Content warning: sexual violence
I was 7 when my dad hit me for the first time, and I learned it’s always best to shut the fuck up.
I was in my second year at UC Berkeley, and I had spent a year away from my restrictive family, away from their Catholic guilt and their demands of monolithic “good daughter” obedience. Instead of Sundays at church, I had Fridays on fraternity row and Saturdays at whatever co-op party I could finesse my way into. I was a freshly minted “czar” now (a beloved term for the residents of Casa Zimbabwe), and hungry for the approval of the older, more seasoned residents of CZ. They did lines of blow till the a.m., got fucked up on Four Lokos and caused havoc — and for some reason I wanted to be just like them. I’d have done anything for their approval.
In September of my second year, I was sexually assaulted by one of these older, more seasoned residents of CZ.
I said and did nothing. I was afraid of not being believed. I was afraid that the managers, his friends, would refuse to process the case. I was afraid that people would say I was trying to get back at him for not wanting to date me; that they would say I was bitter, I was a slut, I was immature, I was a social-climbing liar. I reached in myself to find an answer, a direction, and I remembered a childhood lesson — it’s always best to shut the fuck up.
In the summer before my third year, I attended a consent workshop at my co-op. The conversation became about a survivor’s experience in the house after being assaulted by a manager. They talked about her fear openly: her fear of reporting, her fear of not being believed. I had to leave the room, feeling the ground oscillate between spinning and shrinking. I threw up in the sink and sat on the floor of my living room. My roommate brought me a glass of ice water, and between heaving breaths, I held her hand and told her everything.
In my third year, I became the president of my co-op. I opened and oversaw 10 cases against 10 assailants over the course of the academic year. All of these assailants were men. The few who received immediate sympathy and public defense were the white men. A majority of the 10 assailants were low-income, were participants in the Educational Opportunity Program and identified as men of color. I watched as the Berkeley Student Cooperative struggled to comprehend the double-edged sword of internalized violence, unable to swallow the hard pill of racialized hypermasculinity or the violence of machismo culture.
I watched as people gradually found sympathy for these assailants, for their pain in existing in a society that demands hypermasculine, hateful, aggressive men — and how this sympathy eclipsed any desire to find healing for survivors. I watched survivors’ fear, pain and trauma become an afterthought. I sat with the pain of it all, 10 times.
I spoke to 10 survivors. I looked them in the eye, and I told them I would listen and not judge. I reminded myself to never say, “I know how you feel. I know what you are going through.” Ten times, I heard their stories. Ten times, I wrote down the graphic details of their encounters so they could be used as notes for their hearings and references for their case statements. I never wanted their bodies to re-experience that trauma, even through their fingertips. After it all, I would shred these notes. Each time I prayed the memories could be disposed of alongside the shreds.
Ten times, I explained to them that their names would not go on any documents, that they didn’t need to sign any papers and that I would sign on their behalf. Ten times I filled out the reporting form and went into the central office to discuss the details of the cases. Ten times I pled for the conduct committee to be lenient on the rules; I said that 48 hours isn’t enough for everyone to find healing, that reporting isn’t the answer for every survivor. Ten times I asked for them to believe these 10 anonymous women and men.
And each time, I questioned how I could go through this process over and over again. Each time I wondered why I had ever believed I had to shut the fuck up, why I didn’t deserve to access my voice, my agency, why I didn’t deserve to report. Each time a case resulted in a not guilty verdict, an assailant getting to stay in the house, a backlash from community members, I found my answer. Each time one of my 10 beautiful, powerful survivors left the conduct process empty-handed, I blamed myself.
I’m a senior now, and my newsfeed is filled with Dr. Anita Hill’s and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimonies. My newsfeed is filled with their tears and their courage. My inbox is filled with Nixle updates of rape and sexual assault in the residence halls and on fraternity row. My classrooms, my co-op, my life are filled to the brim with survivors. Parts of me have died 10 times in total for them all.
When people ask what my thoughts are on what is happening, the only words I can find are, you should believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors. Believe survivors.
Rizza writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected] .