Last week, the Voices of Gordon hosted three events on campus for Sexual Assault Awareness Week. The Voices of Gordon began as an Instagram account in July 2020 as a place for “women of Gordon College to be able to share their stories of sexual assault or harassment” (Instagram account, Voices of Gordon, July 18, 2020). The three-pronged event addressed misconceptions surrounding assault, testimonies from current students, and a Title IX informational panel.
On Wednesday, April 14th, students gathered to listen to testimonies from fellow students who are survivors of sexual assault. Throughout the roughly one-hour event, ten individuals shared their experiences.
In the testimonies, students described various circumstances in which their assault occurred. While each experience presented different issues, a common theme among all individuals was a violation of trust. In every single testimony given Wednesday night, the individual knew their perpetrator. Some were family members, significant others, coworkers, or trusted friends. The speakers directly addressed the misconception that sexual assault is perpetrated exclusively by strangers. According to RAINN, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and in sexual assault cases concerning children, 93% of victims know their perpetrator. The most common abuser is someone the victim knows and trusts.
In her testimony, one student said, “I was only 16, baby faced and naïve. I thought I was safe, I made the mistake of trusting a man who would only ever take and take from me. The great lifelong best friend, wasn’t he?” So many of the individuals who spoke Wednesday night echoed this sentiment, sharing how the assault was not only a physical violation, but a violation of trust.
In her testimony, Rachel said that “You assume that your professors are there to help you learn and that their interest is to help you succeed. You do not think that a meeting to discuss your studies would include a stroke on the arm, a compliment on how you look or what you are wearing…You are not expecting him to approach you from behind and bring you into an embrace so tight that you are not able to break free.” Professors, even at a Christian university, are not removed from the group of individuals who can be perpetrators. Any category of individual can become an abuser, anyone from friends to significant others to family members.
Teddy shared that “it happened within this group of people where I first learned to love by a person who was deemed safe simply because we shared a common ancestor.” He shared that his abuse occurred when he was a young child by a member of his own family. He said “the action of assault is not just a physical one. For me, it was also an assault on my mind.” Continuing, Teddy described that “every interaction after I thought to myself, maybe I do want this. Maybe what happened wasn’t wrong. Maybe that’s what happens in every family.” At the end of his testimony, he stated that “I am the survivor of abuse, a part of the continual misuse of power by a man who chose to confuse a little boy. But that little boy grew up.”
Sadly, family members make up a large percentage of sexual assaults, specifically when the victim is a child. Approximately thirty percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members.
When Grace spoke, she described an assault that also took place when she was under eighteen and with a person that she trusted. She explained that he asked her to hang out and she accepted “because we were friends and I trusted him.” She explained that he picked her up and drove to his place where they watched a movie. On the ride back, Grace stated that he pulled over into an “empty parking lot” and told her that she “owed him something” because he had driven her there and back. He did not mean money, she said. “I told him no, I told him that I didn’t want to. I even fought back, but it didn’t make him stop.” She continued, “I kicked, I slapped, I punched, I scratched with my nails, I even bit him. There was nothing that would stop him.” Grace spoke in agreement with others that night who trusted a friend and never anticipated that they would be taken advantage of.
Many students shared experiences in which they were intoxicated. In the event Monday night, it was noted that consent cannot occur when someone is drunk. While intoxication laws differ by state, Massachusetts law states that an individual who is intoxicated is incapable of giving consent. In her testimony, Sarah described that during her Freshman year she found herself feeling “empty, tired, numb, and exhausted.” She stated that “in an attempt to feel again…I decided to drink.” Her friend was the self-proclaimed designated driver and in describing the assault, she said “For reasons I can’t explain, I remember his hands slipping into my bra and then tracing the lines across my stomach. His cold fingers lifting my bra above my breasts, his hands being all over me. His fingers sliding past the waistband of my pants. I remember his violation of my body, of my trust.” She continued, “I remember feeling like I wanted to go home. I remember feeling like I wanted to die. He was sober and decided to use my body for himself.” Another survivor shared this experience and in her testimony, she said “I was intoxicated for the first time and I thought he was the love of my life. My stomach dropped when he crossed that line. He didn’t ask if it was okay. I had never been touched in that way, his hands all over my body as if I was his property.” Sexual assault is common on college campuses and at least half of these instances involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both.
Another misconception that the Voices of Gordon discussed at the first event was sexual assault in a relationship. This issue was brought up in numerous testimonies, including Lilah’s when she stated that “I started dating this guy when I was in eighth-grade. I was only thirteen years old.” She continued, “it began with little things, him touching me when I didn’t want to be touched,” however, she said, “we started doing things that I was uncomfortable with and I voiced that to him. I told him I didn’t want to. He would say things like, come on just this one time, or do it for me, or, you’ll do it if you love me. And I said no, I said stop. I can still feel his hands all over my wrists and his mouth all over me saying that if I loved him, I would do this.” Individuals can still be victims of sexual assault while in a dating relationship.
Jeannie also spoke of being in an abusive relationship. She said that when she was sixteen she began dating her first boyfriend. They went on dates and went to the movies, seeming like a normal teenage couple. However, she stated that this took a sharp turn and “one day I woke up and I was unconscious. He had thrown me off my bed and given me a black eye.” She explains how she justified his abuse, telling herself that this is normal and is him coping. Jeannie continues, “little did I know that I would be walking home from school covered in bruises…My boyfriend on a weekly basis would hit me, pull my hair, and forced me to do sexual favors.” Those dating or married can be victims of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. Additionally, within relationships, individuals can still withdraw consent to any activity. As discussed Monday night, consenting to an activity one day does not equate to consent another day.
Regardless of the situation in which the assault occurred, students described similar physical and emotional responses to the assault. In a vast majority of the testimonies, students spoke of “freezing” or being rendered temporarily immobile. Addison described in her testimony that she and the other student had previously discussed their comfortability and how far they wanted to go. “So, it took me by surprise when he spoke of his desire to do more.” Several times, Addison described, he asked and she declined. However, when he asked again she stated that “Something I learned later to be called tonic immobility inhibited me from uttering another word. Why couldn’t I say no again?” She continued, “The next thing I knew was that we were standing in front of our dorm. He was hugging me and apologizing for what he had just done.”
Tonic immobility, as Addison referenced, is a common response to sexual assault and is a “state of involuntary, temporary motor inhibition.” It can feel like a state of temporary paralysis. A study conducted found that, out of the women surveyed, seventy percent reported significant tonic immobility and forty-eight percent reported severe tonic immobility during the assault.
This statistic is reflected in the testimonies as speaker after speaker spoke about “freezing.” One speaker shared that “All I did was lay there, silently, confused and shaking violently.” Sarah described that “I remember fleeting moments of awareness spent just staying still. Even when my heart was racing and everything in me was screaming for me to do something I stayed still.” Cydnee said that “I froze, I couldn’t fight it…I laid there because that’s what I had to do to survive.” Lorena stated that “I really really thought I’d fight back… Most of all I wonder why I just did nothing and was completely paralyzed. I should’ve done it, I shouldn’t have hesitated. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. But I didn’t.” Lastly, Abby shared on Wednesday night that “I am never at a loss for words, but that night, no words could come out of my mouth. You see, I told him I didn’t want to have sex. When he penetrated me my entire body seized up. Is this really happening? What do I say? What do I do? Should I say something? What is going on? This isn’t what I want. I said no. Many thoughts going through my brain at a hundred miles an hour. But instead, my voice was silent. I take such pride in my voice. I speak my mind in every circumstance and I never shy away from voicing my opinion, popular or not. The thing I take such pride in, my voice, was taken away.” While the fight or flight mechanisms are the most discussed responses to fear, freezing is a very common response to sexual assault. In the event Monday night, this response was discussed.
While so many of the speakers talked about the “freezing” experience during the assault, they discussed various emotional responses that they had after the assault took place. A feeling frequently discussed was the belief that it was their fault or that they were “asking for it”. Lilah said that “For years I thought it was my fault. I thought that if I had just given in, I wouldn’t be dealing with this emotional pain.” Cydnee explained when she experienced assault numerous times she believed there was something deeply wrong with her. Cydnee said that she thought “I must be the girl who wore the super short dresses, who talked to too many guys, who was asking for it.” Having experienced numerous assaults, Cydnee explained individuals who have previously been assaulted are at a higher risk of being assaulted again. In her Junior year of high school, she noted while at work a coworker began groping her and the final straw occurred when the coworker “locked me into the walk-in fridge and turned off the lights.” When he opened the door, he told her “It’s okay. You’re not pretty enough to be raped.” This furthered the belief that rape is in whole or in part caused by the victim. Cydnee said that “over time, I realized that my looks, my personality and clothing had nothing to do with any of my past experiences.” Feeling guilty about being sexually assaulted is the most common response that individuals experience. They may tell themselves that they should not have been there, should have been wearing something different, or if they had just acted differently the assault would never have happened.
Many survivors feel responsible for their assault, minimizing the magnitude of the crime. This can manifest in believing that they should have fought back, that the attack was not really that bad, or that reporting the incident is not worth ruining the perpetrator’s life. Speakers reflected these emotions. Sarah explained that “for a while I was so angry at myself for not doing more to try to stop it. I honestly felt that I could have done something.” This response was common among those who also experienced freezing during their assault. Despite freezing being the body’s physiological response, a response out of the individual’s control, the speakers expressed not being able to help to feel that they could have, and should have, done more.
Multiple students spoke about struggling with minimizing their assaults. “This must be a mistake,” one survivor shared. “Things just got too messy. He was only showing interest in me, right? Shouldn’t I be flattered that he thought I was sexy?” Abby stated that she felt “Mine wasn’t that bad. So, no, it couldn’t be rape.” She said that she still struggles with minimizing her trauma as it does not fit into the stereotypical definition of rape.
Some students spoke of their choice to open an investigation concerning their assault and the outcome of such investigation. Addison recorded that she chose to open an investigation at Gordon College and describes the challenges she experienced. “I recounted my experience in numerous meetings, bringing out the excruciating details, doing my best to provide investigators a clear snapshot of the events that took place all while attempting to maintain passing grades, friendships, and progress athletically throughout the investigation.” The challenges that she discussed are some of the reasons that many individuals choose not to report their assault. Addison tells the outcome of the investigation, saying that the individual was found not responsible after 278 days of investigation. “I won’t lie to you and tell you because the case is closed I’m suddenly okay,” she said, “I’m actually far from it. I’m still dealing with the weight of not feeling believed, uncertain as to when I’ll be fully healed. Or, at least be able to comfortably walk back from the Woodland parking lot.”
Another student explained their experience taking their assault to trial. In a criminal trial, Grace said that “The first question they asked me in court was what were you wearing? Not, how was your day? Not about my side of the story, but about the clothes that I was wearing.” She continued, “While he left with some bruises, I left emotionally scarred.” Most reported assaults do not result in convictions. This can be due to the nature of the crime and the burden of proof required by the law. As a result of this, many individuals choose not to report.
Whether they chose to report the assault or not, the speakers shared their healing process and the challenges that they are still experiencing. Grace said that “He left with some bruises. I was left emotionally scarred. Even though I’ve gotten help with coping, my whole life has never felt the same.” Others also spoke about how they are still working through their assault and trying to heal. Lilah said that “his coercion wrecked me. It broke me. I’m still working on repairing the brokenness that he caused.” In a similar fashion, another student explained that “Now, I’m trying to find a way back to the innocence taken from me, but that’s gone, really gone. So, I’m learning again how to trust, how to love, but still to sleep with one eye open.” Teddy said during his testimony that he is “Tired of thinking that this trauma made me who I am today. It didn’t. It is only part of my story. A story that is only beginning to unravel.” The speakers illustrated that the process of healing looks different for each person. There is no one correct way to heal or one expected way to heal.
A few students expressed how they now feel that the assault does not hold weight over them. Sarah explained that “Now four years later, I don’t have to jump through mental hurdles to avoid thoughts from that night or any other memories associated with them. I’m here to say that it’s tough, but it gets better.” Others described how they had healed. Jeannie stated that “despite everything he put me through, I have pulled through. I now have a boyfriend who I have been with for nearly four years.” Healing is not a linear process, as detailed by the speakers, but a gradual process that does not need to be rushed. Abby said that “You took something from me that I can never get back, something that I held onto for so long. But I am not broken. I am not damaged. I am beautiful in my eyes and in God’s eyes. I am not marred by something I could not control. In fact, I’m stronger because of this. You took my voice, you minimized me. But guess what? I’m back. I’ve been back and you will never silence me again.”
In the process of healing, Abby also spoke about the song Symphony by Switch and how she has listened to it on repeat for the past few years. She said “This song reminds me of the promise that Christ has given us…I would play the song over and over, crying, trying to trust in God’s goodness. I don’t believe there is a go-to answer for why these things happen. But I know my only option is to blindly try and remember God’s promises for us.”
Towards the end of their testimonies, many individuals chose to speak directly to those who may have experienced assault and who may be currently suffering. Teddy said that “To those who think their suffering in silence is in vain, don’t. Take your time. Be sure, but I don’t just mean be sure that it was real, be sure you’re ready to share.” Cydnee said that “Please hear me say that it is not your fault. If you froze, freezing is one of the body’s natural response mechanisms and might just be the only way your body was able to survive. Be proud of yourself for surviving and show grace to your body. You survived a traumatic event, and your body froze so that you could survive and be sitting here tonight.” She also stated, “If you’ve been assaulted more than once, it is not your fault. You are loved, you have infinite worth, you have a purpose here on earth, and you are not alone.”
Jeannie said “My word is just listen to those around you. Listen to the voices that you have heard tonight, because there is so much strength in you and every single one of you has a story to be told. Do not let anyone take that away from you.” Lastly, Addison spoke about justice and how she felt after her the investigation found the individual not responsible. She said “I equate justice with accountability and I know that I did all in my power to push him to face his actions. I am certain that we a just God and the sanctions he issues are the only ones that truly matter. Even if the choice is made not to report, I encourage those who are survivors to seek justice. Whether it shows up as sharing your experience, going to counseling or educating others, do what you can with the platform that you are given.”
In the event Thursday night, the panel discussed misconceptions concerning Title IX investigations. They explained that at every step in the process of an on-campus investigation, the individual can choose not to go forward. Filing a report does not require opening an investigation. Additionally, they clarified who was and was not a mandated reporter. Any individual who works for the school is a mandated reporter, with the exception of “Licensed professional counselors and staff of the Gordon College Counseling Center; Health service providers and staff at the Health Center; On-campus members of the clergy and/or chaplains working within the scope of their licensure or ordination (including the College Chaplain).” A mandated reporter, according to Gordon College’s Safety Report, is “an employee of the College who is obligated by policy to share Gordon College Police to share knowledge, notice, and/or reports of harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation with the Title IX Coordinator.” Therefore, if an individual wishes to speak with someone in confidentiality, they should intentionally go to a member of the staff who is not a mandated reporter. Students are also able to speak with those not employed by the college, such as off-campus counseling or members of a church staff.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.
Categories: Student Life