How a Sexual Assault Empowered Me

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I wore a red-orange dress, tangling my cascading blonde curls as I ran away down the dark street at 2:00 a.m. on May 30, 2014. That was the night I was sexually assaulted. While these encounters happen all too often, they have become so commonplace in media that I feel jaded writing about one now. It was a night like any other, and I thought I was making the responsible decision by letting someone walk me home. Sure enough, he was the type of guy we college females are conditioned to fear: gallant until no one is watching. Needless to say, Prince Charming was not so charming behind an unwillingly closed door.

College life isn’t as blissful and carefree as I pictured it would be back in high school. Terrible things happen all the time to more people than I can count. For some reason though, the perpetual limelight on sexual assault “victims” in the news teaches people like me that we are supposed to pity ourselves—that we should constantly be afraid. That’s my biggest problem with what happened to me last year. Stories like “A Rape on Campus” from Rolling Stone sensationalize and amplify actions until readers believe that everyone is a potential threat. It teaches us to look over our shoulder at every turn as we walk around at night. While it’s important to be cautious, stories like that one take strength and power away from us. Instead of serving as a lesson, they become the expected outcome.

While I agree that it’s important to expose stories like mine, college culture and dialogue has turned sexual assaults into pity-parties and victim-creating scandals. I don’t want to be another headline. In fact, I would rather be “just another rape story,” because that takes the power away from that entitled douche from last May. Allowing these rape stories to gain such traction and engender gossip is not accomplishing the desired effect of exposing the issue, because it is constantly clouded by fact-checking, reputation-preserving lawyers and PR agents. No person is empowered when the real issue at hand is overshadowed.

It may seem counter-intuitive that I’m sharing my story as I argue that sharing these stories is counter-productive. My point, though, is that the media should be addressing these cases in a way that does not define the affected individuals. I would much rather define myself as a UVA second-year aspiring broadcaster with great friends and family and a wide-open future than “the chick who got assaulted,” and I think most every person who has experienced something similar to me would agree. I refuse to be called a victim because that takes power away from me, yet “victim” is the buzzword that adds such sensation to the articles I dispute.

Why do I have such a problem with the word victim? It’s been almost a year since that day, and I’ve certainly circulated through a multitude of emotions. There was a time where I felt sorry for myself and feared the future. I went through a time of little self-worth. But after months had passed, I started to realize a few things. The first of which, crazy as it sounds, was that it could have been so much worse.

I am in college, I am receiving an awesome education and life lessons along the way, and I sure as hell was not going to give someone else the power to define my worth. I started thinking of it like my freshman chemistry class (in which I proudly earned a C). Just because I’m not smart in chemistry doesn’t mean I’m not smart. And just because one guy treated me poorly doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated poorly by every guy. That new outlook is so much more stabilizing and reassuring. Hopefully it can be the same for anyone who has been through something similar and can’t get past that worthless feeling.

The issue is the label. “Victim” is powerful. It defines, it forecasts a future, and it strips its object of sovereignty. It implies inferiority and helplessness. I am not helpless. I am not a damsel. “Victim” needs to go. The new goal of any article referencing these issues needs to revolve not around the events of one night, but around the individual’s humanity and resources they can use to move past the experience.

Guys and girls alike—this is life, shit happens. No one deserves to be disrespected or assaulted in any way, but that does not mean that if it happens, it has to consume your life and thoughts for good. We are all so much more than any one thing someone else could do to us. I know for me, moving past my experience and not letting it define me is what changed my perspective. I promise, time heals if you let your past empower your future rather than belittle it.

Lauren is a third year at the University of Virginia studying English and media. She loves baseball, pretending to do school work but actually watching Netflix, and three square meals of dark chocolate each day.

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