Originally published on HuffPost College and cross-posted with the author’s permission
Note: this post contains descriptions and discussion of sexual assault
At first, we laughed about it. My friend and I sat at a small table in a crowded coffee shop on campus laughing about my unfortunate night. Another bad hookup. Another awkward college story. We laughed and I shifted my shirt to showcase the bruises across my shoulder. We shook our heads, wide-eyed, and my friend said she knew the well-liked senior girl I had hooked up with the night before was a little wild – but she didn’t know she was that wild.
After, past the point when a different friend came in and heard my story, past the point where her gentle concern made the hot shame in my stomach rise to my throat, past the point where I lay in another friend’s bed with my shoulders curled around my knees and decided whether or not I wanted to go to the health center and report it, after I first used the words “sexual assault” and realized the extent to which I had been violated, after all of that, I wondered secretly what would have happened if my story had held different pronouns.
I wondered if we would have laughed if I had been with a man the night before, instead of a woman. I wondered if, limping into the coffee shop, my friend’s response would have been awe and respect had I told her of a man who grabbed me too roughly, who ripped my shirt, who left me aching to leave and unsure of how to go.
Would I have seen the warning signs that night long before I did if I recognized the same manipulative, controlling, forceful behavior we are taught to fear in men could also be present with a relationship between two women?
My only authority is my own story: I was violated physically and emotionally in a situation I deemed instinctively to be safe, because none of the things I have been taught to see as danger presented themselves. There was no stranger in a back alley, no knife held to my throat, nothing slipped into my drink. No one at the party blinked an eye when I left with a woman I barely knew, no one texted to make sure the person I left with was safe, that I got home without a problem, that my night was going the way I intended.
The debate and discussion around sexual assault and rape is rising. I have heard people address for the first time the many shades surrounding violation, recognizing that assault can happen in the living room of someone’s home, with a close friend, without a drop of alcohol or secretly slipped-in drug. I have heard outcries against the crusade of victim blaming, heard people urging others to realize that there is no such thing as “asking for it,” that we cannot let any of our children grow up thinking the lines can be blurred. Everywhere, it seems, the fight for consent is starting to be heard.
And in all of this, I have wondered where there is space for my story. A woman assaulted me. I am myself a woman. My story is not like many of the ones being used to move forward in this movement. Yet, still, it happened. I was violated. Something went terribly wrong.
I don’t want to blame the woman who hurt me, or myself, or my friends. In many ways, we are all victims, all part of a society that assigns strict borders to situations where there is an immense amount of space in between. The person who hurt me was in the wrong. But so is the education system that never taught her that she too is required to respect another person’s body, that she too needs to ask first, needs to stop viewing sex as an act of take and gain and instead start trying to learn the language of conversation between two bodies, the hesitancy of a touch, the way the word “yes” looks on someone’s face. No one told my friends or me in middle school, women hurt women too. Most likely, no one suggested the idea of two women together at all.
We can do better than this. As a culture, as a community, as individuals, we can do better than boxing in assault and ignoring that pain and violation are all inclusive, that all humans have the capacity to hurt, that consent and conversation are not ever up for debate, regardless of the gender you identify with. This does not have to be the way it is.
And I think, change starts with sharing a story like this. With saying, perhaps in a voice that shakes, “someone hurt me in a way I didn’t expect. And I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.” If we start recognizing the humanity and the capacity to hurt and violate that all humans have, perhaps we open up the field to allow the space for all of us to improve, for all of us to revisit our views on assault and communication, for all of us to find a way to make sure that in every exchange we have, regardless of how we identify or who we are with, we put respect, compassion, and awareness at the forefront of every interaction.
Caroline Lincoln Catlin is a senior at Wesleyan University. She is a psychology major interested in the way trauma affects the developing brain, and spent the summer of 2013 working at a residential camp for children with behavioral challenges. She is passionate about creative writing, poetry, photography, and web design, and hopes to find a way to incorporate art into her work with children and families. Learn more at carolinecatlin.com.