So many people in Trinity have stories like mine

The era of silence and shame is over – it’s time to get loud, and it’s time to get furious

Content Warning: sexual assault

I come from a place where sexual assault is prevalent, but where justice for its victims isn’t uncommon either. Coming to Trinity shocked me, because when I realised that there was no discourse going on, I thought it must have been because there just wasn’t a sexual assault problem in Ireland. My best guess was that people were just more polite – in clubs, when I declined to dance with a guy, he’d walk away, whereas in my hometown the guy was more likely to get aggressive, trying to touch me or invade my personal space further. I never saw anything in the news about cases of sexual assault.

The silence led me to believe that sexual assault just plain didn’t happen here, or at least that it didn’t happen in Trinity. The huge presence of feminism and other human rights campaigns on campus, combined with the absence of any talk on consent, led me to believe that it was an issue that didn’t require any action or discourse.

I never heard so much as a whisper that it was a problem, and that was a huge reason for my decision not to report what happened to me. There was no reference for what would happen if I did, and the silence made me think I must have been the odd woman out. I was terrified that if I reported it, my friend group would see me stirring up trouble where there had previously been none.

The person who assaulted me was my class rep. He was my friend’s boyfriend. He told me that he had the right to grab me wherever he wanted. He told me that I was being dramatic, that I had no right to be upset, that I was making him and others look bad by being upset over his unacceptable behaviour. All these things and more reinforced the notion in my head that I was at fault, and that I was the problem.

My sexual assault was like a time bomb. It lodged itself somewhere in my chest and was stuck there for months before it exploded out of me and into the world, leaving an aching, gaping hole that I couldn’t ignore anymore. In the days immediately following the assault, I quietly built a wall of denial around the problem, each brick in the wall an affirmation of the terrible thoughts I couldn’t escape. I was drunk, so it was my fault.

If I reported it, my friends would hate me. If I reported it, nobody would believe me. If they did believe me, they’d say it didn’t matter because it wasn’t rape, because he was gay, because I was drunk, because it’s just banter, because we were joking around earlier on the night, because, because, because. I had a thousand reasons in my head why I was the problem, namely because my assailant told me as much.

The night I was assaulted, I was tipsy. I’d had a couple glasses of wine at my friend’s birthday party, and as we were outside waiting for the bus to take us to the club, he walked up to me and started groping me. I shouted at him to get off me, and he had the audacity to shush me and say: “It’s fine, I’m not sexually attracted to you.” I knocked his hands away and started crying, and one of my friends stepped up and told him to get away from me. He continued to defend himself, saying that since he wasn’t attracted to me, it was totally fine.

According to him, I was overreacting, making a scene and embarrassing myself. He said as much to a different friend of mine a few days later on a night out – “Yeah, it was unbelievable, she made such a scene, even [my friend] agreed with me that she was embarrassing herself. She almost ruined [friend’s] birthday party.”

That night, I sobbed as I called my boyfriend over and over and over, desperate for reassurance and absolution. He didn’t pick up. I fell into a disoriented and panicked sleep on my best friend’s sofa, alone and afraid. In the days that followed, I moved as if I was in a fog, until that wall around the night in my head was well-built and fortified to the point that I could pretend I was fine – never mind the fact that seeing him in lectures made my heart pound in my ears. Never mind that hearing his voice made me want to run in the other direction.

Three months later, he stopped me outside the library during exams and asked if we could talk. I said yes, because I wondered if he would apologise, and because like so many women, I’ve been conditioned to be polite and friendly even when I feel unsafe.

He told me he had been drunk, and he told me that I “didn’t know him well enough” at the time to understand his humour, or to understand that he wasn’t usually like that. I nodded and went back into the library, and then the time bomb inside my heart exploded.

All those feelings I had stifled, all those fears of rejection and condemnation, and that very basic fear that so many women and men feel of unwanted touch, of being overpowered by someone stronger – it all came rushing back at once. I couldn’t escape him, I couldn’t ignore him, and worst of all, he still thought that what he did was excusable by his state of inebriation and his sense of humour. I cracked, and this outpouring of emotion is probably a large part of why I failed four exams last year. I simply couldn’t focus on college when I felt so unsafe and unable to come forward.

I started writing this article a month ago when I read a similar article in The University Times. The woman wrote anonymously, and she talked about how alone she felt. She talked about how she was afraid to come forward, how she was afraid to make a scene, and most vitally to me, she said this:

My situation does not fit in the current, though most common, box of sexual assault. It is not in examples on consent flyers or what automatically comes to people’s minds when I say I am a victim of sexual assault.”

To see a story so similar to mine published for everyone to see made me feel recognised for the first time in over a year. I wasn’t alone anymore. It broke my heart to know there were other women to whom this had happened, but it also felt like I had a small talisman against the ever-present shame and guilt: it wasn’t just me.

All I could think was that if I’d read something like that a year ago, I wouldn’t have spent nearly a month suicidal during exams. The immediate rushing relief of solidarity was a salve to the open wound in my heart.

My next thought after that was – how many other girls like us are there? How many other terrified women and men have been abused by people they trusted, and how can I help them? At first I was afraid to publish this, and I put it off, but the lack of conversation around the issue in Trinity, and the results of the recent court case in Belfast, have shown me that I can’t stay silent anymore. I can’t remain complicit in the silencing of victims, and in order to do that I had to start with myself.

Now that I’ve had time to heal and avail of College’s counselling services I feel like I have a responsibility to speak out about what happened to me because I learned that I’m not the only one – and I’m damn sure there’s more than two of us.

According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, 92% of assault victims know their assailant. There’s something rotten at the core of society that makes victims feel like they’re in the wrong for being assaulted. If Trinity is so bound and determined to be at the forefront of social change by divesting from fossil fuels and boycotting Israel, why is sexual assault something we’re comfortable remaining silent on?

I challenge the incoming sabbatical officers: do something about it. Lip service isn’t enough anymore. Consent classes in Halls aren’t enough anymore. Handing out condoms and lube and FRIES posters isn’t enough anymore. It is high time we tear down the walls around sexual assault and throw everything into the light. It is time we stop forcing women to hide the sins of the men who think they own our bodies. The era of silence and shame is over – it’s time to get loud, and it’s time to get furious.

f you have been affected by the issues raised of this article, support is available from the following services:

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 77 8888

Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900

Samaritans: 116 123

TCDSU Welfare Officer: [email protected]