S.W.E.A.R — Stand With Everyone Against Rape — Speech
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In honor of a topic near and dear to my heart and soul's mission, I partnered with SWEAR. SWEAR — Stand With Everyone Against Rape — is an organization that aims to spread awareness and education with high schoolers on what sexual assault and rape is, what to look for, how to be an active bystander and what to do if it happens to you or someone you know. I was asked to be the survivor speaker during Martha's Vineyard High School's 3rd annual SWEAR assembly.
Below is the transcript of my speech and the Q&A session.
I went to Syracuse University not all that long ago. I am a proud Orange woman and I don’t live a day where I am not thankful for my education and the people that Syracuse brought me. There was a lot of good about college. I joined a sorority. I attended basketball games with 35,000 of my closest friends. And I was lucky enough to live with my best friends in one beautiful house my senior year. Like I said, there was a lot of good about college.
However, I would be lying to you if I said that my college experience looked like what they show in the movies. I would be lying to you if I said anyone’s college experience looked like what they show in the movies.
Who here has been told that college is going to be the best four years of your life?
Every young adult in the auditorium raised their hand.
I was definitely told that and as much as I did experience a lot of good at Syracuse, I experienced the absolute worst year of my life there with some pretty dark moments.
On August 22, 2013, I became a survivor of sexual assault. I use that word survivor over victim on purpose. I believe that you become a survivor the moment you say that what happened to you was not okay. I refuse to let that man make me a victim.
So when he made me a survivor, it was the very beginning of my sophomore year of college. I had come back to campus a few days early to help with freshman orientation because I was a peer advisor to incoming students. I was in really high spirits about being back on campus. I had loved my freshman year and over that summer break, I had really missed my friends I had made. Getting back to campus was really exciting because it meant a whole new year with them. And, I was a sophomore now so I was no longer the new kid on campus who didn’t know what I was doing.
One night — August 22nd — a few friends and I decided that we would go out, have fun, celebrate being back on campus before classes started. In full transparency on this night, I had a drink or two. I was aware of how much I had to drink. I was aware of my surroundings.
These friends and I entered a house on campus where we met up with a couple men. I will never forget that room. It was painted all white.
In that room, I stood with three other women to my left and three men to my right. Across the circle was a man who handed me a styrofoam cup with a drink I did not see poured. We all toasted and drank to being back on campus for another year and as I removed the cup away from my face that was the last memory I have until approximately eight hours later — a very typical story point in the plot of someone using date rape drugs.
I woke up in his bed. He was hovering over me fully clothed. And I was completely naked. Upon waking, I immediately went into panic mode. Everything about that situation felt wrong. My body was in pain and I looked to my right to see a used condom on the floor. Though I didn’t have the memory of what happened in those hours in between, it confirmed to me that something had happened that I absolutely did not consent to. I looked at my phone and there were 30 missed calls from my friends and my roommate. They all were wondering where I was because I have never not come back to my dorm room.
I got up, got dressed, and got my things to leave as quickly as I could. And I was leaving, he asked me if I wanted to get breakfast.
I got back to my dorm room where my roommate was waiting for me. As she asked me where I had been, I looked in the mirror to find that my neck was covered in hickies that were almost black in color and bruises that were in the shape of finger prints.
Typically, your personal punishment for taking one too many shots is getting sick the next morning, not getting sexually assaulted. And as I looked into that mirror, the nightmare was setting in. And that was just the beginning.
Growing up, I had learned that sexual assault and rape was something that happened in a dark alley, with a stranger with a weapon. I had learned to dissociate that as something that happened to OTHER people… and I never thought it would happen to me… until it did. My rape happened in an place where people lived. My rapist was someone I knew and his weapon was drugs and alcohol.
After August 22nd, I learned that 1 in 4 college women would become survivors of sexual assault before receiving their diploma. I would be doing a large disservice to both genders and to the cause if I only focused on women. Men can also be survivors of sexual assault. In fact, RAINN states that About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Back in 2013, there weren’t very many people talking about this issue publicly. Some — but not many — and I felt very much like a statistic.
After my assault, I was in shock. I was angry. I felt dehumanized. In the moments I wasn’t numb, I was slipping into a depression. I couldn’t fall asleep at night because all I could see were the white walls and I was failing academically for the first time in my life.
All of these complex emotions (that I’m truly skipping over) fueled me to do something in a situation where I felt utterly powerless. I ended up cofounding an organization called The Girl Code Movement. The Girl Code Movement is the college-focused anti-sexual assault organization that raises awareness in college women and men to become empowered bystanders who can stop rape from happening by simply identifying at-risk students and taking action.
Why is it important to be an empowered bystander?
Like I mentioned, there were three other women who entered that house with me on the night of August 22nd and there were two other men there who were not my rapist. There were 5 other people in that room who if even one of them had stepped in, I may not be here talking to you.
Now after 5 years of healing, I have come to a place of acceptance where I believe that my rape happened to me for a reason. I believe that it was meant to be a part of my story and I was meant to shine light on this dark to create awareness; however, the point is that my rape could have been prevented.
My position as Co-founder of The Girl Code Movement, hundreds… if not a thousand, women AND MEN have told me their stories of sexual assault. I do not exaggerate when I say those numbers. In December of 2013, I went public with my story. By February of 2014, 200 people had reached out to me with their “me too” stories in a span of 2 months. I stopped counting after that.
I tell you that because I have the perspective to say that each survivor story is unique and different; but, many assaults I’ve heard are similar to mine — there were people who could have stepped in.
It was Discovery Channel that said humans are the only species to go against our instinct of fear. We go to grimy bars, crowded fraternities and houses just a bit too far off campus because all of our friends seem to think it’s alright to go. We take another shot because everyone else seems to be able to handle consecutive shots. We rationalize our fears.
You have your limits. It might take a while to find them; but when you do, trust them.
This says Girl Code because it refers the the core principle behind The Girl Code Movement (regardless of gender) — which is that you have a loyalty and responsibility to one another… an unspoken code between one another that we’re all in this together. So stick together. Be loyal to one another and take care of one another because we're deeply human.
There is many ways in which you can do this, but here are a few:
My old roommates that I showed you in the beginning of this presentation and I had counting system senior year. There were 10 of us, including me, so there was a lot of people to wrangle to go home together every night. At the end of every party and the sober event we went to we would count from 1 to 10. We all had a number… I was 1 and I started the count off. "1...2...3..." and so on. And if a number was missing, we would know quickly who to search for.
Make a meeting spot with a designated leaving time.
Assuming you trust one another, add your best friends on “Find My Friends”.
This includes talking about getting people drunk so you can hook up with them. This includes rape jokes. This includes comments that seem more innocent because it’s not rape, but what you’re really talking about is sexual harassment.
As a survivor, this is something I’m deeply sensitive to and something I do not find funny. Nothing about what happened to me is funny nor a joke. Yet these jokes are in the way we speak to one another — I consistently heard sayings in college like “I raped that exam” or “don’t get raped”. These comments exist in the culture we consume — Drake’s collaboration on the track “Forever” has Kayne raping the lyric “I raped the game young, you can call it statutory”. And a a little over a year ago, our President elect (now President) was caught on camera discussing grabbing women without their consent because he felt like “he could”.
These types of comments are more than offensive. It is harmful because of the immediate effect it has on people who hear it. Comments such as these desensitize people to rape, and the effect is that rape itself is considered less of a problem. It's not about sensitivity. It's about how it cognitively conditions us to accept violence and abuse toward another group.
Simply, it is not funny nor is it right.
If your friend looks like they are in trouble, they most likely are. Most people do not step in when they have the gut instinct they should because they don't want others to be mad at them. But that's the worst thing that can happen — that person gets mad at you for cockblocking. When you think above how others will view you, you realize that anger is not as bad as a lifetime of trauma. Being an empowered bystander can save someone from the lifelong struggle of dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault so let people get pissed at you.
It is imperative to note that though being an empowered bystander is important, it is simply the beginning of the work that we need to do for it does not eradicate sexual assault and rape. It simply lowers the number of incidents. To put an end to sexual violence, we need to address the underlying problems around how we define masculinity and femininity in our society. We need to have hard conversations and we need to learn from our differences to understand that we are all deeply human and all deeply deserving of love and respect. I am thankful to Martha's Vineyard High School for allowing us to have a conversation such as this for many high schools will ignore this conversation. Though this conversation is hard, it is real and cannot be ignored.
What To Do If It Happens To Someone You Know
The reality is that you will know someone who will be raped and it is possible that someone will come to you in confidence. I want to arm with you that reality in the event this is true for you.
These are comments and phrases you should NOT say to a survivor of assault. When you make comments such as these it takes away blame from the perpetrator of the crime, and puts it on the survivor. Sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse is not the survivor's fault. It never has been and it never will be and when you say this to someone, you are participating in victim blaming. Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them. We as a society avoid accountability for perpetrators’ actions when we victim blame. And this is dangerous because it silences survivors and allows criminals to continue their behavior without penalty.
Instead you should say....
I mentioned that a negative reaction to someone telling you that they were sexually assaulted or raped may serve a silencing function, leading some rape survivors to stop talking about their experiences to anyone at all. If you are the first person a survivor tells, you can affect their entire healing journey so affect is positively by supporting them. This will not be easy for you either, but it will make all the difference in allowing a survivor to feel validated and whole. Allow a survivor to have their own healing they want to take by believing them and supporting them in whatever way they need you.
What To Do If It Happens To You
I do not want to have this conversation for I hope that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. However, I would be doing such a disservice to you if I didn't let you know about the things I learned the hard way. As I bring up the next couple points, understand that these are suggestions and learnings from my journey. I do not believe that there is a formula that a survivor SHOULD go through in order to get better. Only a surivivor will know what is best for them. They should honor that and know that THEY are in control of their healing journey.
Understand Your Options
After I got back to my dorm room and looked in the mirror, I felt so dirty. I immediately removed my clothes I wore the night of my rape. I showered about 6 times to remove him from my skin and I went to the bathroom. Little did I know, I was removing valuable and necessary evidence that I would need for a rape kit. I did go to the hospital within 24 hours of my assault to get tests done, but I destroyed a lot of the evidence I needed for a strong rape kit — and you need a rape kit for evidence if you're going to ever go to court. You don't need to decide if you want to take legal action right away, but you do need to gather evidence right away. Though going to the hospital was one of the most painful parts of my waking memory, I am thankful that I took that action. With you're at it, take photographic evidence of any marks on your body — for me, it would have been the markings on my neck.
You have many other options besides legal action and you are in control of how you utilize these options. In the case of Martha's Vineyard High School, y'all have CONNECT as a resource. And majority of college campuses have an Advocacy Center or a Counseling Center that is privilege and confidential. Ask about it on your college tours and arm yourself with that knowledge when you get to campus (because every college is different).
Lean on a Support System
I told my parents what happened to me within 24 hours. It was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make in my life and I am privileged to have a family that responded in a way that was supportive. Whether it's your parents or your friends or professionals — in your own time — seek someone out for support. You'll need them when you feel low. And they will lift you up. Tell them when you need someone to listen to you, to get dinner with you, to go to the hospital with you. Whoever it is, have someone be there for you in those moments. I am more than happily to make myself available to any survivor at any time ALWAYS.
I decided, with the help of my parents, that I would go to counseling shortly after my assault. For me, it was helpful to confide in someone who didn't have ulterior motives or a direct investment in my healing (especially in my dark moments). Many of the survivors who have confided in me throughout the years have also found comfort and healing through the power of a therapist. It may not be the avenue for everyone and it is up to you to decide if it is for you, but it is something I recommend strongly for people to look into. When you're sick, you go to a doctor. When your car has an issue, you go to a mechanic. When you are struggling with something, you go talk to someone.
Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms
I say healthy because I had some healthy coping mechanisms and some rather unhealthy coping mechanisms. I abused alcohol for a few years after my assault. Everyone in college drank... so it was not abnormal that I decide to as well; however, something different happened when I decide to partake. After a few drinks of alcohol, the emotions and memories of my assault that I had been suppressing came to the surface. So I drank more so I would not feel leading to many blacked-out nights. It was easy to hide my alcohol problem for other kids were drinking heavily to. And it wasn't until after college that I feel like I truly kicked the habit.
Today, my coping mechanism are much healthier. I started with therapy until that no longer was effective. It morphed into blog posts and painting. I participate in advocacy to take control of my story (I did this in college as well). Now, coping resembles the form of wellness. Exercise and nutrition give me complete control and authority over my body—something I lacked four years ago. I meditate. I journal. I’ve taken one Kundalini yoga class and a course in EFT. I’ll do what I have to until it no longer lives in my nervous system, until I’m fully healed. This leads me to the healing...
The Healing and How it’s Changed Me
I've learned a thing or two from my assault. Though it completely tipped my life upside down, I am so freaking proud of the woman I've persevered to become. So I'll share a few positive learnings with you:
My assault gave me a new way of looking at my surroundings. I could be angry at my perpetrator and a lot of days I was. Slowly overtime, I realized he was a part of a greater problem. He was a result of a society and a culture that created him, a society and a culture that told him that his actions were okay. Achieving justice for me meant attempting to have an impact on that culture.
With my changing view of culture, I have a very particular view of how I want to raise my future children. Besides teaching them how to love and respect other humans, I will do my best to teach them what the education system fails to about their bodies, the construct of gender, and consent. I will be a sex-positive parent.
I’ve learned that rape might not be the only trauma that a survivor experiences. It might just be the start. You might enter into toxic relationships that will add to your list of memories you don’t like revisiting. You might abuse substances to deal with the pain and when you do, you might make decisions that add to your list of memories you don’t like revisiting. No matter how a sexual assault survivor copes — and I’ve seen it all — that trauma will need to be cleared at some point in order to feel joy again.
I’ve learned that my rape had a ripple effect. One night, one action, one person affected not only me, but my family, my friends, my college professors, my romantic relationships. He affected the entire Syracuse community and an audience that eventually grew much bigger because my voice and my story spread. If he knew that I would became so enraged and would start a national movement to talk about sexual assault, would he still have chosen me? He clearly did not understand the kind of woman he was dealing with.
Lastly, I’ve learned first hand that healing is a journey and comes in many — I described the journey of mine above and I fully expect it to continue to pivot and turn as new challenge approach me.
I want to end with this — college is an amazing time to grow in the independent person you want to be. Try not to be intimidated and take it all in. Don’t be afraid to take chances, be bold and have fun. The college experience can be the best four years of life; and with that, we should be aware of how common sexual assault is and we owe it to ourselves to contribute to the movement to put it to an end.
Question and Answer
How soon after your assault did you decide to go public? What motivated you to do so?
I was raped on August 22, 2013. By mid-to-late September, I was having conversations with Caroline, one of the women I co-founded The Girl Code Movement with, about how wrong it felt that so many people on campus were unaware of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape. It angered us to our core. We initially thought that we would go from sorority to sorority trying to raise awareness because that was the community we were a part of and knew how to communicate within. A family friend caught wind of our stories and our drive to start a discussion and asked us if we wanted to take part in a news story she was doing for Channel 5's Boston Chronicle. We went public with our stories on December 2013 (so 4 months after my rape).
I look back and really have trouble understanding how I rationally made the decision to go public (on national television) with the deepest, most intimate details of my life for it is no small undertaking to put yourself in the public eye. But the decision wasn't really rational. It was emotional. I did not think about the consequences for all that long. I acted on pure instinct of what I felt was the right thing to do in order to fix what was wrong (or attempt to).
Do you feel like you're sacrificing things in your life to talk publicly? Like you owe it to others and yourself? You obviously can't choose not to be a survivor... but is it overwhelming and does it affect your day to day?
Now, I do not feel like I'm sacrificing parts of my life to spread awareness. However, I would be lying if I did not say I felt this way during the first year of my healing.
It was hard to heal in the public eye for I felt that I needed to be "on" all the time, and when you're experiencing PTSD that is the opposite of how you "should" act in front of a broadcast camera. At the beginning, I did have moments where I felt as if I owed it to others and to the cause so much so that I would put my personal healing as second or third priority. Today, I don't feel this way because I've learned how to prioritize my own healing. It never has become easier to prepare myself for speeches such as this so yes, it is overwhelming. Before I stood on stage to speak, I had to close my eyes and focus on deep breathing in order to center myself. I continue to put myself in that situation because I know it helps people and it makes me feel good to be a light in a survivor's healing journey. It gives me purpose. I would not continue to do this if it did not serve me.
And yes, this work does affect my day to day. My assault does not define who I am, but it is a part of me. It does affect me from time to time. It affects my view of women and my view of men. It affects my expectations of society. It affects how I vote. It affects the language I use with others. It affects how I consume news. I've learned that that is okay that it has affected me and changed me in the ways that it has.
Do you feel as if you've had closure with him?
I have had not had closure with him in the physical form either in the form of a sit down conversation or legal action. I chose not to go through the city's legal system for the justice system historically does not favor sexual assault survivors. Most cases have little evidence making the cases he-said-she-said situations. Because of my little evidence, it felt like a risk to put myself in a scenario where a judge COULD tell me what happened to me did not happen to me. That was something my soul could not bear the weight of, especially back then when I was really struggling.
I have had closure in my emotional journey. I no longer am angry with him. I feel badly for him because he has to drug women to have sex with them. That in my opinion is sad and it must be a very empty way to experience intimacy.
Did you ever make contact with the bystanders and did they ever apologize?
I have never been in contact with the men that were in that room, but I have had conversations with the women that were there. Majority of the women I have made complete peace with. I blame no one in that room except for my rapist because he was the one how should be held fully responsible. One of the women and I will never have the same carefree relationship that we had prior to my assault. I went through my own grieving process afterwards and she did too for I believe she feels responsibility for what happened to me and how she responded to it afterwards. We haven't been able to completely repair our relationship; however, I do not have any hate in my heart towards her and I do not hold her responsible for what happened on August 22nd.
You had a slide in your presentation about what not to say to a survivor of assault. Were there people in your life along your healing journey putting you down like that?
Yes. People on Syracuse University's campus, people from my high school, and trolls on the Internet all said horrible things about me ranging from "I deserved it" to "it wouldn't have happened to me if I went to Harvard" to "it couldn't have actually happened to me because I'm pretty" (what the fuck does that even mean) to "I'm making it up for attention". These comments hurt a lot for many reasons. Though they hurt, I do understand why some people went there.
One possible explanation for blaming a victim is because people distance themselves from anything that is too unpleasant or anything that gives them a sense that it too could happen to them. By putting the blame and responsibility on a victim, wrongfully so, others can see the victim as different from themselves. I was that verbal outlet for people.
On a positive note, I experienced ten times more positive responses than negative, hurtful responses. Many survivors found healing in my story. Others commended me for my courage. These people are the ones that kept me alive during the hurtful comments.
Who has been your biggest support system?
Cue all the emotions. I don't even know if there are words to describe my gratitude for my parents and my family. I know that many survivors are not as fortunate as I was to have such a support system and because I did, I feel a deep sense of awe and indebtedness. I'm not sure where exactly I would be without them, but I know they have given me every reason to continue this fight.
I was also blessed to have the best friends in college. I would have dropped out if it were not for my sorority sisters. They helped me feel safe and supported on campus. Bless them.
After your assault did you ever feel as if your safety was at stake? Do you now?
Yes. I interpret this question in two ways — my physical safety and my emotional/mental safety.
I did fear for my physical safety after my assault. My rapist was part of a fraternity — one I'll never name. I feared that he or his brothers may do something to me in retaliation for awhile. I did arm myself with a no-contact order (Syracuse's version of a restraining order). This document meant that he could not contact me and no one could do so on his behalf. Nothing ever happened, but I did fear it.
Going public with my story put me consistently in a place of emotional vulnerability. When I was experiencing my "low" or "dark" moments, I felt that others could see right through me because they knew my story. They couldn't see my thoughts — duh Jackie... those are internal — but I did feel like I was always walking around naked (metaphorically speaking). There were many academic weeks where I had at least 2-5 interviews. This did not create a very good mental and emotional environment for me if I was feeling that PTSD. I did not have the adequate time to give myself the space I needed which contribute to the continuation of vulnerability.
Today, I still struggle with emotional safety. When it comes to dating and intimacy with men, I need to feel safe. I expect a lot out of men in order to feel safe enough to let me guard down. I have not yet experienced this amount of safety needed with a man yet, but I do believe it is possible with time and work.
How did you fix your lack of sleep?
My general practitioner recommended that I take melatonin which is something you can get over the counter at CVS or Walgreens. For a while that helped if I took it 30-45 minutes before I wanted to fall asleep. However, I struggled with this. I've always been highly sensitive to medication of all kinds. I felt really groggy if I did not get a full 8 hours of sleep — which is an unlikely scenario in college — so it may have helped me fall asleep, but I experienced trouble the next day. Other survivors I talked to said melatonin gave them horrible nightmares. And then for other survivors I know, it worked well for them. Everyone's experience and everyone's body is different.
Melatonin was simply a bandaid solution for another problem. It was not as if my sleep was all of a sudden something that out-of-the-blue stopped working. I could not sleep because my mental body was hyperactive. It was in shock and it was disturbed by what recently happened to me. My sleep did not start getting better until I addressed the underlying emotional issues that were causing issues with my sleep schedule.
In our SWEAR retreats with the student ambassadors, we talk about the issue of toxic masculinity in society. There is a bad boy code (ie. not ratting out your friend if they do something you know is wrong). The men who commit these crimes are within the smaller percentage, and majority of men do not commit these crimes. What would you say to those good men and do you have a takeaway for them?
I first would like to tell those good men that I know that you are good. Many survivors — including myself for some time — blame(d) all men and are (were) angry with all men due to the actions of one. It is completely understandable and normal, but it is not entirely fair. (Bear with us please as we cope with this.) But do know I have come to a place in my healing know where I know you are good and I know that we need men in order to fight for equality for both genders. You are our allies in this fight.
My takeaway for you in one of empathy — I know that it is really hard to stand up for what is right, especially when you're in high school and college. This is a time when you are trying to figure out who you are and you are trying to find your friends/to connect with others. Sometimes being cool and doing the right thing can be at odds with one another. If you find yourself in a situation such as that, listen to your gut that is telling you to do the right thing. The moment you begin to live in your truth is the moment where you'll begin attracting people who live that same truth and those are the quality of people that you want to be around. You don't want to be friends with those who would judge you for your values and beliefs long term.
How do you think he views this situation and what would you want to say to him? What would you want him to know?
My gut reaction is I believe that he thinks I am lying and that he is annoyed I am getting all of this media attention. I don't truly know how he views my actions in the last (almost) 5 years.
I want him to know how much he hurt me because of his actions of one night. I want him to know that is it not okay to do what he did. I want him to know that I don't have any memory after the styrofoam cup and that will forever haunt me. I want him to know that though I never would ever voluntarily go through this, he has made me tough as nails and I love the woman I have become.
I hope that he deals with whatever demons are living inside of him — no one who is happy with themselves hurts others the way that he hurt me. I hope he clears himself of that energy and goes on to live a happy life. I do mean that. I hope he does that before he becomes married with children for I cannot think about the consequences of bringing people into this world with his beliefs.
Do you know if he has done this to anyone else?
I never have chatted with this woman about this, but Caroline — one of the co-founders of The Girl Code — told me that our agenda helped save another women from his actions. One of Caroline's friends was at the same house I was raped in a few months after. She heard about The Girl Code Movement and knew that if she felt uncomfortable, it would be better to leave the situation. Through a conversation, Caroline learned that she was talking to the same man at a part, felt uncomfortable when he asked her if she wanted to go upstairs, thought about Girl Code and left the house without telling him. This gives me chills.
Have you had a happy day since you were raped? Have you had a day where you haven't thought about what happened?
This is one of the sweetest questions I have ever been asked in relationship to this topic. Yes, I have experienced happiness since my rape especially in the last few years. I moved on to get a little in my sorority and to live with my best friends during my senior year. I graduated from college. I started an awesome job in Austin, Texas. I have my family, my health, and amazing friends. Life has treated me well since. Though I still have a tough day here and there (especially as of late seeing the "Me Too" movement — it is beautiful but triggering), I experience more laughter and genuine happiness and connection with others than I did those years ago. I am healing and far closer to whole than I have been.