70 of 70: After sexual assault, how do students process the trauma?

The authors of this article would like to warn readers that it discusses the trauma experienced by survivors of sexual assault.

Last week’s article, “7 of 70,” provided insight into the possible judicial options available to survivors of sexual assault. However, the gravity of this issue necessitates a different  conversation about the emotional trauma experienced by the survivor. Shedding light on Rice’s well-intentioned approach to protecting its students is important, but we cannot allow that to underplay the cold, hard truth: Sexual assault is incredibly, horrifyingly and depressingly pervasive at this school.

Rice defines consent as “an active, ongoing and voluntary agreement by each participant to engage in sexual activity or sexual contact, communicated by clear actions or words.” The prevalence of sexual assault on campus makes it clear that some students fundamentally misunderstand this definition. To start, intoxication excuses nothing. If you are too drunk to recognize consent or a lack thereof, you should not hook up with someone. Moreover, you cannot legally consent while intoxicated. This does not mean that every drunk hook-up is non-consensual; it means that if you hook up with someone who is drunk, you assume the risk that their actions do not indicate consent. It is Rice students’ responsibility to recognize and understand the nature of consent. Do this for those you hook up with, for your friends who may be questioning an experience and for yourself.

We wanted to include the personal experiences below to better explain how raw the trauma following sexual assault can be:

Kayla: During advisor training this past summer, I found myself quietly panicking during the SAFE (Sexual Assault Free Environment) at Rice presentation about consent. I couldn’t just sit there and listen to a video framing consent as an easy yes or no phenomenon. To sit there, staring at my lap and trying not to cry, as the SAFE lecturer calmly rehearsed a standardized talk about the risks of engaging in sexual relations under the influence of alcohol. How could I numbly absorb those words when I was sober when it happened, and he was drunk? I found myself stumbling out of the lecture hall and into the Academic Quad. I burst into tears; I had just experienced my first trigger.

Rachel: In order to educate Brown’s advisors about the emotional trauma of survivors, my co-coordinators and I decided to follow the SAFE at Rice presentation with a panel on sexual assault led by four members of the Brown advising team (three of which are authors of this article) in which we candidly shared our experiences. Not only was there confusion among some advisors about the definition of consent, but I saw that many women had to step out of the room as the panelists recounted their painful stories. These observations scared the shit out of me. Why? Because I know what it’s like to feel suffocated by a community’s failure to understand trauma, as do many others. 

Sarah: As one of the panelists, I felt echoes of my own trauma during O-Week. Though I had worked hard to put distance between myself and my assault, the triggers I experienced throughout that time  intensified my trauma. As I emotionally processed all over again, I cycled through feeling like an empty shell of a person and being consumed by my own internal struggle. I felt powerless; my experience left a permanent scar that could reopen at any moment, each time more painful than the last.

We believe 70 of 70 people who came to the Title IX office during the 2016-17 school year have struggled to process the stages of trauma resulting from sexual assault. Survivors seek support from the Title IX office because they cannot repress the sickening truth anymore. There are even more survivors that you pass by every day who are not counted among those 70 because they did not report their experience to Title IX.

The trauma inflicted by sexual assault stays with a survivor for his or her whole life. It cannot be sufficiently addressed with an email from the Dean of Undergraduate Students saying we all are “equally dedicated” to our Culture of Care when, apparently, not everyone is. Nor will a presentation about consent during O-Week fill in the gaps of an incomplete education.

Upholding a Culture of Care starts with conversations about sexual assault. Keep the stories from this piece in the back of your mind. Talk to your roommates, friends, advisors and advisees sincerely with all the depth this issue deserves. Through this kind of empathetic conversation, more people, some of whom might otherwise become perpetrators or passive bystanders, can truly understand that their actions can have long-lasting, traumatic consequences. The way we operate when we engage with others physically should be led by consent, every step of the way: not just before the act, but also during the act and after.

This piece is by no means the last word in the conversation. By promoting a better understanding about consent and the reality of sexual assault in our community, we can prevent the next 70 incidents from happening in the first place.

A version of this opinion first appeared in the September 6, 2018 print edition. It has been extended for the online edition.