Content warning: This article deals with issues of sexual violence.
What happened to me wasn’t necessarily rape, but it also wasn’t something I wanted.
On a frigid night in February of my first year, I attended a party for a student organization I was absolutely ecstatic to be a part of. While mingling with new friends and sipping on a very poorly poured screwdriver, I remember the night falling into a drunken haze. I was definitely tipsy, but not close to the most inebriated I had ever been—or so I thought.
I remember most of the night as a series of confusing moments: picking up another red Solo cup, fumbling to get my ID from the desk at East Campus, almost tripping down the Law School stairs, lying naked in a dorm with a semi-stranger inside me.
I can’t tell you whether or not I was drugged, although my blacking out after only a few drinks seems to indicate this. I can’t tell you who took off my clothes. I can’t tell you what I did or did not say to him as it all happened. What I do know is that as soon as I fully understood what was happening to me, I shifted his body off of mine and immediately started dressing myself, struggling to keep balance and get back to my dorm.
I’m most terrified by how inevitable it all felt: not that I wouldn’t be able to stop him, but that the choice to resist his sexual advances wasn’t even possible in my inebriated state. But I’m also not comfortable calling this student a rapist. It might be because my experience doesn’t fit the traditional rape narrative concocted by society and spoon-fed to us through Columbia’s required sexual violence programs. This narrative tells us that you say “no,” and that the other individual will physically coerce you; I’m still not sure if this happened to me. It tells us that you’ll know immediately that you’ve been raped; I brushed aside my trauma for about two weeks before I found myself crying about it alone in my dorm. It tells us that if you’re too drunk to consent, then it is automatically rape; I don’t even know what it feels like to be too drunk to actually consent. And conversations about these gray areas just don’t happen as widely as they should on campus.
When your assault narrative doesn’t fit into this box, you’re left not knowing a lot of things. What I do know is that seeing him around campus or in a photo online still makes me nauseous.
This student still attends Columbia—he’s even a campus celebrity of sorts, involved a great deal in various extracurricular activities. I also see him twice a week in a large lecture class. I think what infuriates me the most about my situation isn’t that he still attends this institution; it’s that he’s still loved by peers at Columbia, who either don’t know about what he did to me or simply don’t care. Charismatic, funny, and entertaining, his presence is warmly regarded by many student organizations, including one that my ex-significant other—who knew about my encounter—actively participates in. Since he appears to be a very unlikely perpetrator, the culture surrounding consent at Columbia enables him to continue his charmed student existence.
There are student organizations that carry out nuanced and important conversations about consent, assault, and rape on campus: AllSex, Take Back the Night, No Red Tape, and Sexual Violence Response, just to name a few. But after our first required training session on consent during NSOP, a lot of students here, particularly male students, have not been furthering their thoughts and conversations on these imperative topics. They hold true to the important basics: “No means no, yes means yes,” but they don’t dig much deeper. If we all continued these difficult conversations after the awkwardness of orientation, I’m inclined to believe that cases like mine would be less common.
I know that reporting him and the unsettling encounter of that night now wouldn’t be of much use for my own healing. I also know that my case is not unique on this campus. As our sexual violence education reinforces black-and-white phrases like “no means no,” we must recall that while not all cases are this simple, no one should have to experience what I did that night.
The author is a Barnard College junior.