Re-defining justice after sexual assault
My housemate Adam* is a tall, dark, and handsome Division I athlete from Australia. We moved in together — along with several other housemates, the majority of whom were on the same sports team as Adam — on UC Berkeley’s campus. This was three months after my dad died unexpectedly in a camping accident. Adam could always tell when I was having a bad day, which was often at that point in my life. “How are you today?” he would ask, his green eyes filled with concern.
But his sensitivity was moderated by his outgoing athleticism. Sometimes, when I walked by him in the hallway of our house, he would play rough with me, putting me in a headlock and wrestling me to the floor, leaving red marks on my neck. He would lean on me with the force of his full weight, causing me to stumble backward until I crashed against a wall. I would always laugh it off, and my other housemates did not seem to notice that he was hurting me, even though he’s very muscular and I’m a NARP (non-athletic regular person).
Since he was always looking for an excuse to touch me, I told Adam directly that I did not want to have sex with him, not only because we lived together but especially because he used to date my other roommate. He said he understood. Then one night not too long after that conversation, he got in my bed and choked me so hard that my vision went black. “I’m doing this so I don’t have sex with you,” he said gravely.
A couple weekends later, around Halloween, I tripped and hit my head on a curb. I did not want to ruin the night for my friends, so I reassured them that they could leave after they brought me home — that Adam could keep an eye on me. My friends explained to him that I probably had a concussion and then left. I told Adam he could stay in my roommate’s bed since she wasn’t home, but he got into my bed anyway, pressing himself against me.
“What if something’s wrong with my brain?” I slurred, remembering my dad’s autopsy. He was killed by blunt-force trauma to the head.
“I’m too horny for my own good,” he muttered. “Can you give head with a concussion?” he asked. I mumbled no.
“If we had sex would you just lie there?” He asked. I did not answer, but he gave me a sloppy kiss and started to get on top of me.
My head was spinning and I felt paralyzed. I lay still. “Stop,” I whispered, “I don’t want to get pregnant.”
“You have condoms?” He asked. I pointed weakly to my desk drawer. He put one on.
“Here’s your phone,” he said putting it on my pillow after he had finished. “If you need something you can call me.” Then he left.
I went to the hospital the next day to get my concussion diagnosed. Adam sent me a Facebook message while I was at the hospital: “I just heard you were in the ER. I didn't realize you were that bad last night. Let me know when you're back at the house.” I ignored the message. In fact, I gave him the silent treatment for months, even though we still lived in the same house. I would have moved, but I didn’t think I could find new housing in the middle of the school year. How would I break my lease? How would I explain to my mom why I was moving?
Two months later, my friend managed to find housing for me. I told my landlord, a coach for Adam’s team, that I felt unsafe living in the house. I refused to give him a name, though. “I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble,” I said. “I just want to move out.” It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
I went to a counselor at my university’s health center, who told me that the choking could have given me brain damage. I went to my university’s center for gendered violence and they told me that if I went through the reporting process, the most severe punishment Adam could receive would be a yearlong suspension. If he applies for graduate school, universities will see that on his transcript, the counselor told me.
I always assumed that if I found myself in a situation like this I would report it and feel a sense of justice. But when forced to confront it, the reporting process seemed vengeful and futile. I found myself surprised by how much easier it was to conceal my humiliation and pain than to publicly acknowledge what had happened. I didn’t want to be labeled as a whore or a liar or, maybe worst of all, a victim. I wanted to kept it a secret, for both of our sakes.
The #MeToo Movement has made me think more critically about my experience. I admire the incredible strength of the women who have spoken publicly about harassment and abuse, but I have also felt tormented by feelings of guilt and selfishness. Should I have changed something about my response instead of yielding to stereotypical female passivity? Should I have been a martyr for the cause by publicly accusing Adam at the expense of my personal comfort and privacy? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do as a feminist and a member of my university community?
I tormented myself with these questions for months until I realized that my decision to move on with my life and to protect my personal happiness was a form of justice that I created for myself.
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