I was a junior when the article from The Eye about how student organizations are addressing sexual assault came out. I found myself curled up in my Hewitt bed, crying into my pillow with the article open on my phone. I never got to the end.
It has been over two and a half years, and he still visits my dreams now and then. “He” has become complicated—he is no longer two separate perpetrators, but an idea that haunts me. The bedroom in which I’ve been sheltering in place is the one I came home to after the first assault, at the end of the summer after my first year of college. That night, my parents texted me asking if I was OK. I didn’t know better than to say yes.
When I returned to school for my sophomore year, I was still coping with the experience of my rejecting advances being seen as an invitation, of my words seeming empty, and of my body being seen as separate from those words. I had turned to a trusted friend to share about how my first assault had been impacting me, and he betrayed my trust, becoming a second perpetrator in my story who showed I made a mistake in thinking he cared what my words meant or how my body felt.
That semester, I had shared a post about the #MeToo movement and said I had mixed thoughts about it. At the time, I was a writer for a campus blog and had brought up writing about the movement. The blog’s editors didn’t know it, but that was the first time I felt ready to tell my story.
But my idea was shut down; one of the editors said she didn’t like the movement and I was told that it wouldn’t fit the style of the site. So when someone from Spectator messaged me asking if I’d like to write an op-ed about #MeToo, I felt seen and excited to sort through my thoughts on how it intersected with my own experiences. Yet when the editor at Spectator realized that I was part of another campus news organization, I couldn’t write the op-ed because it would be a conflict of interest.
The next semester, I ended up joining Spectator’s photo section, and I learned I would still not be allowed to write an op-ed, as it could again be a conflict of interest. Journalistic ethical codes are a crucial part of the free press and I value them greatly. When reporting, I have always filtered out any possible personal stakes, but at the time, I didn’t understand how writing a piece about my experience with sexual assault would impact my credibility as a photojournalist. That’s the difference between an op-ed and a senior column.
What turned my cases of being physically violated into a long fight to be heard was when my second assailant texted me asking why I had been avoiding him, and I reminded him of what he did and why it upset me. He responded defensively without taking accountability, which was disheartening enough, but what was worse was that he had a leadership position in a campus organization we were both in, and his role was one of the positions in charge of all social events, including our upcoming spring break trip.
I told one of the club leaders what had happened, and told her again when I found out about his concerning past: another woman had also been taken advantage of by him and had been severely impacted by the experience. He had helped ensure she would be silenced when she tried to tell her story. When I connected with her, I received the statement of facts she had tried to report and saw striking similarities in how we trusted him as a friend, how he spoke to us, and even the way he locked the door behind him.
My club leader wasn’t sure what to do with the information, and I couldn’t decide whether to attend our trip. On one hand, I was disgusted and scared—not just for myself, but for my peers, since it didn’t seem he would face repercussions by the club. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to have that power over me. Respecting consent was a frequent topic in our club’s culture, and it would be dishonest to pretend those conversations served as a bulletproof shield against violating boundaries in our own community. So I decided to tell one of the leaders that this felt hypocritical, and—even though she initially told me she was “sorry that I can’t kick him off the trip for you”—it was decided that my team in the program would not be attending the trip if he was part of it.
As club leaders drafted an email to tell him the decision, they told me that they wanted to make sure I approved of the letter delivering the news before they sent it to him. I really appreciated being included in the process, but when I was bcc’ed on the email to him, it looked different. One of the leaders of the group had edited and sent the email without my permission. The edit after I approved the letter was this:
“Due to your perpetration of a non-consensual sexual action with someone in this program and to the defensive way you responded when this person reached out, along with another event in your history involving the perpetration of non-consensual sexual actions, we will not be moving forward with this year’s Spring Break trip if you attend.”
While action was taken, the comfort I had felt from being included was shattered. The reason I had decided to speak up was not simply because of my incident with him but because of his patterned behavior and inability to hold himself accountable or admit to wrongdoing. Hearing the other woman’s experience proved what I see as a survivor’s worst nightmare in not reporting: that it would happen again to someone else. I thought that if he knew this was about more than one experience, then maybe he would have understood a bit better.
When I expressed my concern regarding the edited email to leaders of the club, they told me that my incident is valid enough to use as the reason for the email. I could see that to them, this was a way of validating my experience, which I appreciated, but to me, they were telling me how to feel and had betrayed my trust.
Before there was a sign of action regarding the spring break trip, I filed a report with the Columbia Title IX office. I compiled information from my text messages, photos, and the other woman’s statements. I received an email that said the incident I experienced “may meet the definition of Gender-Based Misconduct,” and that I can set up a time for a non-mandatory meeting.
“Gender-Based Misconduct” was highlighted in blue, in what looked like a fill-in-the-blank. There was a list of campus resources attached, but I didn’t bother because I thought I had been using the right one.
I set up a meeting to talk through my report, which resulted in me sitting down with someone whose job it was to tell me that I could pursue a report but it would take time and could only be on behalf of my own experience. I could no longer include the experiences of the now two other women I knew who had had unpleasant experiences with him. When I asked questions, I was met with a cold reminder that the Title IX employee’s job was not to talk about the details of my case. What I imagined would be a new support system really just felt like another failed attempt at telling my story, and I left it at that.
He wouldn’t be attending the trip, and that was justice enough, right? Yet on the trip, an older member of the club—someone who I saw as an unofficial leader—cracked a joke about how he wasn’t there. She clearly had no idea why he didn’t come. That worried me. The members of my community still didn’t know why my mood shifted when he was around. They also didn’t know to be a little more careful around one of our group leaders.
I told my club leaders that I wanted our group to know what had been happening behind closed doors in our program. They seemed on board and said it would be best for me to share my story in-person instead of through an email. Yet when it was hard to fit the time into the club meeting schedule, they took back their previous recommendation and suggested I write an email. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so, but the Take Back the Night rally and speakout was happening soon, which would be the perfect platform to share my experience with my peers who wanted to hear—or so I thought. A club leader told me she would gather people together at the end of the meeting and they would meet me there. I spoke at the rally instead of attending the club meeting as planned, and at the speakout later, I waited and waited to share my story until my fellow club members arrived. Not a single one showed up.
Even after the spring break trip, he signed off on emails as a social chair. When I messaged our group chat with the once-responsive leaders about him still holding his position, no one responded. I get it, dealing with sexual assault can be exhausting. Ironically, I texted a friend about how this upset me, and he didn’t respond either.
A year later, as I laid crying on my Hewitt bed, I wasn’t upset with anyone in particular. I was upset that I had continuously felt like my story had been silenced—whether by my assailant, by a club with my peers who had been chanting slogans about being family and loving each other, or by journalistic ethics that, at the time, felt more like bureaucratic rules.
This is a story I’ve wanted to tell in so many different ways throughout the past couple of years at Columbia. Different moments have triggered inspiration—when the receptionist at the Barnard Primary Care Health Service loudly asked me, “But why are you here?” in the waiting room when I handed her a notecard saying that I wanted to talk to an OB-GYN; when a healthcare provider asked me, “When you’re in these situations, why don’t you just leave?”; when someone sent in a Columbia Confessions post about their experience being sexually assaulted at a specific fraternity on campus, and despite the organization being tagged multiple times, no one responded to hold its members accountable; when Title IX wasn’t what I had expected it to be; and when only about 20 people showed up to the Take Back the Night rally, which had drawn close to 700 attendees in the past. But I could not write about any of these experiences for Spec, because, as I was told, journalists must remain objective, and writing such a piece could skew that perception.
As a graduating senior, I have had some distance from this story, and it is not just rooted in vivid memories but also in texts, emails, and documents. I write this to hopefully encourage people to realize that even when you’re trying to do the right thing for someone, you’re not exempt in your ability to hurt them.
As a journalist, it is important for me to tell the truth, and I am finally telling my story.
Enjoy leafing through our 10th issue!