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Rape culture on campus: to UMass, with severe concern

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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]

9 Comments

9 Responses to “Rape culture on campus: to UMass, with severe concern”

  1. David Hunt 1990 on October 20th, 2016 11:07 am

    First, rape is a horror, and I am sorry you went through that. I hope you heal and recover.

    Second, what is your opinion on Muslim immigrants coming to the US?

  2. Steph on October 20th, 2016 7:53 pm

    With you in solidarity. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Sarah on October 22nd, 2016 7:37 pm

    I was groped at a party last night. It’s nothing compared to what a lot of other women have been through, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I was dancing with a guy and he put his hands on my hips. I wasn’t really bothered by that, so I let his hands stay there. Then, one of his hands moved up to my chest and touched my boob. I pushed his hand away and he left me alone, so it could have been worse, but that doesn’t make what he did okay.

  4. David Hunt 1990 on October 24th, 2016 12:11 pm

    @Sarah:

    Let me ask you – if he were interested in you sexually, which he clearly was, what should have he done? Put it in writing and submitted it in triplicate for your express written consent?

    He made a move, you pushed him away, he accepted that. Was he overly aggressive (and optimistic)? Yes. I do NOT condone what he did. And had he continued I’d say he was well over the line. No does mean no.

    Put it in context; you were at a party. People – perhaps you, perhaps he – were drinking. Alcohol suppresses inhibitions. People at parties in general do things they wouldn’t do in, say, a classroom. Had he attempted to do that in a classroom, or at the cafeteria, I’d say you have a legitimate beef.

    You were dancing with him. Is that consent to have him fondle you? No. He put his hands on your hips and you agreed; realistically, pretty tame. He may well have taken that as a green light to try more. He did, you flashed the red light, he stopped. Had he not stopped, I’d say you have a legitimate beef.

    If you can’t handle the fact that in the real world not all communication takes place verbally and with a written contract, are subject to misinterpretation especially when in a relaxed social environment where (again, supposing) alcohol was involved, go back home, build a pillow-and-blanket fort, and start coloring.

  5. paul blart on October 25th, 2016 12:26 am

    So the Amherst campus of UMass is somehow responsible for a Puerto Rican sexual assault? Interesting.

    Seek therapy. I don’t mean that offensively. Failing to seek therapy following a sexual assault will eat your brain from the inside out. Writing this piece is a good start.

  6. Amber on October 27th, 2016 8:20 pm

    @David Hunt 1990, if you have never experienced being groped or put in a position where you feel sexually taken advantage of, it is best that you keep your “suggestions” to yourself. miscommunication is not consent, and there is no excuse for sexual violence. this could have been your friend, your sister, or even your mother.

    @paul blart, not once did she state the UMass Amherst Campus is “responsible” for an assault that happened in Puerto Rico. she is however, stating that sexual misconduct happens to students EVERYWHERE, and the manifestation of rape culture is quite evident on this particular campus. listen. we can change that if we work together.

    @Sarah & @Emili — thank you for sharing. we see you, we hear you, and we care for you.

  7. David Hunt 1990 on October 31st, 2016 11:30 am

    @Amber:

    MY FIRST WIFE was RAPED. REAL rape. Violent rape. She showed me the bite marks. So don’t you DARE lecture me.

  8. David Hunt 1990 on October 31st, 2016 11:45 am

    @Amber:

    Since you view groping as such a serious thing – and I’m not going to claim it’s a good thing – what’s your take on letting in more Muslim immigrants, especially in light of:

    https://www.jihadwatch.org/2016/10/germany-muslim-migrant-boys-surround-underage-non-muslim-girls-and-systematically-sexually-abuse-them

    https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/5195/sweden-rape

  9. Jameson on March 9th, 2017 7:45 am

    @David Hunt 1990

    So you’re using a traumatic experience that your ex-wife had to paint would-be rapists as bad communicators? You know someone who was raped and all the sudden you know everything about rape and can no longer be questioned or informed in any way? Who the hell do you think you are telling people what to say. If you had ever actually experienced sexual assault or abuse yourself like I and so many other people have then you would no there is no hierarchy of trauma. More importantly YOU don’t have sovereignty over other people’s experiences or thoughts. Trauma is trauma and it effects everyone differently. David Hunt 1990, sorry to say you live in a world where people are going to say things you dont understand or agree with. If you can’t handle that, go home, build a pillow-and-blanket fort, and start coloring.

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