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The way we talk about sexual violence is violent

feel your feelings

Content warning: This column includes an account of sexual harassment. 

“You mean you have a lot of friends who have experienced sexual violence?

Did you ever encourage them to report it?”

This is not what I wanted to be thinking about.

On Valentine’s Day, surrounded by hearts and roses and love, I was in a position to offer feedback about Duke’s administration to a group of outside observers when the conversation inevitably turned to sexual violence. My body did what it always does when the conversation turns to sexual violence, when Harvey Weinstein or Brett Kavanaugh or Jeffrey Epstein’s faces flash across my screen, when another friend tells me about something terrible that happened to them. My fingers tremble. My palms and armpits sweat. My face and my jaw tense up. My stomach hurts.

It’s happening as I write this.

I have never experienced sexual assault, at Duke or otherwise. That does not mean that I have never experienced sexual violence. And it does not mean that my experience of Duke was free from the fear, shame and horror that comes with living in a culture marred by sexual violence.

48% of female-identifying students and 13.5% of male-identifying students at Duke surveyed last year said that they had been assaulted while students here. That means I’ve sat with more than a few people I loved while they told me that it happened to them this time.

We’ve cried. We’ve gone to the Women’s Center. I’ve sent links, talked about “No Contact” directives, talked about the five confidential resources, talked about emailing their dean or their professors. I told them what I knew about what their options were.

Did I do something wrong by not pushing my friends to report, even when they had made it clear that they didn’t want to report?

That question relies on the assumption that, if more students would report their experiences with sexual violence, less sexual violence would happen. I don’t know that I believe that that’s true. 

Sexual violence happens at Duke because Duke students commit sexual violence. Reporting it when it happens certainly gives leadership at Duke a better understanding of what sexual violence looks like. Theoretically, it could stop a perpetrator from committing another act of violence, although only a miniscule number of cases resulted in a perpetrator being found responsible.

But by the time a student is sexually assaulted on campus, chances are that they have already learned that half of the women they saw at orientation would be assaulted by the time they got to graduation. Why would they then subject themselves to the trauma of reporting, with no faith that it would change the outcome of their own lives, or the lives of their peers?

When we limit the focus of our strategies to reporting, we make it seem like the only people who can fix sexual violence are sexual violence survivors. We make it seem like someone has done something wrong when they choose not to report. We implicitly blame not only one singular person, but all people who experienced sexual assault and did not report it, for the violence that dwells on our campus. That blame is, on its own, a violence.

Blaming the very group of people who were victimized for being victimized ignores the fact that sexual assaults have perpetrators. Those perpetrators arrive at orientation and leave after graduation having committed a heinous crime, not because someone didn’t report it, but because they were not stopped from committing violence against someone in the first place.

I was fourteen years old when an older boy that I knew sent me pictures of his erect penis and of his naked body to me via Snapchat. I remember opening the first one standing in the doorway between my 8th grade science room and my choir room. By the end of the day, he had sent more. I saw them all. I deleted my account. And I didn’t tell anybody.

Did I do something wrong by not reporting it?

I feel like I did.

I didn’t.

On Valentine’s Day, surrounded by hearts and roses and love, I was a ninth-grader with a back brace again walking to choir rehearsal again. When I moved into my dorm on Central Campus, late on a cold night in January, remembering that haunting DukeAlert, I was that ninth-grader again. When I was in Shooters last fall, sober, my eyes darting from friend to friend to friend to make sure that they were safe, I was that ninth-grader again.

Even though it has been years since I thought so viscerally of what happened to me then—how I saw that man many times afterwards and never said anything, how he’s a real person with a Facebook profile and I never said anything, how he could have done this to other fourteen-year-olds and I never said anything—I feel like I did something wrong. I feel that way because I live in a culture that has said it is not only my fault for being harassed, but my fault that this violent person faced no consequences.

You don’t have to have been one of the people who leaves Duke affected by an assault to leave Duke affected by assault. Shame, stigma and victim-blaming are in the very air we breathe, from move-in day to graduation day. It’s why so few people report. And it’s why so many people assault.

If we’re going to stop sexual violence on campus, or at the very least make sure it happens to fewer people, we certainly must make reporting easier, must make sure people feel seen and heard every step of the process. But it is going to take far more than a better reporting process for students to feel safe on this campus. It is going to take a fundamental shift in whose responsibility we believe it is to keep people safe.

Because I know that what happened to me was not my fault. What happened to the people I love was not their fault. And if you’re reading this and your jaw is tight, your palms sweaty, your stomach sick, it is not your fault either. You haven’t done anything wrong.

I will say that over and over again, the next time it happens and the next, until I believe it to be true for myself.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who misses Rebecca Torrence so much.  Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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