Content warning: This article deals with sexual assault.
Last night, things went further with a boy. And as I write this, I have an instinct to add a “than” after: further than, further than. Further than what? I really liked the boy, but things had gone a little too far. Too far, comparatively. Compared to what I wanted, compared to what I expected. Last night things went further with a boy than—but it’s really no big deal.
When it happened, I didn’t even say a word. Or, rather, I did say a few words, but he didn’t hear them. Or maybe I was too drunk and they didn’t make any sense. It’s really no big deal. Words aren’t that important. Because the fact is that last night, things went further than with a boy, and this morning, I feel off.
It’s probably just a hangover, I tell myself. I must have drunk too much last night. Or maybe it’s because it’s one of the first times things ever went further with a boy, and I’m not used to it. That’s what it is: Things are just breaking in.
I’ll go take a shower. Showers are my favorite part of the day. The water is scalding hot, and my skin is bright red with warmth, and I can just think and sing and write poems on the foggy shower door. I wonder if a shower can make things feel not so broken-in.
But after you break in a pair of shoes, aren’t they worn? Can you unbreak a pair of shoes? You ought to be able to. And so my index finger draws the bow of a “b” on the shower door as little droplets scurry downwards, forging their own unalphabetized path. And the droplets follow with every bend, as my “b” befriends an “r,” and a curve loops into a circle, and my “k” is indistinguishable from my “r,” and an “e” goes on a roller coaster ride, and my finger slides down the Captain Hooked “n.”
I step back into the stream of water and let the heat build up on my back. And I take a good look at my drawing. Broken. The heat’s in my gut, in my neck, in my head, and my heart is pounding. I didn’t say a few words last night. I said one word. And I had repeated it. And now I feel off and uncomfortable, like the soap isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Or maybe my skin doesn’t feel how it’s supposed to be feeling—like it’s not mine, like it’s not wrapped around a body, this body, my body.
I wipe the word away and step out of the shower. I had just put the hot water on too high.
During my first week at Barnard, a friend of mine told me that a girl came to her class carrying a mattress. My second week, I stumbled upon a rally on Low Steps where over 100 students, faculty, and alumni held up signs and protested the way Columbia handled sexual assault on campus.
I had never even heard the term “sexual assault” until the Obama administration made headlines in May 2014 for launching an investigation into how 55 institutions handled sexual assault cases. That was a month before I graduated high school, but long after things had gone further than with this boy. But, again, it was no big deal.
The words sexual assault, on the other hand, were a big deal. When I heard survivors tell their stories through a megaphone and watched their anger and pain, I remembered the night things had been broken in. But if that night wasn’t a big deal, why was I thinking about it now, in front of people who were talking about things that were big deals? Why did it feel like something was punching me in the gut, like my peripheral vision was going dark, like my body was being doused in sweat?
It was probably just the weather—I had spent too much time in the sun.
Last night, things went further than, and I’ve taken four showers since.
My first semester at Barnard, I joined Spectator as an associate editorial page editor.I’d spent a friendless NSOP during which I’d wander to parks hoping to run into fellow first-years and then proceed to nap on benches in lonely dejection. So when I did run into someone I knew, I followed him to the “Opinion Open House.” And because he put his name down and I wanted to be his friend, I put my name down too—despite not even knowing what an opinion section was.
That semester was spent training. I would shadow the editorial page editor for hours on end, stare at the back of his head, vaguely listen to the words he was saying, and scrutinize his shiny hair. I decided I should learn what the difference between opinion and news was before attempting to edit the former.
So I read. I read an op-ed asking for students to help Emma Sulkowicz carry her mattress, to be allies, to be proactive. I read the news that students were actually coming through on that call for action, and that the movement was growing. I read the New York Magazine cover story that essentially cemented this movement: Students were done staying silent in the face of rape culture, and discussions about sexual assault were happening right here, right now. And I read the skeptical comments calling Sulkowicz a liar, saying she was looking for attention, criticizing her for every move she made. Spec decided to close comments on op-eds related to sexual assault because of how hateful and vitriolic they got. And I felt that same gut punch, tunnel vision, and sweat with every piece I read.
I had come to Barnard just barely aware that “no meant no.” Maybe he just hadn’t heard me say it; maybe I was too drunk to say it. But I read that that wasn’t enough, because if I was too drunk to say it, I was too drunk for things to be broken in.
Last night, things went further than with a boy, and tonight I’m going to bed telling myself it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe sleep will help. Maybe the space between my thighs won’t feel so unfamiliar tomorrow.
Every time I close my eyes, though, strange symptoms wash over my body, and last night replays itself in my head. I watch things go further than, and I hear myself saying a word. I know I said it, and I don’t want to rewatch it, but the curve loops into a circle, and I watch myself over and over again. Things were broken in.
My second semester at Barnard was spent reading more and thinking about how to edit. That same semester, an article tried to disprove Sulkowicz's rape by using friendly Facebook exchanges as evidence, and another piece defended Sulkowicz. That same semester, Rolling Stone retracted an article detailing a pseudonymous woman’s fabricated rape at the University of Virginia.
After the Rolling Stone scandal, the members of the opinion section sat down together, and we talked about fact-checking stories of sexual assault. During the entire meeting, questions about one night, that night circled in my head. How might I be fact-checked? I never reported anything. I never told anyone. I had said a word, repeatedly, and no one heard it; who would listen to me now?
Between my first and second semesters at Barnard, I went home for winter break. I took a shower and looked at the same foggy window I had looked at four times the day I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. The day I cleaned and scrubbed and tried to stop the space between my thighs from making me feel like my body was just a body.
That winter break, I also started journaling, and the first thing I wrote about was what had happened a few years before. I wrote that word and heard it just as clearly as he had—I know he heard it. My experience wasn’t the “perfect” story. I knew the boy, I had been drinking, I didn’t tell anyone, and I kept talking to him afterwards. But it still happened, and I still felt off.
When I came back for my second semester at Barnard, I told my friends why every time they talked about my romantic life, I had an anxiety attack. Because that’s what those symptoms were called—anxiety. I learned that in college, too. And for some reason, putting a name to those painfully familiar symptoms made me feel better.
I told my friends that one night, I had been taken advantage of. There were no words of “things going further than,” or "things getting broken in." My body was not a thing, my body was not an object, my body was not broken—my body was mine.
Two days before the Obama administration cleared out, it added 28 more universities to the list of schools with cases of mishandled sexual assault investigations it had begun compiling two years before. The Obama administration talked about sexual assault on college campuses and put those words on a national stage. I learned those words from them. But what happens when further than means “locker room banter” to our current administration?
My second year at Barnard, I met a psychologist in her office to recruit an op-ed from her about trigger warnings; it was the first time I had ever been in the presence of a mental health professional. And while I was asking her what it meant to feel triggered, for the op-ed of course, all I wanted to do was tell her something, anything, a single word. But I kept quiet, silently living with my own symptoms that were threatening to burst at any time.
As the semesters began to pile on, I lost control of my anxiety, of my body, of the curves looping into circles—the triggers, the word, the questions, the unheard. So I found my way to Furman. And I described the night I had been taken advantage of.
After a few more visits, after learning what dissociating meant and how to cope with anxiety, I came to terms with the fact that I hadn’t been taken advantage of that night; I had been sexually assaulted.
When the president of the United States says that grabbing women by their pussies is no big deal, those words have an impact.We can’t normalize them. Because survivors who have been sexually assaulted can’t be shamed into thinking that their experiences don’t matter and that their voices won’t be heard.
One night, I told a boy “no,” and he sexually assaulted me—and it’s a big deal.
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