Four of us were at a restaurant to have one last dinner with Sarah before she moved from Ireland to the U.S. Sarah was my fiancée’s best friend in town and an incredibly kind, helpful and optimistic person. That is why we were surprised when she started crying halfway through the meal. She told us the following story.
The night before, Sarah was going to bed when one of her male housemates invited her to pick a book from the bookshelf in his room to bring with her. He had gifted books to her before, so she didn’t think anything of it. When she was in his room, however, he grabbed her from behind. She told him to stop and tried to leave, but he pushed her on the bed and locked the door.
Sarah eventually escaped, partly by letting him kiss her neck while she turned the latch. Her room, however, did not have a key. She spent the entire night leaning against the door, afraid that he might try to enter. In the end, he did try once.
All of us knew this man and liked him. He completed a Ph.D. at the same time I did, and we often hung out together in groups. He was clever, funny and seemingly harmless. In fact, we were all together celebrating the completion of Sarah’s Ph.D. the week before. He would be the last person we thought capable of committing such a heinous act. Sarah, too, could not have seen it coming, especially after having lived with him for two years.
It was difficult to watch Sarah tell the story. She wasn’t a person to usually show her emotions, but she couldn’t hide how much pain she was in. These were the last two days she spent in a place she had called home for five years. Instead of the luxury of nostalgia, however, she was dealing with one of the toughest experiences she ever had. In the end, she decided she couldn’t press charges because that would involve staying in the country longer and flying back for court dates instead of starting her new job. Apparently, the attacker was aware of these logistics because a third housemate eventually admitted that another girl who had lived with them in the past said she experienced something similar the night before she moved away. Regardless of any alcohol involved, the act seemed somewhat premeditated.
This is the first time someone has explicitly told me about their sexual assault. I do not intend to come across as a white male who has self-righteous anger after suddenly stumbling upon a problem that has existed as long as humans have been around. Nor do I want to make this incident about me in any way – after relaying what Sarah said, the only part of the story I have left to tell, or maybe a right to, is what I learned from it. This incident has made me realize that my awareness of sexual assault has always been abstract. It has always felt like a bad thing that happened mostly on TV and not to anyone I knew. I was aware of the mechanisms abusers use to silence their victims and the pressure survivors feel that prevents them from speaking out, but that knowledge was always theoretical. Now I realize that I never really expected it to happen to anyone I knew.
Instead, sexual assault is still startlingly common, even after the #MeToo movement and gains in gender equality. It turns out that, statistically, most people know at least one survivor, even if they’re not aware of who it is. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), nearly one quarter of college females alone report experiencing rape or sexual assault during their college experience. It’s a figure that’s hard to metabolize. It should also be mentioned: Not all victims are female. Instead, it is estimated that 10% of sexual assault survivors are men.
These last few days have caused to me reflect in a way I should have before. Subconsciously, I had always thought of assault to be a woman’s problem. I thought it was enough to not be “one of those guys” who would commit such an act and male responsibility ended there. In truth, I’m still not exactly sure of everything I should do, and I can’t pretend to have the answers now, but I do know that is not enough. In addition to listening and offering empathy to women, men need to be a genuine ally to abuse victims, and that isn’t something that necessarily comes cheaply.
We were all friends with this man, enjoyed his company and thought him to be likable and trustworthy. He was even active in feminist groups. However, I and everyone who was told Sarah’s story now have a decision to make as far as what we will say to him the next time we see him. It can be awkward and difficult to stand with the victim in circumstances like these, which is probably why such tragedies are all too commonly swept under the carpet and another reason the survivor feels encouraged to stay quiet.
Ultimately, we all need to take accountability in preventing future sexual assault and to genuinely support survivors. In addition to educating ourselves on how to talk about these issues, we need to create an environment – both collectively as a society and on the individual level with those we know – in which survivors feel encouraged to share their experiences. When all victims can tell their stories, it not only puts more at stake for the perpetrators but, perhaps more importantly, allows space for the survivors to start the process of healing. In the end, all of us have a responsibility in standing with those affected by assault and in preventing it from happening again.