I had always laughed at my mom when she stressed how important it was to never walk home alone and to always carry around pepper spray, just in case. “Mom, relax. It’s just college, everything is fine,” I’d say, truly believing that I lived in a place that was safe from anything bad. I never knew how wrong I was until April 25, 2014, when just a few minutes changed my entire life.
I went to a formal with a guy my best friend had set me up with. He was a pretty cool guy. We danced and had some fun, but in the end I just wasn’t feeling it and was ready to leave. Despite my friend’s pleas to wait a little bit longer so I didn’t have to walk home alone, I assured her that it wouldn’t be a problem. I left the formal at 11:35 p.m. by myself.
I pulled up the hood of my raincoat, cursing the horrible Pennsylvania weather, and chased after the bus in my heels. I hobbled down the bus aisle and plopped into the first open seat I could find. Stilettos, Jenny? Really? I thought to myself as I looked down at my now-swollen feet crammed into my unnecessarily high heels. Right before the bus driver peeled away from the curb, I texted my friend at 11:40 p.m. — Safe on the bus - J.
There were only two stops until I was back at my dorms, and I couldn’t wait to take off my formal dress and cuddle up in my bed with One Tree Hill and the bag of Doritos I'd specifically saved for my post-formal Netflix binge. But after the bus passed the first stop, I realized a guy in the back was yelling things and trying to get my attention. There are always drunk kids on the bus, I thought. It’s best to ignore them. I kept my head down and just kept staring at my phone.
The bus finally got to my stop, and I yelled my thanks to the driver and trudged out into the rain. I had only been off the bus for a few seconds when I felt someone come up from behind me and grab by my arm, hard enough that I couldn’t wiggle out of the grip.
“You need my help. I’m taking you back to your dorm,” I heard him say through the rain pounding off the sidewalk. It was a man, one I had never met before. He is slurred speech wasn’t making any sense, and the scent of liquor tainted his breath. I tried to look up at him, but the hood of my raincoat only let me see part of the bottom half of the left side of his face. But even from that glance, I could tell he was not a college student. He was at least 30 years old. “I’m coming with you, ” he said.
I immediately started to panic, but I didn’t let in show. I discreetly looked around to see if there was anyone around the quad of my dorm. No one. He kept asking questions about where I lived and told me that I needed him, meanwhile keeping his grip tight on my arm and forcefully walking me down the sidewalk.
“What’s the fastest way to get to your room?” he slurred. I look down at my four-inch heels. I wouldn’t get very far if I tried to run away in these.
“Through the commons,” I said calmly, hoping that there was a chance someone would see me in public place.
We entered the commons, his grip tightening on my arm even harder as he whispered vulgar comments into my ear about what he wanted to do to me. I saw a student round the corner, and I knew I was supposed to scream but I froze with panic. The only thing I could bring myself to do was mouth the words, “help me” to the student and hope he would do something.
“Sarah?” the student called out. I later learned he had randomly called me a name to make it seem like he knew me. “Do you need help?” he asked. It was then the man holding me began cursing under his breath and pushed me away. He ran out the side door of the commons building, and just like that, he was gone.
It was only 11:47 p.m.
The student who had helped me then called the police and sat with me as I reported what happened. He was able to give a decent description of what happened, but I couldn’t remember a thing. Besides the one glance under the brim of my hood, I didn’t try to look at the man again that night. I was too scared.
The police called me later in the week and told me that the description the student was able to give matched a description of a man other girls on campus reported being sexually assaulted by. The police believed they were looking for a man who was about 32 years old. He would ride the bus loop around in circles and grab girls once they were alone.
It's no surprise that this man was targeting female college students, as so many are victimized during their time on campus. According to The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses, and one in four college women will be the victim of sexual assault during her academic career. With a rape happening every 21 hours on a college campus, I am lucky I did not become yet another statistic that night. The idea of what could have happened haunts me every day.
I would never wish a situation like this upon myself or anyone else, but it was truly a wake up call. I grew up in one of the smallest and safest towns in New Jersey, where I could walk around and feel invincible. But now I know that I am not invincible, and I have resolved to be prepared should I find myself in a scary situation like this again. It is important that women take the steps to protect themselves. And yes, it should be the responsibility of rapists and attackers not to rape, rather than the responsibility of women to protect themselves against rapists. But that does not change the reality of the world in which we live, and I am determined to never be a victim.
I will not be afraid and I will not fear going out into the world, but now I have learned that, no matter what, I always have to be ready to protect myself. I have learned to be aware of my surroundings, to always be with a friend, and to always be prepared for unfamiliar and dangerous situations. I carry around pepper spray in all of my purses, make sure my phone is charged in case I need to make an emergency call, and I've started to work out more, including taking some kick boxing classes. Building my strength and knowing that I have the ability to fight back against a potential assailant gives me peace of mind.
There are many ways women can ensure their own safety on campus and there are many ways you can speak out about this epidemic and make a difference. I know if this situation were to every happen to me again that I have my friends, on and off campus resources, and other women who have gone through similar experiences as my support system.
We can't prevent all crimes and we can't guarantee everyone's safety, but we can let the world of survivors know that they are not alone, and that is it NOT their fault. I proudly and publicly speak up against campus sexual assault and I support any college women who has ever felt violated.
I will continue to ensure my own safety and do my best to ensure the safety of all the other women I go to school with, because unfortunately in the world we live in today, I have to.