A conversation on sexual assault, violence and PTSD

Courtesy of SAVP via Facebook

[CW: Sexual Assault, Domestic/Interpersonal Violence, Rape, Depression and PTSD.]

I am writing this article as an initial step towards healing—which is not linear and never will be—healing for myself, for this campus and maybe even for the world outside of Vassar’s small and exclusive bubble. This editorial was also inspired by an anonymous Boilerplate article from April 12, 2018, which focuses on a Vassar student’s experience of sexual assault on campus. I find this quote from it particularly motivating: “I am not here to make judgements on an individual’s character. I am here to share an experience in order to heal and to call attention to the larger social structures that allow for so little care and attention in handling sexual assault situations. Let’s make space, take a moment, to delve into the complexities, the hard questions, the emotions wrapped up in sexual assault and harassment ‘allegations.’ I encourage conversation in the continual process of understanding and dissecting this situation and situations like it. This piece should be seen as part of an ongoing conversation about how we view, approach, and speak on many issues: sexual assault, sexual harassment, the subjectivity of experience, the importance of narratives, callout culture, and social silencing. I acknowledge that I’m biting off quite a bit. I would love to see these topics fleshed out. I encourage you to write, to add harmonies. We need a fuller sound” (Boilerplate Magazine, “The Gray Area,” 04.12.2018). So that is what I am attempting to do: to emit a fuller sound.

In my own life, a fuller sound was necessary in regard to interpersonal violence that I witnessed between my parents. Essentially, my father is an abusive alcoholic. However, those are separate descriptors that are often coupled together; he wasn’t abusive because he’s a drunk—he was abusive because of the way he was raised and the power and control he feels he is entitled to as a man (a white man, specifically). Also, I want to take a second to debunk a myth surrounding domestic/interpersonal violence: Physical abuse is not the only form of abuse that exists. There’s a laundry list of types of abuse that includes emotional, verbal, financial, psychological and sexual to name just a few. Within an unhealthy relationship that includes abuse, the perpetrator—who can be of any gender or identity—will do anything they can to create and maintain power and control over their victim. 

Additionally, abusive relationships are not only heterosexual ones. Abuse can thrive in any type of relationship, including platonic and familial connections. A lot of times, or maybe most of the time, the victim/survivor is silenced in these situations. Moreover, isolation from friends and family, lack of autonomy and inaccessible resources can all be signs of an abusive relationship. In my experience, as the oldest of seven children born into an abusive household, I was silenced by my father (an authority figure with power) when I attempted to stop his horrific actions. 

Recently, a class reading by Michelle Cliff on speechlessness and powerlessness resonated with me deeply. As Cliff states, “It is important to realize the alliance of speechlessness and powerlessness; that the former maintains the latter; that the powerful are dedicated to the investiture of speechlessness on the powerless” (Michelle Cliff, “Notes on Speechlessness,” 1977). In my case, and in the case of numerous sexual assault survivors, societal systems mute the outcries of narratives brought forth, which buries survivors deeper into speechlessnes and therefore powerlessness. As Cliff states, “Speechlessness begins with the inability to speak; this soon develops into the inability to act” (Michelle Cliff, “Notes on Speechlessness,” 1977). If power shifted into the hands of survivors and those with survivor-centered ideals, actions would commence, resulting in change. And that change could demolish the social hierarchies that are in place, which ultimately allow abuse to occur.

Since abuse and other similar issues are so prevalent in the world today, it unfortunately makes sense that they are also a part of life on college campuses. On Vassar’s campus, I am passionate about the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention office (SAVP). I first became involved with this office at the end of my sophomore year when I applied for an intern position. The work SAVP does is vital to this campus, and too few people know enough about what we do. I was particularly drawn to working in this arena due to my personal experiences from my childhood, but these issues are exceedingly pertinent to all college-aged individuals. At Vassar specifically, “About 20% of cis-women, about 7% of cis-men and about 30% of gender noncomforming students identified being the victim of rape or attempted rape while in college. LGBTQ+ identified students experience sexual assault at disproptionately higher rates. These numbers are consistent with national findings” (SAVP, “Being a bystander,” 2018). 

I have experiences on this campus which support the statistics. I was assaulted on three different occasions during my sophomore year alone. The first time it happened was at the 2017 Welcome Back Concert. I don’t care to delve into the details, but essentially someone I didn’t know and actually never saw clearly decided it was their right to put their hands on my body without my consent. This traumatic experience eventually caused an onset of flashbacks consistent with PTSD and a depressive episode that still affect my mental health today. Furthermore, the assault made me feel like I had no control, no autonomy—basically that my body wasn’t my own, that someone else had the power to make the decision about how, when and where I would be touched. 

In the moments of the assault, I froze because I felt the exact same way that I did when I witnessed gruesome abuse inflicted on my mother by the hands of my father. I was completely powerless in both instances. In my childhood, my dad strived to socialize me and my siblings  to believe that only one gender gets to wield power. He made me feel like my only role in life was to please men: to look sexy for men, to be skinny so men will like my body, to let men do what they desired to me and my body. This sexualization and grooming of young girls to become the perfect wife for their husbands is a common example of archaic gender norms—heteronormative roles that are deeply engrained and entangled in our daily social lives. These roles also contribute to the power gap that exists between men and women in basically all social arenas, the workforce being a principal example. 

This separation of power, along with a plethora of other issues are what the SAVP Office focuses on. SAVP has numerous resources for Vassar students, including the opportunity to report any assault, abuse, harassment or stalking scenarios. I personally never reported any of the times I was assaulted because that process is daunting and not something I thought would bring about my healing. This article, simultaneously a formal telling of my own experiences in my own words, is meant to be a jumping-off point for the sharing of knowledge and information—for continued conversations to bring about healing. I don’t have any concrete solutions on how to alter the campus culture or society to eradicate sexual assault, violence and abuse. But I do think people need to feel comfortable enough to come out of the dark, out of the silence—to share narratives, to learn, to grow and to change behavior. One goal of the SAVP Office this year is to increase campus engagement, so this article is also an attempt to encourage everyone at Vassar to become more informed on these issues—because they most likely have affected you or at least one person close to you in your life, and probably on this campus. 

Resources:

If you have experienced sexual assault, rape, relationship abuse and/or stalking, it is not your fault and you are not alone. We are here to help. 

SAVP Office (M-F during work hours): (845) 437-7863,  [email protected]

In case of an emergency, call 911 or Vassar Safety & Security at (845) 437-7333

SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) Advocate (24/7): call (845) 437-7333 and ask for SART 

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