Rape culture on campus: to UMass, with severe concern

By Emily Johnson

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian
Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian

“What is the best way to tell your mother you’re at the police headquarters in a foreign territory?” I wondered, as I dialed her phone number and watched the glorious view of the sun rising and tourists leaving the Old San Juan cruise ship port with eager smiles.

It was almost six in the morning; by this time, my mother would have already finished her first cup of coffee, even on a Sunday. More than 2,000 kilometers from our kitchen table and only a few hours before, I had been sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and robbed by two male strangers on Escambron Beach in San Juan.

Eighteen percent of female college students and 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming college students have been sexually assaulted, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Additionally, a 2012 study by Middlebury College psychologist Matthew Kimble found that female students studying abroad were five times more likely to be raped than female students who did not study abroad. But these numbers do not encapsulate the reality of rape culture. Do not be fooled into thinking that rape culture only exists “over there.”

I arrived at the University of Río Piedras, Puerto Rico’s flagship public university, through the University of Massachusetts’ Domestic Exchange program exactly one week before I was assaulted.

On Saturday, Aug. 16, three other exchange students and I went to a bar with students from another local university, and afterward one of them suggested we walk to a beach. Once we arrived, we jumped in the warm ocean water, lit by stars in the dark sky.

I was one of the last two to stay in the water. My most fond experiences in the ocean were of summer trips to Maine and Cape Cod, where swimming lasted until my bones ached from the cold Atlantic. But on this day, when my head arrived above water three unfamiliar males approached my friend and me. We quickly swam away but one, faster than I, pulled me in.

He pushed my body against his and began touching my vagina. I first asked him to stop and when he didn’t, I screamed, “Stop!” many times before he finally let go. Crying hysterically, I ran to a friend on the shore. She and I grabbed our belongings and left the beach. I pulled out my phone to call a cab home and in that moment, the two males snuck up behind me, stole my phone and picked me up by my arms and legs.

One of them threatened to use his gun on me, and his friend teased me with my phone. Both of them then held me and moved my body toward what seemed to be a ledge, where I feared they’d drop me and leave me for dead. I fought back, I fought back, I continued to fight back and eventually they dropped me to the ground and sprinted off.

I spent the next few hours sitting at the police station and was introduced to my assailant’s mother by a police officer. I spent the following 24 hours in the white-walled police headquarters and I spent the hours after that in a waiting room with my assailants and their families. Hours later, when I went back to my dorm room to pack up my belongings, the residence director asked me if I was “that girl,” while pulling up an article on his computer about the incident and insisting that I should have known better than to swim at night.

But despite the moments that characterize this experience, my trauma has not been limited to the early morning of the assault or the following trial process.

It is easy to think that sexual assault is happening “over there,” where we don’t see it, but it happens on this very campus. In the past two years, UMass has had two notable rape trials. In February, Patrick Durocher was convicted of raping a female student in the fall of 2013. Last fall, Caleb Womack, Emmanuel Bile, Justin King and Adam Liccardi were convicted of raping a female student in her dorm room in the fall of 2012.

It is also important to note that rape culture is not merely rapists within our community, but the daily acceptance of misogyny that feeds this violent masculinity. At UMass, rape culture lives and breathes, a being of its own, just as sexual assault is a living being in my own history, as it is for many of my peers.

About a year ago, I packed a suitcase, brought it with me to my class in Bartlett Hall, and after class I left for Logan Airport and traveled back to Puerto Rico for trial. I will never forget the moment that I locked eyes with my assailants for the first time since my assault. Although one of them laughed at me during my testimony, I continued. But despite my moment of triumph, my assailants only received probation for the assault.

A few months later, one of my assailants sexually assaulted another female. I don’t know her, nor will I ever have the chance to meet her, but we have a shared experience that connects us and lives inside us both.

My assault follows when I’m walking home at night. My assault holds me tight at bars and at parties. But it is not just with me at night – my assault sits with me in class, in the dining hall, at the library. In the shower. In bed. In recurring nightmares.

I want to feel safe in this world, in Amherst and on this campus, but it is difficult. A friend tells me she is stopped and groped by a stranger on her walk home. Another friend wakes up to a friend masturbating in bed next to her. Friends say they are going to “rape” the opposing sports team in the upcoming game. I walked home from campus last night and passed by a group of unfamiliar males who called me a slut and laughed.

I don’t understand the “joke.” The reality is my experience in Puerto Rico was not the first time I was sexually violated. During the fall semester of my sophomore year, I was forcefully raped by a stranger in a bathroom. For many individuals, they have experienced sexual assault more than once. For many, it is terrifying to admit to themselves what happened. For many, they are not in a space where it is safe for them to tell others. For many, they try to deny, to forget and to protect themselves. Sexual assault is a body to confront every day as I face the memories and endure debilitating flashbacks.

Perhaps you have not committed sexual assault, but you are likely a contributor to the rape culture present on this campus. I challenge you to examine your conversations, your jokes, your actions. Examine your friends’ jokes and your friends’ actions. Examine the way you treat and talk about your sexual partners, the media you consume, the privileges you have. What do you feed yourself with and how do you feed the world?

Sexual assault is not a ghost of my past, rather it is a living being, exhaling its breath in my life, my feelings, my relationships, my decisions; it is an experience that never dies.

Emily Johnson is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]