable to publicly name many of these on-campus assailants without facing legal repercussions. I am exhausted because facets of our community know these perpetrators and willingly choose to continue associating with them. I am exhausted by the juxtaposition between support groups held by Bates in the wake of the 2016 election and the class time dedicated to speaking about these issues after the Kavanaugh hearings against Bates’ continuation to let those with money, power, and status roam this campus with no repercussions. All this hypocrisy condones and encourages the message that those with plentiful enough resources are free to “grab [us] by the pussy” here.

The experience of rape culture I am attempting to address does not solely encompass rape and its survivors; it is about each and every coercive sexual experience, every instance of workplace harassment, every inappropriate passing comment. It is for every person who has had to wrestle with their own self-doubt, draw on the power of hindsight, and fight to legitimize their discomfort. This letter is meant to address a culture that conditions some people to believe that other bodies are worth less than their own. By writing this, I hope that if even one or two people understand the persistence of my fear, they might begin to hold those responsible accountable. It need not get to the point of physical assault for someone to care, let alone take action. It need not take knowing a survivor personally or thinking of the women in our lives for someone to care. This is an issue of moral urgency and human dignity.

There are wonderful people on this campus, of all genders, actively combatting the system of power-based violence in a variety of ways. We see you and we hear you. In writing this, I simply want our administration to be aware of the consequences of their complacency. And even more so, I want us all, myself included, to remember that this horror starts and ends with the student body. It starts and ends with us calling out one another for the ways in which we degrade each other’s bodies, in turn lessening their value to justify our own desires. It starts and ends with a joke in Commons. It starts and ends with our conduct at dances. It starts and ends with who we let in the doors to parties. It starts and ends with accountability.

This need not create a culture of fear. Sexual assault is far from simple, far from black and white. But at the end of the day, those who aren’t participating in or contributing to this culture of violence have nothing to be afraid of. I recognize the nuance and delicacy of sexual assault cases. However, it is not a difficult or trying task to simply respect other people’s bodies. Sexual assault is an issue of unbridled entitlement, and we sacrifice nothing in trying to do better. And we must do better.