Yesterday, I received my cap and gown from Pomona College. I had never seen these curious garments in person until coming to the US for college almost four years ago. There are only ten days before I don them myself and walk across the temporary stage set up in our quad, rows of families sweating before me in the California sun. Though I look forward to graduating, I dread the ceremony. Some of the time before then will inevitably be spent reflecting on the choices I have made through college. More will inevitably be spent thinking about the choices that I did not get to make: those that were taken away from me.
My first day of college, I was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. I had naively gone back to his room; when I tried to exit, he did not let me. He grabbed my wrists and pinned them forcibly to the wall. I squirmed and stated my intention to leave, I told him no, but he pressed his body against mine to free his hands. He groped my breasts and touched my vagina over my clothes before forcing his hand down my shorts. I was so confused and terrified; there was no way for me to escape. Unable to move or fully comprehend the situation, I stopped struggling and waited for it to end.
Officially, my assailant sexually assaulted me on one more occasion. That incident was more than a year later. Even then, I had difficulty understanding what I had gone through. A stranger to this country, I thought that it might be normal -- just something girls at college had to deal with. Campus dialogue and the media were mostly focused on rape. I told myself I was lucky not to have been raped. It took me three years in to realize that what had happened to me was a punishable offense.
I may not have been raped, but I was haunted by those incidents. Before I understood that I had been sexually assaulted, I was all the more confused by how much the sense of helplessness had invaded my life. Why should it? I was lucky not to have been raped. When I realized that my assailant's actions were not just morally wrong, but in breach of school policy and the law, my pain felt more justified. I decided that one way I could heal was to report my assailant, even though I was in my senior year.
I still cannot go into specifics regarding the investigation, but I will say that it was flawed. From the outset, the process was isolating; I was told henceforth to keep details about my experiences to myself, and I was concerned I might open myself up to disciplinary action. My assailant was eventually found guilty of two incidences of sexual assault, but the greatest shock came last: the sanctions imposed were extremely light.
I wish that I did not feel this way, but a part of me regrets filing the complaints in the first place. I thought that the process might help me to heal, but it instead opened entirely new wounds when I realized that the College was happy to treat someone who had aggressed and violated me with such leniency. Had I known justice would not be served, even after my assailant was found responsible, I would never have subjected myself to this process.
Even after the investigation was concluded, the administration told me to keep its details, results, and indeed, my experiences, to myself. The school had found him responsible, and yet I was still to be silenced. This silence cannot continue. On some level, they deemed his offenses acceptable, and people deserve to know that they are not. Sexual violence does not need to be penetrative to be devastating. Colleges need to understand the unacceptable nature of such transgressions, especially when repeated. No one should have to feel marginalized, ashamed and silenced by their college's administration and Title IX process.
In my opinion, there is a clear conflict of interests: college administrators are responsible for keeping students safe, but also for maintaining the reputation and image of the institution. The severity of non-penetrative assaults is downplayed so as to keep four-year graduation rates high, and expulsion and suspension rates low; this is indefensible. It furthermore forces already traumatized survivors to advocate for change themselves.
We have to remember that rape culture does not start and end with rape. While we must punish rape with the harshest of sanctions, we cannot only punish rape. Rape does not occur in a vacuum -- there are many types of sexual violence and colleges need to take all of them seriously. The only way we can change the mindset of college administrators is by speaking up and broadening the conversation on sexual violence to include other types of sexual violence other than non-consensual penetration.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.