“But was it really that bad?”

I stayed in the shower for 45 minutes after I was sexually assaulted.

I stayed in there for so long that the woman who cleaned the sixth floor of Hayes-Healy gave up on waiting for me to leave and began to power-clean the shower stalls across the room.

It had taken me that entire 45-minute span — the first time I’d truly been alone since the incident — to come to grips with the fact that the experience didn’t sit right with me. However, I didn’t want to acknowledge, even to myself, the magnitude of the situation. Instead, I confided in a few of my friends. I told them that I felt gross, violated and vile. I told them about the bruises on my body and how I pushed back and how I felt sick recalling the memory.

It was only when I heard the words out loud — when my friend looked me dead in the eye and said, “Hayley, you were sexually assaulted.” — that I felt the gut-punch of realization that, yes, I was a victim.

When we experience trauma, we oftentimes try to rationalize it and hesitate to assign labels to the experience. Labels make things real, and I didn’t want my experience to be real.

However, as is often the case with victims of sexual assault, not all my interactions were as understanding. Instead of being greeted with understanding, I was interrogated.

Over multiple months, friends and acquaintances (mostly male) constantly asked me to participate in a twisted verbal version of “show me on this doll where he touched you.”

With all the tact of an off-brand “Law and Order: SVU” detective, they’d begin to ask qualifying questions. They’d ask if either party was drunk or if I’d explicitly said “no,” and then they’d probe me for answers until they reached the almighty question for victims of sexual assault:

“Okay, but did he… rape you?”

If your answer is “no,” the reaction is mostly one of unmistakable relief, as though informing you that the fact that you weren’t explicitly raped means it couldn’t have been “that bad.” This left me to wonder whether I was assaulted “enough” to even tell anybody what had happened.

In order to have any hope of changing the toxic culture around sexual assault, we firstly need to stop approaching those who have been assaulted with a judgemental eye.

Part of the problem with asking victims to qualify their experiences, I believe, lies in the assumption that victims — particularly women — are prone to exaggeration. We’re dramatic. And when a victim tells their story, what took a tremendous amount of courage is usually viewed as a cry for attention or pity.

While there are differing levels of severity amongst acts of sexual assault, trauma is trauma. To insinuate that a survivor should not feel violated if their experience was not as severe as it could have been is like saying that I shouldn’t feel pain for spraining a finger when I could have sawed my whole arm off. When put into terms of physical injury, qualifying the mere phenomenon of pain seems irrational. However, when you use that argument for emotional and mental trauma, suddenly the whole concept goes up for debate.

This is not to say that the exact details are not important. Legally, they are crucial. However, a conversation is not a courtroom, and treating a victim as though their experience is illegitimate only further discourages them and works to strengthen a system that is fundamentally flawed in its treatment of these cases.

Coming forward is absolutely terrifying. It is especially so with the knowledge that, statistically, it is highly unlikely that anything will even come of an investigation. The whole prospect of rehashing your trauma is made even more intimidating when you begin to doubt whether you even have a case at all — wondering if you “invited” the behavior or if you’re just overreacting altogether.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to me, and this article is not a rehashing of a subconscious grudge I hold against people who have inquired about my experience. Many questions come from a good place and can be helpful. However, picking an experience apart to measure its relative severity is not. It is critical in college, where cases of reported sexual assault skyrocket, to ensure that victims feel safe enough to tell their stories.

We wonder why victims don’t come forward with their stories while we simultaneously organize, categorize and scrutinize their experiences in order to fit the boxes of what we perceive “should,” and “should not,” qualify as a justifiable assault. By dissecting victims’ stories, we are essentially silencing the perceived legitimacy of an experience.

I didn’t report the assault. However, a month later, I wrote an email requesting to be part of an investigation through USF’s Title IX office. But the moment I hit “send,” I felt bone-deep fear.

I’ve been called a hypocrite for speaking out about sexual assault and yet not reporting my own experience to University authorities. However, if you have never been sexually assaulted, you will never fully understand how violating and dehumanizing it feels, along with the immeasurable anxiety associated with the thought of relaying every detail to complete strangers. Once you begin to heal from a traumatic experience, the very last thing you want to do is pick at the scab and let the wound bleed all over again.

As a friend and confidant, it’s not your place to decide what a person should or should not do with their experience. It is not your place to rate how violated another human being felt in a situation and how justified you think that feeling is. The only thing you should do is validate this person’s experience, offer support and encourage them to do what would make them feel the safest.

And for the love of all that is holy, don’t ask someone what “base” their assaulter got to.


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