Image By: Anne Marie Grudem

Content warning:

The following text describes sexual assault and violence, and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.

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It was my first. It was my first time drinking, my first time at a “real” party, and my first time touching a boy, let alone doing anything else. It was also my first time being unconscious, my first time having alcohol forcibly poured down my throat, and the first time I learned that sometimes, saying no isn’t enough.

One in four undergraduate women will be sexually assaulted during her time on campus. But what about when it’s already happened before Move–In Day? Freshman girls are constantly warned to avoid certain frats, to stay in groups, to not drink so much. They have a glimmer in their eyes like nothing bad could ever happen to them. Because it hasn’t yet. But why should it have to happen for them to learn? Why should they have to lose that glimmer in their eyes?

I was 15 when I was assaulted. It was a boy I knew. I lived in a world where bad things didn’t happen, where boys were silly, but kind. I thought that the dark stories of assault were things to worry about in the future. I lived in a fantasy world where when he stumbled up to me at a party, we would kiss and look into each other’s eyes and immediately fall in love. Instead, I looked into his eyes while he seemed to take a part of me away—they were dark and they were cold, and years later I will never forget how much they scared me when they looked in mine, how I knew that something was wrong even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I remember how it felt to lose control.

It seemed like my childhood was taken from me all at once. The next day, still drunk and covered in my own vomit, I showered for two hours. I scrubbed my body so hard that my skin bled. I needed to wash him off of me. His smell, a mix of cinnamon and alcohol that seemed to be permanently stuck in my nostrils. His touch, that seemed to leave a visible mark on my body, even though I knew it was only in my imagination. I thought that if I didn’t do this, everyone would know that I wasn’t pure anymore. I thought washing him off of me would free me, but all it did was make me even more raw.

The years that followed consisted of tears, flashbacks, and fear. I refused to get near a boy, let alone to trust one near my body. Even the smallest instances of catcalling, or even the wrong kind of look, could throw me into a spiral. Eventually, I channeled my thoughts into therapy, and with the support of my friends, I reported my assault. The reporting process was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. Nothing can compare to the fear of having police knock on your front door when you’re trying to finish your calculus homework, or the fear of the reactions of other people finding out. It felt like added pain to an already unbearable situation. Ultimately, even the justice I did receive didn’t feel like enough. Nothing felt like it could ever be enough.

Instead of a casual thing to watch out for, to me the problem of assault on college campuses sounded like a death wish. How could I possibly go out when I knew what could happen? How could I watch girls like me get too drunk and go up to boys they would never approach sober? How could I stand by, knowing that I could help someone else the way no one was able to help me?

I have a hard time listening to my friends’ stories of drunken hookups. On one hand, it’s because I’m innately aware that consent cannot be given while intoxicated, and certainly not while blackout drunk. But I also must admit to myself that I’m jealous of their carelessness. It feels unfair that where they see fun, tipsy dance floor hookups, I see fear. I wonder if they can sense my apprehension, or if they wonder why I’m different.

It’s difficult to bring up our stories of assault to those who are close to us. There is never a natural pause in conversation where it fits, and there is never a right time, especially with new people. When I open up to someone, it feels like I’m giving them the most intimate part of myself. I know that to a person who hasn’t experienced it, it can be difficult to know what to say. No words ever seem right, but I think there are three things all survivors want to hear: 1) I believe you 2) You didn’t want it 3) It wasn’t your fault.

Life goes on, and eventually, it stops hurting so badly. I thought I would never laugh again, but I have. I thought I would never feel those innocent butterflies in my stomach again, but I do. I’m still not ready to fully open myself up again, to truly be careless, and I’m not sure if that glimmer in my eyes will ever be able to come back. But even if it scares the crap out of me, I’m going to go to parties, flirt with boys, and sometimes drink a little bit too much. Or at least I’m going to try.

And eventually, I’ll have another first. After everything, I feel like I deserve at least that.

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Campus Resources:

The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.

Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.

Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary and arrange for referrals and follow up.

Reach–A–Peer Hotline - 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.

Penn Violence Prevention: 3539 Locust Walk (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm), (215) 746-2642, Jessica Mertz (Director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention, Education), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.

Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.

Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.

Penn Women's Center: 3643 Locust Walk (Office Hours 9:30 am – 5:30 pm Monday–Thursday, 9:30 am – 5 pm Friday), PWC provides confidential crisis and options counseling.