By Joanna Poppyfield, student
Trigger Warning: Contains details of sexual assault
I am a firm believer in the power of open, honest dialogue as a prerequisite to healing. Not just personal healing, but collective healing. At Stanford, we need to improve dialogue around sexual assault and rape if we want to truly beginning to address the fact that we have a real problem with sexual assault and rape on our campus and to heal the wounds that afflict far too many of us.
Just a few facts to put this all in perspective (all obtained from the Stanford Daily):
- 4% of Stanford students reported having been raped, while 7% reported in a Health Promotion Services survey that they had been penetrated against their will
- 15% of people reported having sex under pressure, according to the same survey
- 9% of the general student body, 13% of straight women, 28% of gay/bi/lesbian identified students, 11% of gay men and 15% of students who did not select a gender option have experienced attempted, non-consensual penetration, again according to the HPS survey.
- Furthermore, over 50% of students surveyed reported being forcibly fondling, unwantedly touched or kissed, again according to the survey through HPS.
- According to Angela Exson, Assistant Dean of the Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse, “the average offender will commit [sexual] crimes seven times before any action is taken against them.”
- The worst statistic though, in my opinion, is that 28% of victims had no one to talk to about their experiences.
These statistics paint a really telling picture of the state of sexual assault and rape at Stanford. Too many people (too many women, both cis and trans) have to experience sexual assault and rape in their time at Stanford. The system is broken if an offender can hurt seven different people before action is taken against him (or her). And there is far too much of a taboo surrounding opening up and have an honest, safe discussion about sexual assault and rape if almost 30% of victims can’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about their experiences and their suffering.
My goal in writing this piece is simple: I want to open up and share my story, to talk about why I felt like I shouldn’t — or couldn’t — report what had happened to me and hopefully create more open dialogue around this intensely heated topic so that we as a campus can start collectively healing and dealing with these problems that plague us and our campus.
It was the first time that I “went out” as a freshman to a frat party. I had been to a few co-op parties, but had done nothing too crazy. By that time, I’d had two drinks in my life. I was dealing with a terrible eating disorder, and knowing that I had an addictive personality, I wanted to stay away from alcohol as much as possible.
Furthermore, being transgender, I was always scared to go to “straight” parties — frat parties. I was just barely starting to feel truly comfortable as a transgender woman (I’d been living as Joanna for about a year and a half at that point) I was scared to face romantic and sexual rejection — the same rejection I’d faced my entire life — that people won’t be able to handle me being transgender and being attracted to me and acting on that attraction. But nonetheless, I wanted to explore my sexuality. I’d never been kissed except at Full Moon, and I wanted to feel sexy, desired.
So, on the first or second weekend of winter quarter, freshman year, I went down the hall to the party room, dressed casually in a plain green button up and some of my classic flare jeans and walked over with them to a frat party in a nearby residence. There was lots of beer, lots of sloppy people, and if it weren’t for the fact that I was being guided by two hallmates who knew it was my first time going out, I would have been totally lost.
After grabbing a red Solo cup full of beer, we walked into the party and it was absolutely packed. There was great music playing, and we started to dance together near one of the walls; one of my friends had her back to the wall, facing the dance floor, the other had her side to the wall, and I had my back to the dance floor, my face towards the wall.
A few minutes into dancing, I felt someone leaned against me. Not in the involuntary way that happens on crowded dance floors often; I could tell without even looking that he had his front to my back. He leaned his face onto my shoulder; I could feel his stubble rubbing against the soft skin of my face as his hands began to clasp my waist.
Both my friends were giggling a little, in the encouraging way girls do on the dance floor sometimes. He chose ME? I thought to myself. He chose the tall girl with big shoulders wearing a plain shirt and jeans over the two skinny girls next to me wearing strapless dresses? I couldn’t help but smile a little. No one had ever shown interest in me like that, and it made me feel special.
Both of us still facing the wall, we started to kiss a little. He’d definitely been drinking a bit too much, but I could care less. Even though I knew I couldn’t hook up or have sex with him (I didn’t want to risk him finding out he’d made out with a trans*woman, in case he’d react badly), it was fun to just for a moment, to let down my guard, to feel sexy, even just for a little while.
But he kept on trying the get his hands towards my crotch. At first they just gently rubbed my waist, but they made their way down towards my hips, and started to push inwards a little. I quickly grabbed his hands and tried to do something sexy with them, to distract him (a rather hard task if you’re drunk and have a red Solo cup in one hand).
He eventually turned me around, and I got a quick glance of his pale face, his brown eyes and dark, short hair, before we took a few steps away from my friends and resumed making out, this time, face to face.
I tried to ignore it, to focus on how much I was enjoying his attention, but he was getting more persistent with his hands. He kept on trying to reach my crotch, and as he got more forceful, it became harder for me to fend him off. Girl, you need to leave. This could get bad the little cricket conscious in the back of my head kept on repeating. Just one more minute! Just enjoy this for a little bit longer. How much more often is this going to happen? the little devil in my brain shouted. I kept kissing him.
Suddenly, some drunk person ran through the crowded room, knocking into a bunch of people, including the person next to me, who hit me. As I began to fall backwards, I freed my hands from his to keep balance, and in that moment, he drove his right hand into my crotch, groping my penis and testicles underneath my jeans.
Instantly, he retracted his hand, and I saw a look of confusion spread across his face. I bolted towards my friends, now a good twenty plus feet away from us, still dancing together against the wall. I crouched down, told them what had just happened, and had them cover me for a few minutes. After those few minutes passed and he didn’t come. I stood up, and we walked outside. I was feeling a little panicked and scared. What if he’s coming with others? What if he’s outside and he sees me? Luckily, a tall, muscular boy who lived two rooms down from me was outside, and we walked over to him, explaining what just happened. He said he’d stay with us as long as we were here.
I calmed down a little bit. I felt safe now. And as I felt less scared, I still couldn’t help but smile. Despite what had happened, he had still chosen me. I was still the girl he’d wanted to make out with on the dance floor, the girl he wanted to get off on the dance floor.
As I sobered up, I began to realize just how dangerous of a situation I had put myself in. I hadn’t wanted to go to frat parties for precisely that reason — to avoid guys finding out the hard way, to avoid the potential repercussions of them finding out. I began to blame myself for what had happened. I should have stopped as soon as I realized he was fucking drunk and trying to touch my crotch I thought to myself.
Walking back to my dorm, I tried to express to my friends how violated I had felt, but all they wanted to talk about was hope much fun they had dancing and he much fun I must have had making out with him. I felt like they could care less that someone had just grabbed my genitals. I thought to myself that maybe this wasn’t as big a deal was it was after all. Part of me felt scared about what had just happened, and it’s potential to happen again, but part of me felt like I needed to erase those emotions.
After that night, going to the few frat parties I went to was a terrible experience. I was constantly afraid that someone else might try and stick their hands around my genitals, and react worse than the other guy had. I generally left the parties early by myself because I spent more of the time worrying than actually having, or trying to have, fun.
But at the same time, besides the people who had been there that night and maybe one or two close friends, I never told that part of the story when I recounted my first actual make out session to my friends. It wasn’t for a few months afterwards that I felt comfortable taking about what had happened to most people. It wasn’t so much that I was traumatized by what had happened — I’ve been through a lot worse — but that I felt like what had happened was no big deal, that it wasn’t something I should complain about and that I was the one who had caused it to happen, not him.
It’s been a long time since that night, and often I find myself reflecting on the events and my reaction afterwards. And instead of changing my behavior that night, what I wish I could change now was how I reacted to it afterwards.
I never told an RA or my RFs what had happened that night. My RAs and RFs were awesome, in that they were proactive, took care of us and didn’t stand for any bullshit. I feared they would have tried to make it a bigger deal than I would have liked it to be. At the time, I was still shied away from big activist scenes, preferring not to announce to the entire world my transgenderness or to stand out in any meaningful way. My, how things have changed.
This is probably as good of time as any to put a quick little note in. I realize I’m writing this anonymously, and I’m generally not a fan of anonymity. So, let me state my reasons very clearly, so y’all can know why I’m doing it. I could care less if anything I’ve written was tied to me personally. I try to be an open book, or at least a selectively open book. But I’m talking about things of a sensitive nature, and especially for my first piece and this piece, I didn’t want other people who were involved in these events to have their private lives blasted across STATIC (without their consent, I might add). Some of you were able to figure out who I am, and generally, y’all are people who I’m ok knowing that it was me who did these things and had these experiences. But please do not reveal my identity to anyone else. Furthermore, if you do not know my identity, do not try and figure out who I am, please. Again, I’m not asking this for me; I’m asking this for the other people involved.
Anyways, going back to the aftermath, there were a lot of reasons besides wanting a quiet life why I didn’t tell anybody about what happened. First off, I didn’t think it was a big deal. On our walk back to our frosh dorm from the party, somewhat sobered up, I was distressed at what had happened, but all my friends did was laugh and talk about how much fun I must have had kissing him. They almost ignored what had happened to me, and how much it had freaked me out. Even the next morning when I went to thank the guy for staying with us, he trivialized the entire event, telling me I had nothing to worry about, as if nothing bad had even happened. Maybe it really was nothing I began to think. If they, the people who were there when it happened, could care less, why would anyone else care?
Secondly, I thought that since I wasn’t raped, there was nothing that could be done about it. I also thought that since I wasn’t raped, or that since he didn’t attempt to rape me, I had nothing to complain about, let alone to bring to any authority’s attention. Why else would none of my hallmates who were there care about what had happened? I thought.
Thirdly, I had no clue who this person was. Yes, I’d seen his face, and I’ve seen him around campus before. But at the time, I had no concrete way of identifying him. Furthermore, there was nobody I could call as a witness to support my allegations. We were in the middle of a crowded dance floor, so naturally, I knew no one directly around me, and I doubt anyone noticed what was happening with the two of us. Yes, there were my two friends, but they hadn’t actually seen anything, and given their casual reactions to his groping, I doubted either would actually want to support my story publicly.
Fourthly, I still felt nostalgic about the fact that he chose me, how good he made me feel when he chose me, and it blinded me to the fact that he probably didn’t choose me because we were soul mates or something, but because he was trying to get together with any girl he could.
Finally, and most horribly, I felt like this was my fault. As I said earlier, I got mad at myself, because I believed that I had caused this by putting myself in an unsafe situation. I knew he was drunk. I knew he was grabby. I knew that he kept on getting grabbier. I even thought to myself to get the fuck away from him. And yet I still stayed. And by staying, I felt like I had almost given him permission, even though I was actively trying to get his hands as far away from my crotch as possible, to touch me there.
As I’ve reflected on these events, I come to realize a lot of things. There is a huge culture of silence surrounding sexual assault and rape at Stanford, and those girls helped to perpetuate the taboo of silence that night. Just because I was drunk and not raped does not mean what happened to me was not insignificant or appalling and I should have at least been attempted to have it dealt with through the appropriate channels. Even if I had no clue who this person was, if for no other reason than to have closure and to be counted as a statistic, I should have let my staff know.
But most importantly, I shouldn’t have blamed myself. I wanted to make out with him, and there was no reason why I shouldn’t have. We were both having fun, and it made me feel awesome, something I rarely feel, especially in a room full of that many conventionally attractive people. Nothing that I did gave him the permission nor right to assault me, to violate my body, the way he did. Nothing I did was wrong. Nothing I did excuses him. He was in the wrong. There is no other way to look at it.
I would have changed one thing about the events prior to him grouping me, and that is that I would have stopped making out for a second to tell him I just wanted to make out, nothing more, and that I’d want him to stop trying to touch my body. Open, honest dialogue is key to random encounters, and I wished we’d actually uttered a word to each other. If nothing else, that would have allowed us to continue making out for a little while longer. But just because I would (or should) have handled things different does not excuse him from his actions.
As I’ve come to realize his culpability, I’ve been a lot easier on myself. Superficially, parties are a lot more enjoyable (although I don’t go to frat parties at all now — for a lot of other reasons). I feel like I’m a much stronger person as a result of realizing how I should have handled the aftermath differently. I feel more confident now that if something similar or worse were to happen, I’d be able to speak up, to stand up for myself, and to make sure that others — not me — were accountable for their actions.
And I’m realizing that I shouldn’t keep quiet about what happened, but should instead share my story of how a culture of silence impacted me. I do not think that I should be the poster child for sexual assault and rape at Stanford — let me make that clear. But I do think that I can be a part of our collective healing and shattering of the taboo that surrounds sexual assault and rape on this campus by opening up and sharing my story.
We need to encourage safe, open and honest dialogue around these issues, whether that be people sharing their stories if people feel comfortable, or simply dialoguing about ways to address these issues.We need to get more comfortable talking about the history of rape and sexual assault at Stanford, how those topics were treated in the past and present and how the problematic nature of the social and institutional responses to rape and sexual assault has real impacts on all our health and happiness. From that dialogue, we need to learn how to create a near future that not only supports victims, but prevents people from feeling like they have license to rape and sexually assault others, both socially and institutionally, that does not blame women or victims.
Hopefully, my story will make you think about these topics, to examine your life to see if you are, even in the smallest ways possible, breaking the taboos around safe, honest and open conversation, or supporting a system of silence and denial of accountability. My reflection has allowed me to live a healthier life, to support others who are hurting better. If we can all reflect, if we can all listen to people’s stories, than I know we can all come together to heal and, more importantly, change.
Joanna Poppyfield is a feminine of center organism who likes to write instead of doing homework (but then again, who doesn’t?). Her favorite books are The Reader and A Raisin in the Sun.