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.
“Powerful Victims” sounds paradoxical. We — we Penn students, we Americans, we westerners — train victims, especially victims of sexual assault, to internalize their victimhood. It’s not that we side with the aggressor — of course not. On the contrary, we require his wickedness be acknowledged by everyone, especially the abused party. Survivors of sexual assault must not survive unscathed, we decree. We demand that they suffer lasting damage — otherwise it’s as if they are belittling their own trauma, and the trauma of all victims.
This is absurd. It cannot be that, in order to prove innocence, we demand weakness. Last semester, while on semester abroad in Jerusalem, I was sexually assaulted. I did not swap tank tops for turtlenecks. Instead, I kissed a stranger on a bus.
Roughly four hours before The Kiss, a man I didn’t know prevented me from getting out of his car by grabbing me by the neck, and forcing my mouth open with his tongue while trying to unbutton my skirt. He had offered me a ride from the University gym back to main campus, which is how I’d ended up in the seat next to him.
My strength surprised me. Adrenaline maybe. I pushed him off me with both hands and, in my best "Mom Voice", commanded, “Stop that. My boss is about to call me — I’ll be late for my meeting." God forbid!
“I’ll make you stay.”
My disgust and contempt unnerved him. “Let. Go.” I snarled. He did.
It took a little less than a minute for the strength to fade. I had left Penn’s campus, but I had internalized our axioms and assertions about power dynamics (and everything else). While I pulled myself out of his car, and walked towards the Hebrew University campus, I felt my spine slump. I shrunk away from the men walking on the sidewalk beside me. “Why am I dressed this way?" I pulled my jean jacket out of my bag and slipped it on. Nothing to see here.
While walking shakily through campus security I could hear the strange man with the hands and the tongue screaming my name from the street. A foggy chill had replaced the buzz of analyses and counter proofs usually bombinating in my mind. The words that did float to the surface felt heavy and foreign: “You shouldn’t have worn this. You shouldn’t have gotten into his car. What did you think was going to happen?”
These heavy, foreign words filled my throat and wrapped around my guts while I was on the phone with my boss. When the call was over, I went to my professor’s office, and mumbled into my hands that I had been sexually assaulted and didn’t think I could sit through class. He exhaled slowly and asked me to sit down. I waited for him to say, “Celeste, we need to talk about your wardrobe choices.”
Instead he said, “I hate seeing guys get away with this. In Israel, the victim almost always wins. He will probably go to jail.”
It was strange sitting in that seat, listening to him. “Press charges.” “Victim.” “Jail.” He thought I was guiltless. How could I make him see that, while generally the victim is not to blame, this was a special case? Maybe if I took my jacket off he'd understand.
On the street, walking towards the bus stop, my brain began to thaw. Spineless and Strong Celeste began to argue about whether or not I was allowed to put my jean jacket back in my bag. Spineless Celeste called me a slut and told me to leave it on if I knew what was good for me.
Bitch. I took it off.
“Well fine, she better not come crying to me when some guy thinks he can take her shirt off.”
“Oh yes, excellent logic. Either she’s a victim or she’s a slut.”
I sat down on the bus, across from a boy with black ripped jeans, gauges and spiky hair. He smiled at me.
“She better not smile back at hi-”
“What, she’s not allowed to smile anymore?”
I’m sure the facial spasm I returned was less than charming, but he kept smiling anyway.
I decided while sitting there listening to the Celestes argue, I would not leave the bus without kissing the boy with the smile and the spiky hair. The Kiss would mean I refused to exchange the poetry in life for sensible stability. It is gorgeous to chase after beauty and heat. It is brave. It is especially brave to chase beauty and heat after being knocked down. It is not a victim’s responsibility to stay on the ground. It is not a victim’s responsibility to fear the gorgeous things that make our blood race.
We prefer our victims weak because we would rather pity them than be intimidated by their indestructible spirits. But we know these people. They go to school with us, they cry in our bathrooms, and brush against us on Locust Walk. We owe it to them to be braver than we are. I owed it to myself to be braver than I felt — so I kissed a stranger on a bus.
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) firstname.lastname@example.org,
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.