How T-Shirts Triggered a Week of Reckoning

Disclaimer: Her Campus upholds the same policy as Davidson College that the responsibility of any sexual assault lies solely with the perpetrator. The content of this article allows one woman to reflect on her experiences surrounding sexual assault at Davidson.

Trigger Warning: This article may contain triggering content regarding sexual assault.

 

A reflection post on a visit to the Rape Awareness Committee's "30 Years and Counting" event last semester.

I am in the Union, sweaty from the gym, feeling disordered thoughts bubbling up in reaction to the nerves of walking into the "30 Years and Counting" event. The weight of decades of violence against women settles on my shoulders. It’s as though I’ve put on every t-shirt I own and they are all made of lead, weighing me down and deleteriously affecting my insides, causing cancerous notions of body sovereignty, toxic masculinity, and unworthiness to spread and multiply.  

I walk around, noting the amount of Spanish, noting the number of familial assaults, noting the proportion of men who feel silenced in their survivorhood, and the threads that run through every shirt.

“ ____ Is not an excuse”

“I’m sorry”

“Sorry”

“Strong”

“Mujer”

“I said no”

“Love”

“Loved”

“For her”

“For you”

“For myself”

Ashley gives me the run down and says there’s a spot where I can make my own t-shirt so I do, squirting paint, eschewing the perfection and control that only seeks to control me most days, for raw emotion. It works. I create something that knocks loose a stone from the wall standing between Me Now and Me Then. A trickle of understanding, access, emotion begins to slowly drip out.

---

I am at Free Word performance. A poem about timely warnings and campus safety triggers an anger in me. I feel that the school does listen and know how they are constrained and how much they, like us, wish they could break free.

I think we have to hold each other accountable. I munch on Tenders and muse about the Bystander training sessions I led. I think about the times I've looked men in the eye and trusted them to hear me. I feel that some groups of men on campus have made changes. Perhaps their change is rooted in old-fashioned chivalry, but nevertheless, I’m proud of these men.

I think about the formal and informal conversations I’ve had with other men who were my friends or said they were. I blamed my reticence to go to their space on the fact that I wasn’t dating a fraternity brother. It was actually because my faith in them, my hope in them, the potential I’d seen in them, my trust in them, all of it was shattered. But it was no longer worth it to put in effort when any efforts were so summarily and consistently ignored or dismissed.  

I went home and cried, wondering if I’d ever have a space like that again, a group of people I believed in and was willing to work for, work with, and defend. I slept.

---

I am in the library with some unsubstantiated rumor about the sanctions he’s facing. I call someone over who might know; he doesn’t. He does have some questions for me about the administration’s most recent response. I pour every ounce of confusion, conflicting emotions into crafting an argument that will actually stand up to scrutiny. It’s cathartic. I mention my feeling that there is only so much Davidson can do. It feels like the millionth time I’ve said it, but it feels different now. 

I look through the album of t-shirt photos RAC posted. I can't hold in the words anymore and they spill out into something that I'm just glad makes sense. The same people who always like these things like it. I still feel affirmed in some small and unintended way.

---

I confirm the sanctions decision and feel shaky. I’m spinning but ignoring the fact that the world is moving around me because it’s not my narrative. I’m co-opting someone else’s pain and experience. After three years of speaking at Take Back the Night telling others to own their own experiences, sharing my previous ambiguous-but-probably-not-I-just-never-asked-what-happened-in-all-the-moments-I-don’t-remember experience and identifying bullshit “lowkey” things I’ve experienced since that create a culture of assumed access to my body. But now it’s not my narrative I say. It wasn’t really that I say. I don’t have it bad enough to worry or to feel much else besides that weekend I sat on a couch for a Friday night I say.

---

I texted three of his fraternity brothers. I want them to know why he is leaving if they didn’t already.  

No one responds.

---

I am sitting on my therapist’s couch with papers in my back pocket filled with scratches of paper from two nights ago, when I slipped headphones on and, in the safety of darkness, listened to "Til It Happens To You" and blindly wrote words on papers. No sight means no judgment means no self-censorship. Messages ribbon out of the pen to different men that none of them will read, that I can barely read the next day.  

I sketch what I remember, scribbled lines of legs in the air and a face that I still can’t bring myself to attribute to a bad person. A face that makes me sad for him, ache for his confusion, his bewildered and morose remorse. I’ve seen him a few times this semester. The first few times I was ashamed, not considering it rape. The next time I almost fell apart in the gym. Every time after that I hurt more for him than for me. Who apologizes to him for saying it’s ok, that this was normal? Who supports him as he grapples with realizing the severity of what he’s done? 

I am conjecturing, I know.

But I have seen predators walk this campus. I have seen the ownership in their eyes, the swagger in their pelvis; the entitlement exudes from them. I have beat the system they say. I have won.  

He walked around this semester mostly hunched over. He walked around looking more like a lost puppy than the bouncy boy that talked to me a week afterward, kindly, responding to my questions about had we used a condom? “We can sit down and talk about it if you want to.” My body hunches over and I know I don’t want to. I don’t want to hold him solely accountable either. He didn’t know I wanted to yell. He couldn’t know. He’s been encouraged. He’s been singled out as a problem in a fraternity full of pushed and strained boundaries.  

I am conjecturing, I know.

I’m sorry, I want to say.

I’m sorry for you.

I’m sorry if you can’t be.

I’m sorry we all failed you and you failed us.  

I’m sorry.

I know he’d say the same.

I’m conjecturing, I know.

---

I talk to a reporter and agree to do a story about sexual assault on college campuses. I e-mail the administrators I know to give them a heads up and also reassure them I’m not about to drag Davidson through the mud.   

I text one of the men from the day before letting them know the same thing about the fraternity he leads.

This time he responds. So does one of the others. I laugh harshly. I feel the cynicism settling in me like a shroud; I feel the anxiety settling in, firing up burners (neural pathways) I thought were snipped dead.  

“Too big. Too much space. Out of control. Gross.”

I manage to eat dinner and ice cream that night.

---

I am writing in the library at 12:00 a.m., listening to Gaga’s "Til It Happens To You," which is the only thing that lets me let myself feel anything or feel like it really happened.

There are a few ways of dealing with rape at Davidson. I chose the “be the secret weapon in case the response from the administration is shitty, we’ll get another shot” method. I haven’t signed anything because I hid in the shadows of the process, so I can say that he received the maximum possible sanctions Davidson hands down. And that, to me, feels weird.

“Can we talk?” is the response from the man I warned yesterday. He wants to know what this interview’s context is. I explain as best I can. He wants to share his fear about dragging the other fraternity brothers' names through the mud.

“They watched me walk into his room.”

“Not all of them.”

“The others laughed at sexist jokes. Made shitty remarks about assault. Or kept their mouths shut around the people who did.”

He looks at me silently. Not wanting to nod, not able to shake his head. I know how they feel about each other; I know how I felt about them. I had faith in them. I know. And I respect him as a leader for taking the bullet, telling me, the vehemently loud advocate, that he’s worried about his boys. I respect that he wants to protect them. I sat on my emotions and listened to brothers say shitty things because they didn’t know better, holding back anger so I could listen and engage, exploding too often to be productive, pushing too hard to be heard, putting too much in and being entirely too much. And for all of that, it did nothing.

I put in barbs. I know they’ll snag at the Patagonia of white heterosexual patriarchy. I also know they know they deserve it. I also know my rapist can’t and wouldn’t say these things. But I want all of them to know it’s more than one person who’s responsible for this happening.  

We are laughing by the end. Because I see the same fear, pain, frustration, confusion, and that most hated and feared disposition of straight white dudes: impotence. They don’t know what they can do. I know. I’ve been telling them. I’ve been doing it for them. I offer again. We strategize. I am grateful. I am at peace. We laugh about some other things. The spark of hope, of confidence in these men, is not gone. It is just a spark. But I read in their eyes what I want to see.

I am conjecturing again, I know.

But I have to believe they are trying. And I have to know that the force behind their trying isn’t enough. I have to believe in them. And I have to remember they can’t do nearly as much I can. I have to trust them. And I have to remember they don’t know nearly as much as I do. I’m a nag and I’m a bitch and I’m the best hope they’ve got and I will demand they remember that.

---

I walk to B that night and pass, on my way, a window that will be dark until another boy moves in. I go to bed and cry.

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