One In Five

How the Fear of Sexual Assault Has Changed Me

Duke Unfiltered | Jessie Petrow-Cohen | March 4, 2016

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I have always been very good at memorizing. I remember random facts that never quite go to good use. The birthday of that blonde boy in my fourth grade class. The license plate on my babysitter’s car. Unimportant facts and statistics from commercials and newspapers just stick like glue in my mind.

So when I pulled up to Pegram my freshman year at Duke, I knew that one in five women on college campuses experience sexual assault.

I knew that nine out of ten rape victims know their offender.

I knew that more than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report their rape.

These statistics lingered in my thoughts, piled up alongside birthdays, historical dates and license plate numbers.  But that’s all they were: mere statistics.

My moms warned me constantly: never take a drink from someone you don’t know. Hell, never take a drink from someone you do know. Never walk anywhere alone in the dark. If you ever feel uncomfortable, you get up and leave. You owe nobody an explanation.

I listened to these cautions; objectively, I understood their validity. But I brushed them off as the warnings of two protective Jewish mothers rather than recognizing their words as advice that could truly keep me out of danger. I had never experienced fear walking alone somewhere at night. I had never been offered a drink by a stranger or by someone who I did not wholeheartedly trust. I had been sheltered to believe that sexual assault could never happen to me and therefore these warnings were mere cautionary tales.

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I sit slouched in my car.  The headlights are still on and music lightly buzzes in the background. I glance out the window, eyes scanning for the bright yellow vest.  No luck.  As I sit in my car outside of my central campus apartment, I feel tentative. Not actively scared, per say, but certainly not comfortable. Not comfortable enough to leave my car and walk to my apartment without a security guard in sight.

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I rub my sleep deprived eyes and silently pray for a last ounce of energy.  It’s 2AM. It’s finals week and I am exhausted. A stranger in a hoodie makes eye contact with me.

He comes over and sits at the cubicle across from me.

“What are you working on?” he asks.

Not in the mood for company, I grunt something about chemistry and turn away.

He comes around to my cubicle and tries again.

“Do you need help with that?”

I stand up and walk away. I do not look back.

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We are lying in my bed.  My Shooters hook up, slathered in the sweat, looks up at me. “I wrote you a 5 paragraph essay about why I think we should finally have sex,” he says. I giggle.  Then I roll over and feel my eyes grow teary. I pretend to be asleep, because that is easier. Because I don’t want to process his words.

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When did I become someone whom other people have the power to make feel unsafe?

The truth is, I cannot pinpoint an exact moment where this shift in mindset occurred.  It wasn’t as if I had a particular traumatizing experience that left me feeling scared and at the mercy of others.  Rather, I experienced a gradual transition into realizing that those statistics I had memorized and brushed off are now a reality.   They are every woman’s reality.  They are my reality.

It is not Duke’s fault that I feel scared. It is not Duke’s that I feel powerless in many of my encounters with the opposite sex. It is not Duke’s fault that during small and seemingly insignificant interactions, I constantly assess my safety and vulnerability.  Situations that, two years ago, would not have phased me now leave me uneasy and uncomfortable. Being a woman can be terrifying and that, again, is not Duke’s fault.

What is Duke’s fault, is that I do not feel as though anyone is trying to protect me. Or better yet, that I even feel the need to be protected because not enough has been done to prevent sexual assault and our culture of victim blaming. We live in a world where one out of five women on college campuses experience sexual assault, yet on our campus there is little to no accountability for people charged of these crimes.  On a campus with a tightly knit social scene run by students obsessed with image and brimming with entitlement, nobody is held responsible for their actions.  On a campus that cares more about its reputation than its students safety, I do not feel as though there is anyone looking out for my wellbeing.

Being a woman can be terrifying.  That is a simple fact of the world.  But you know what, it is also incredible.  It is empowering and beautiful and takes unparalleled strength and courage.  The fear of sexual assault that leaves so many of us feeling powerless undermines the fact that, in reality, we are a bunch of  bad asses and deserve to be treated as such.

So, how have we landed in the position where responsibility falls onto the woman to handle unsafe situations?

Too scared to wait to walk home alone?

Easy, wait for the security guard to show up.

Too scared of the stranger in the library?

Easy, walk away and relocate.

Too scared and unready to have sex?

Easy, don’t bring the boy home with you in the first place.

It feels constant and unrelenting.  Don’t get too drunk, don’t dress too revealingly, don’t walk anywhere alone.

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“But I don’t understand, what would you do differently? Isn’t it for the best that you recognize these dangers as a reality?  Isn’t it better that you take actions to protect your own safety?” they say.

The worst part is I fear that they are right. That the extra cautious and overly tentative way of life I now feel forced to live will be what keeps me safe.  That I will adjust myself, adjust my confidence and my boldness and my fearlessness to fit more neatly and more safely into a patriarchal world.  I fear I will take actions to protect my own safety, and in doing so, will lose my spark.

I long for the girl who once skipped around Penn Station at night and smiled at passing strangers because now I walk with my head down to avoid eye contact.

I long for the girl who would have told the annoying stranger in the library that I refuse to my compromise my education to appease your desire to objectify me, and then would have told him to move the fuck away, because now, I walk away myself.

And most of all, I long for the girl who never would have giggled.  Who would have sat up tall, looked the Shooters hook up in the eye and told him that nothing – nothing – grants him the right to tell me when it is the right time to have sex.  And then I would have told him to leave rather than spending the night squirming at the thought of his body next to mine. I would have fallen asleep feeling confident and strong rather than teary and weak.

I see these changes in the way that I behave and they scare me. They scare me almost as much as the thought of what could have happened if I had not changed – what could still happen – even though I have.
I hate that I feel the need to adjust my actions and personality to feel safe.  But ultimately, nothing scares me more than becoming a part of the statistics that I once cast aside as nothing more than numbers.