Breaking the silence surrounding sexual assault

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Those of you who read the 2013 retrospective issue of The Daily Californian might already know I have recently “outed” myself as a sexual assault survivor. This decision was not an easy one, and with it has resurfaced much of the confusion I faced in the months after I was assaulted. We react to discussions about rape and sexual assault in a complicated way, with a strange combination of fascination and anxiety. Maybe this is why, in spite of a growing epidemic of sexual violence, discourse about these issues is disturbingly scarce.

A few years ago, sexual violence was not something that crossed my mind very often. I knew it happened, probably more than I was aware of. But it happened to other women, not to anyone that I knew, and certainly not to me. In early 2012 when I invited a friend over to my apartment, things got out of hand, and before I knew it, he was gone and I had been sitting in the shower for mire than an hour, bewildered and angry. In one night, my entire world was turned upside down.

In the months following my assault, one of the biggest challenges I faced was a profound and lingering feeling of doubt. As I struggled to make sense of what had happened to me, I constantly asked myself whether I truly felt that I had been assaulted, whether I was remembering everything the way it had really happened, whether I was doing the right thing by coming forward about it. It is my understanding that this reaction is common, but we live in a culture that gives survivors very little reassurance. When recounting my story to UC Berkeley’s Title IX officer, I was repeatedly asked the questions, “Are you sure?” and, “Well, did you say no then?” (I do not recall ever being asked if I had said “yes.”)

My feelings of doubt were not helped by the unfortunate myth that women lie about rape to get attention, and I think this is one of the reasons many women do not talk about sexual violence. It’s a lose-lose situation. If we are silent, we cannot seek justice or create change. But when we speak up, we are often labeled as attention-seeking. The more open and honest we are about our experiences, the more others question the legitimacy of our stories. And so we are coerced into silence.

Silence is dangerous because it allows our community to ignore the problem. Last May, the Daily Cal published an opinion piece called “The feminist conundrum.” The general idea I drew from it is that men and women have already achieved equality and that the contemporary feminist movement has been reduced to misguided animosity toward men, exorbitant political demands and loads of kicking and screaming about nothing. I do not believe the author of the piece understands the extent to which gender-based violence occurs, even in Berkeley, even in 2014. I have neither the background nor the space to write here about what the feminist movement is and is not, but I do know that sexual violence against women is a reality in our community.

In the months after I was assaulted, I struggled to concentrate on school. For several weeks, the student who assaulted me remained on campus, and I was afraid to go to class. I was depressed, and some days I did not leave my apartment because I could not stop crying. Ultimately, my assailant was suspended from school and given a reflective writing assignment. But next year, he will be allowed to return to UC Berkeley and complete his degree. Why a student can be expelled for plagiarism or cheating but not for sexual violence against another student is beyond me.

My experience is not unique. Through the support network I had following my assault, I met a group of women who had also survived sexual assault. Every one of these women is smart, beautiful, articulate and compassionate. None of them deserved what happened to them. They helped me heal and grow, and I feel so privileged to have met them. At the same time, I am enraged by how they have been treated, not only by their assailants but also by their friends, by law enforcement officials and by campus administration (Ask any of us — we do not “run this shit.”)

I want to return to my initial question about why I have chosen to out myself as a survivor in such a public forum. I chose to identify myself by name because I am seeking justice through change, for myself and for other survivors at UC Berkeley. And there will never be change if we allow our community to ignore what is happening. We are not a set of statistics on a crime log. We are your classmates, your colleagues, your friends. The problem is real, and it’s right in front of you.

Nicoletta Commins is a 2013 UC Berkeley graduate.

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