How can we find justice for sexual assault survivors?

Illustration of people holding hands in front of Berkeley Police department
Evelyn Zou/Staff

Content warning: Sexual violence and sexual harassment

The first day I stepped foot onto UC Berkeley’s campus, I became a survivor. It was the summer before my freshman year in 2016, when I came to Cal Student Orientation, or CalSO. That day ended up changing me — it began my fight for justice.

At the end of the first day of CalSO, I decided to leave campus to meet up with a friend of mine of two years. He lived in Berkeley but didn’t go to UC Berkeley — not yet, anyway. We walked around Berkeley for a while, catching up. Then we went to visit his apartment.

At his apartment, it wasn’t long before he started making advances. He began to stroke my leg then kiss me, insistently. He escalated things fast. I pushed him away to tell him that I did not want to have sex. I don’t remember if he acknowledged what I said, but he didn’t stop.

The incident involved him forcing me down to give him a blowjob. He mounted me with his hands around my neck, strangling me. He had sex with me. It was violent. It was forceful. It wasn’t an act of pleasure. He didn’t care about my well-being. I was an object he was using. It was torture.

While he was raping me, I don’t remember feeling present. My body was elsewhere. I remember staring at the white plaster wall next to his bed for what felt like hours. After he finished, he acted completely normal and a bit confused by my complete silence and horror. He still walked me back to the residence hall I was staying in.

As is often the case with sexual assault, the psychological damage was just as bad, if not worse, than the rape. For a while, I refused to let myself accept the idea that this was rape. I blamed myself for letting this happen. I told myself that he must have been mistaken and thought I liked it. I couldn’t fathom the alternative. It took a long time to overcome the feeling that I was responsible for this.

Sometimes, when something reminded me of that night or if something triggered me, I experienced episodes of panic and terror. I couldn’t escape the feeling of him going inside me, my windpipe being crushed and my lungs screaming for air. I felt disgusting knowing that he was ever inside of my body. I started to hate myself.

That could have been the end of the story right there, but I eventually decided to go to the PATH to Care Center, the survivor resource center at UC Berkeley. The center put me in contact with a social services counselor at the Tang Center and a group for survivors. Those sessions became really helpful.

After speaking with other survivors, I came to the realization that belies many sexual assaults: If he’s done it to me, he’s probably done it to others.

This was the start of a long journey. Throughout my freshman year, I messaged different women who also knew the man who had assaulted me. Several responded to me with stories of being harassed and even assaulted. I couldn’t believe I had never known that he had done this to other people.

After hearing these testimonies, something changed inside of me. I was enraged. I felt this strong urge to fight and to protect other women because this was a pattern of violence.

While many people had told me reporting would most likely not work, I still decided to report this man to the Berkeley Police Department. After about six months, we heard that he wasn’t going to be charged with anything. The district attorney determined that the evidence did not prove sexual assault beyond a reasonable doubt.

What else could I do now to stop him? I was so angry at the system.

Over the next few years, I continued to speak to women who knew this man. Those conversations led to a flood of stories. I heard stories from women who experienced everything from harassment to coercion, assault and violence.

I didn’t know what to do with this information. I had been encouraging everyone I spoke with to find support for themselves and to consider reporting. But after a while, it began to all feel so futile. Nothing was being accomplished. I was reopening my own scars, and those of the other survivors, by hearing these accounts. So, I stopped contacting people.

However, during the spring semester of this year, totally out of the blue, a student at UC Berkeley contacted me. Her friend had heard that I had been asking around about this man. She shared with me her story that involved him assaulting her. She also told me that he was applying to be a student here in the fall.

After finding this out, I reported him to the campus through the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. I’m hoping this report will be more impactful than the one to BPD, but I just don’t know.

In April, we heard that he was just accepted into UC Berkeley. This serial rapist now goes to UC Berkeley. From my own investigating, I know of more than a dozen people he has harassed or assaulted.

So far, reporting has done nothing. However, I did connect with a network of other survivors. We’ve supported and informed each other when we recounted our stories. It was hearing those stories that made me realize my experience was not an isolated incident. It was also how I overcame believing the assault was my fault and how I learned this was something he was capable of doing to others. That is why I chose to report him and why I try to keep fighting back.

None of that would be possible without the other women and me sharing our stories. And this is why I am continuing to tell my story.

Lucy Bennett is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in environmental science.