I remember his smile as he hands me another drink, bright red, same as the cup. He’s flirting with me, me (!), a freshman, and him, a senior, a cute one. I drink up the attention, the alcohol too, and there seems always to be more alcohol, he makes sure of that. I feel lucky not to have to fight my way to the front of the line at the bar.
The basement becomes a swirl of colors and sounds and an overwhelming feeling of nausea, and I tell him that I’m not well, that I need to go home and lie down. He’s a gentleman: he says that he’ll walk me back to my dorm, see that I make it to bed okay. I lean on him as he half carries me down Webster Ave, across campus, to my room, where I spend five minutes fumbling with the key until he takes it from me and unlocks the door himself.
The light is off, and I’m disoriented, the room spinning around me, and his hands are tight on my waist. He pushes me towards the bed tugging at my jeans. “No.” I whisper it, but he hears me well enough, he answers: “shh, it’s okay.”
“I’ve never had sex I can’t stand up no.” My shirt is already unbuttoned and he’s working on my pants and I try to push him away but he laughs and kisses me and tells me to relax. I’m too drunk to fight back.
“Shh, it’s okay.”
The next morning, I woke up, took a shower, changed the sheets (which were covered in blood) and checked blitz. One message in my inbox: “Hey, I had a lot of fun last night, we should hang out again.”
I want to say that I stayed far away from him, that I understood immediately what had happened to me, that I told someone. But I didn’t. He e-mailed me a week later to ask if he could come over, and I invited him back. I needed to believe that my first time had meant something, to reimagine it as something other than what it had been. I slept with him several more times throughout the term, and every time, after he left, I cried without understanding why. I didn’t feel as though I had a right to be upset.
About a year later, a friend of mine dragged me to the annual sexual assault survivor Speak Out, and I listened as each panelist told some version of my story. I thought: rape happens in alleyways, rape is violent, rape is a stranger in the night. I wasn’t raped. I’m not a victim. But later that night, sobbing uncontrollably, I told my friend, the one who had brought me to the event, “I think I might have been raped.”
Years later, it’s obvious: I said “no,” he said “shh” and pinned my hands over my head. But, at the time, I lacked a definition of rape that encompassed my experience, and when I did finally come to understand why I kept on having nightmares and flashbacks, why I was depressed, why I couldn’t focus on my classwork – by that time, he had graduated, and, even if I had wanted to put myself through the hell of the disciplinary or legal systems, all I had was my word against his.
I started talking, though: I wanted to make sure that others were faster to understand their experiences than I had been. I didn’t expect the sudden flood of stories. More than the large number of women who told me stories that so closely mirrored my own, what horrified me was the small number of men who featured in them. My perpetrator had raped two other women, at least: those are just the ones I know of. And his was not the only name that I heard more than once.
Rape isn’t just a stranger in the night. More often than not, he’s the guy with the nice smile who offers you a beer and another and another. I’ve been blamed for accepting those drinks – hell, I spent plenty of time blaming myself – but the fact is that dozens of people handed me Solo cups over the course of my four years at Dartmouth. Only one of them raped me. It’s not because I got too drunk. It’s because his plan was that I get too drunk. There was no miscommunication.
I never reported my rape – not to Dartmouth, not to the police – but friends of mine did, and what I still struggle to understand is how several women could report being assaulted by the same individual and yet the College took no action against him. Colleges aren’t equipped to investigate rape cases, I get that, but there has to be a mechanism by which people who have been accused repeatedly can be identified. Every report of sexual violence should be seen as an opportunity to flag serial offenders, because that what they are, most of them. College should be a safe place for students, not a safe haven for criminals.