I wish the photos of my eighteenth birthday — most of which I’ve untagged — reminded me of a fun celebration, but what I remember most about that birthday is seeing my dress rolled up past my bare breasts, as I drifted awake, finding the party host having sex with me without my consent. When I haphazardly pushed him off of me, he only muttered five words: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
It was my birthday, he said earlier that night. I should celebrate, he persuaded. I’ll buy you whatever you want to drink, don’t worry, he promised. And so, as a wide-eyed 17-year-old finally coming to ‘legal age’ (as he put it), I was three weeks into college and happily surprised that an old high school friend wanted to throw me a birthday party. When that evening came — a Saturday night in 2006 — I tried on everything I owned before eventually borrowing something from my new roommate’s closet: a fitted white dress with pink flowers on it. I was so excited for that night — my first official birthday spent away from home, with real college friends, with real college drinks and a real college good time.
It’s been almost a decade since that birthday and to be honest, I’m still not really sure what happened. I was an inexperienced drinker — I never went to those high school ragers. Nevertheless, my two friends and I pounded away a six-pack each, hiding our bottles underneath the futon in my friend’s living room, giggling at our ‘secret place’ that ‘no one would find.’ I remember wearing a ‘Birthday Girl’ pink button and a crown, and random people singing to me, offering me shots and telling me how beautiful I was. I remember the chill of the North Carolina mountain air and borrowing my friend’s jacket because I was cold.
And then it gets foggy.
I’m not sure if he put anything in my drink — I want to believe that he didn’t, and instead, I just drank a lot more than I ever had before. I must have become tired because I laid down on his futon, my eyes fluttering, my mind flirting between sleeping and having another drink. I watched people’s legs as they walked by, their voices getting quieter until they disappeared, and eventually, I fell asleep.
I had made out with this friend before — randomly after we went on a date a week earlier. I didn’t feel a spark, but thought he was friendly, and perhaps more importantly, he worked on the campus paper and helped me get a gig there. I wanted to be a writer more than anything, so I looked at the school paper as my first real shot, and at my friend, as the person who recommended me so I could make it happen. I have some cloudy flashes of memory of him kissing me, a few more of him touching me, but then I fall back asleep.
What really woke me was the pain. I had only had (gentle, loving, romantic) sex with my high school boyfriend at that point, so I never felt pain like that before. Not only had I not consented to sex, but my body wasn’t prepared for it. I woke up because it hurt and I wanted it to stop.
After he apologized, I ran to the bathroom, still feeling sleepy and confused. I tried to wake up my friends, who were in bed with his roommates, but they were also out of it and without a way to get back to my dorm, five miles away, I felt like I had no choice but to stay. I didn’t sleep that night and as soon as the sun rose, I went outside and called my parents —who were driving up that day to see me for my birthday — crying on my friend’s porch. I pulled myself together enough to ask him to take us all home, feeling anxious being at his mercy. He did, but only after stopping at a drive thru before, asking me if I wanted anything since I had a ‘rough night.’
To this day, he’s never admitted what happened, and though I’d like to say that I reported it to the police or to the campus… it took me a long time to tell anyone but my parents.
How I Dealt With It
My mom asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital and my dad asked where he could find him to beat the living sh*t out of him, but I decided to do… well, nothing. Even though I had watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU, as soon as I got out of his car, I showered. I scrubbed and cried, cried and scrubbed, wanting nothing more than to be clean. My parents came and sang to me, but it all felt like a blur. I wore a sweatshirt instead of dressing up for my birthday, and I spent the majority of those 24 hours trying my best not to cry…
...and yet. Yet. A few days later, I walked into the newspaper office, my head held high, high heels on and I sat through a meeting with him. In fact, over the next two years until he graduated, I sat through dozens of meetings with him. And apart from one late night cursing fest on AIM, I didn’t say anything to him about it. I ignored him, and once he graduated, I felt safe again.
It wasn’t until he left that I finally told some close friends, one of which was also on the newspaper, and said he did the same thing to her. It took me another few years to actually write about the experience on my personal blog. It took years of therapy in college for me to really embrace, accept and love being a sexual person and build trust in men. The conversation of ‘what happened on my eighteenth birthday’ is still one I have to have when I start getting serious with any guy.
It took me forever to believe and to say: I was raped. It did happen to me. It wasn’t my choice. It wasn't my fault. I am a survivor.
And I’m filled with regret that I never said anything. But for those women who were strong enough, who didn’t worry that they would ‘cause a scene’ at their school newspaper and never find that dream journalism job they wanted, the process of coming forward at a university isn’t easy. There are so many reports, articles, and documentaries of young women being mistreated by administrations and campus police when they come forward about their rapes.
The hard truth is that most rapes on campus are perpetrated by friends or acquaintances, and for many women (myself included), it almost didn’t feel like rape, even though it absolutely was. I’m always happy when I see colleges making changes to their safety systems and more so, being supportive of women who come forward and giving them the guidance and justice they deserve, but the latest ‘improvement’ has a long way to go to actually be effective.
Why I Don't Support The Safe Campus Act
The Safe Campus Act was proposed in Congress in late July of this year (pushed heavily by national fraternity groups) and would keep colleges from investigating sexual assault cases unless the alleged victim also reported their ordeal to law enforcement. The school then wouldn’t be able to carry out their own disciplinary process — expulsion, for example — until the criminal investigation concludes. Recently, Alpha Phi sorority became the first sorority to break away from the National Panhellenic Conference, saying that it doesn’t support the bill. Other sororities have come forward to speak against the bill since their lead, including the sorority I joined my junior year, Alpha Omicron Pi.
I give them all a round of applause: Standing up against the act is a step in the right direction on a very, very long, difficult road to help survivors.
Coming forward about your rape is difficult — no matter if you’re telling your best friend, a family member, the campus police, a professor or anyone. As of right now, colleges are required to respond to reports of any sort of sexual harassment (under Title IX, which is usually only referenced when discussing gender equality on collegiate sports teams), and may punish the student, regardless if police are investigating or not. By adding another step in this process, you’re not protecting victims, instead, you’re giving them more hoops to jump through, when the attacker gets to stick to their normal routine, and potentially, hurt more people.
Under the Safe Campus Act, even if I would have come forward about my rape and told campus police, if I didn’t go to local authorities, he would have still remained on campus. The system of reported rape on college campuses is incredibly flawed as it is, with victims usually being persuaded to not say anything to keep away controversy, so why give administrators another way to wash their hands of a sexual assault report and move on? Why give another young woman another reason not to come forward?
I’m not a big believer in looking backwards, but if the successful, feminist, strong, confident and kind 27-year-old me could go back and tell 18-year-old me anything after that night, it would be: say something.
I wish I would have told the editor at the newspaper. I wish I would have told my best friends. I wish I wouldn’t have showered. I wish I would have walked those five miles home instead of having a sleepless, scary night. I wish I would have reported him so another woman (or possibly women) wouldn’t have had that same terrible experience. I wish I would have done a lot of things.
But what I wish for most of all isn’t to go back and change anything that happened to me. It’s to change the opportunities, support, and options available to future survivors. By passing this act, progress doesn’t happen. Less rapes get reported. More attackers keep on attacking. And less voices are heard.
I wish rape didn’t happen, but sadly, since it will continue, at the very least, reporting and finding justice should be an easier process. Rape is something each survivor has to live with for the rest of his or her life, so the first step shouldn’t require two steps. Instead, shouldn't we offer our hand to help them move forward and reclaim their lives?
Alpha Phi thinks so — and so do I.
If you are a victim of rape and need a friend or just want your voice to be heard, you can always email me: Lindsay@LoveAddictNYC.com.
Editor's Note: If you have been a victim of sexual assault, you are not alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can help. Call 1-800-656-HOPE.