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Drama response

guest column

Content warning: This column discusses sexual assault and its aftermath. 

I was raped when I was 16 years old. It’s taken me six years now to use that word, but I figure accuracy is important when you’re working towards acceptance. The boy who did it attended my brother school. Although he was one of my best friends at the time, what he did severed my loyalty to him, and I made sure everybody knew what had happened. 

I told my best friends, my group project partners, my advisory. I told them to tell everyone that they knew too. If I was approached about it, I sat down and told whoever had asked, even those classmates I didn’t really care for. Soon I was leading roundtable talks about assault, male entitlement, and consent education on the grimy carpets of my high school’s locker-lined halls. 

So when he wrote me a letter detailing his grievances with the “rumors” whispered by our peers at not only my high school but his, I wasn’t shocked. Everything had gone according to plan. I never considered pressing charges; I was a drunken party girl and he was a respected student at a prestigious all boy’s school. We lived in Dallas, Texas. Justice simply wouldn’t have been served, and I don’t believe in that form of justice anyway. I didn’t go to his school administrators either. They didn’t teach sex-ed past fifth grade, so how were they to handle a rape case appropriately?

Informing my community about what had happened to me wasn’t a calculated decision. In fact, it wasn’t a decision at all. When, after two days of blurry thoughts (traumatized brains are excellent at muddling a memory), I realized what he had done, the words spilled out of me. The dam built of shame and fear and betrayal burst open, allowing a swell of red-faced rants and hot tears and gory details to flood the space around me.

My confessions felt natural to me. The bitter words came as naturally as crossing my legs, clearing the table after dinner, fighting with my dad. They felt natural to me, specifically the part of me that’s a woman. 

Women and girls are often shamed for so-called gossip, but what outsiders fail to see is that–in the face of institutions, legal and otherwise, that disregard our wellbeing–whispers between class are often the only shield we have.

When I got to Duke freshman year, I was promptly sexually assaulted again. I thought I was immune, having already survived one bout of this particular strain of violation, but that was foolish of me. Who is more susceptible to assault than a woman in college?

This time, I didn’t tell a soul. I didn’t even tell myself until last year. When I finally let the words escape my lips, they came out with a question mark. I couldn’t understand how it had happened again, how my brain, desperate to erase it, had hidden it from me for so long. 

Again, my silence wasn’t a decision. I’m still not sure how I found myself with thread binding my lips and a padlocked memory in my mind, but it might have been me who threaded the needle and threw away the key. 

This delayed revelation was not of one past trauma, but two. Not only did I realize what I was forced to endure on the car ride home from that g-d forsaken O-Week darty, but what I had forced myself to endure in high school. 

By opening myself up, I stopped my assaulter from inflicting the same damage to anyone else around me. But with every admission, my pages tore and my ink faded. By graduation, I lay tattered on those same old carpets with a cracked spine.

Everybody I told enjoyed a more impenetrable shield, but I had been ripped completely open. Everyone knew not only what he did, but what had happened to me. I was a plush doll in a social worker’s office, and everybody could point to exactly where he had touched me. I loved to be their protector, but that required an unanticipated sacrifice of my already damaged privacy and sanity.

With my second round in the ring, the sacrifice was reversed, and I was left feeling no more sane than I did in high school. By refusing to become another open wound, I may have protected myself, but I sacrificed my community. Both of my assaulters walk free, but at least the first is seen for who he is. 

I can’t alone decide how we as a community should handle instances of sexual assault, but my experiences–specifically the divide between them–have informed my best theory. 

As a former member of Greek life, a current co-president of the Sexual Assault Prevention Team, and simply a woman at Duke, I’ve been a part of countless conversations about the rampant sexual assualt that happens on and off of our campus. These conversations seem to fall into one of two camps, which align perfectly with my disparate responses to my own assaults. Either we tell all or reveal nothing. Both are harmful in their own ways.

Protecting perpetrators only opens ourselves up for further harm, but disregarding survivors’ privacy is a further violation. We need to strike a balance here. As our institutions have proven time and time again, it is indeed up to us to protect ourselves from those who commit these harms. But we cannot enact the second harm of converting these heinous acts into petty drama.

We all know, hopefully, that it doesn’t matter what the survivor was wearing, what they drank, or how many people they have hooked up with. But it also doesn’t matter who the survivor is friends with, what social group they are in, whether or not they have a significant other. It doesn’t matter how rich they are, where they interned last summer, if they have been deemed “cool.” It doesn’t matter if they are obnoxious or annoying or loud or any of the other qualities we crucify our peers for. They were assaulted, violated, and treated as less than a human being. A harm has been inflicted upon them they may never recover from, no matter how much DBT they pay for. I know I won’t.

Sexual assault isn’t drama. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to a lot of people, and I promise they don’t want their trauma recapped at your hungover Sunday brunch.

I am not arguing that we stop shielding ourselves by word of mouth. I urge you to share predators’ names and talk with your friends about creeps at parties. Do everything you can to protect your community from this universal harm. But please also do everything you can to protect survivors. When you go to say their name, say their abuser’s instead. Make sure you aren’t ripping them apart more than they already have been.

We have to protect ourselves, but it cannot be at the expense of survivors. Our privacy has been invaded enough.

Ali Hurst is a Trinity senior. 


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