The “red zone” is a term that is used by campus sexual assault activists and experts to describe the first weeks of college, and the dangers that far too many first-year college students encounter. The rates of campus sexual assault for first year students is disproportionately higher than for third or fourth year students. This danger is attributed to many factors, but many experts attribute it to the misinformation or lack of information provided to first year students. The onus to stop rape is, consistently, placed squarely on the shoulders of survivors rather than the shoulders of those perpetrating the sexual assaults.
At EROC, we realized a disconcerting trend: first year students voices are sorely lacking from the conversation. Here you will find the perspective of an empowered first year queer student who, despite having all the skills her college and society provided her, was unable to “stop” a sexual assault. Her story, and many like hers, must be heard and remain central to the work we do.
By Amelia Eskenazi
I am a first year college student. Scratch that, I am a first-two-months-in college student. I have spent the last few weeks trying to find the best place lock up my bike during the lunch rush, the best location in my dorm to place the fan, and the tastiest place on campus for french fries. I have spent way too much time asking myself whether or not I should wash my overalls today or after I wear them again in two days. And as many people have suggested, I have signed up for clubs... well, probably too many clubs. From Feminist Collective, to Students for Justice in Palestine, to Student Organization for Sexual Safety -- I am currently on the email list for twelve, yes twelve, different groups. As a self proclaimed feminist activist, I walked onto my campus thinking that I knew my fair share about the risks of college sexual assault, the best ways to address it, and more. I knew it was a problem and I knew that on average, schools were not protecting their students.
I am the person who, when required for my college applications to detail what I want from a school, writes an entire essay demanding to feel safe and protected on my college campus. I am the person who, takes very seriously the implicit (or not so implicit) suggestion that comes along with the free rape whistle and flashlight that my college gave me during orientation. I am the person who is so, so tired of the speeches about college sexual assault that only mention the danger of being a woman, but never mention any dangers outside the heteronormative college experience. As a queer woman on campus, I am acutely aware that, regardless of the person I might be sleeping with, this could absolutely happen to me.
There was something so jarring about the boy’s laughter behind me during my college's consent lecture; rather than appreciating the necessity to ask consent, he laughed about the lecturer’s “tits.” Despite mainstream media asserting that sexual assault means “forcing the key into the keyhole” as explained by the woman teaching consent, it can happen to anyone, anywhere. This comment, both the lecturer and the laugher, took away from my own attentiveness during the lecture that day as I’m sure it did for those around me. I began to wonder if my story -- heaven forbid I ever be the victim of sexual assault -- would be seen as valid, and if people would take me seriously, especially as a queer student. After all, if the metaphor of the key and the keyhole, perpetuate a narrative that only encompases heterosexual assault, what happens to every other account that doesn’t fit into this specific box?
Upon arriving to campus, we received various orientation speeches, some formal, some not. Within the first few hours of my parents leaving, I received numerous informal warning speeches about which sports houses and fraternities I should avoid as a new female student. Three hours into college and I already had the chilling feeling that the stats truly were not being exaggerated. The cards were already stacked against me.
The first night of college I was sexually assaulted. I was not drunk and I was not at a party, and it’s frustrating to me that I even feel like I need to specify that. I was on the upper level of my dorm, my new home for the next year. The first night of college was not the stereotypical image of assault. No one jumped out of a bush and grabbed me. I wasn’t stumbling through campus. “Your assault isn’t valid because you are queer. Obviously you weren’t asking for it. If he had known you didn’t want him, he wouldn’t have assaulted you.” Many of us in the queer community do not look like the stereotypical victim. Others do not even identify within the prescribed gender binary. Perpetrators of sexual assault don’t discriminate based on your hairstyle, your gender pronouns, or your orientation, but the apparent search for justice in the aftermath does.
Nobody talks about how hard it is to switch housing when you live in the same dorm as the person who assaulted you. People forget to mention that paying attention in class is basically impossible when you just got to school a week ago and you don’t really have anyone to confide in quite yet. Why it is that when I finally put in a request for a housing change, I was told that I could live in the basement of one of the dorms because no one wanted the haunted room. Two months in, and I was already frightened enough each time I saw the person who assaulted me on campus.
Colleges need to start being honest about the topic of sexual assault. No, I don’t mean covering the topic once during orientation at the beginning of the year. I mean open discussions about the reasons why students are getting sexually assaulted and what everyone can do to prevent it. It means honest conversations that discuss the issue from a raw and critical point of view, including the narratives of LGBTQIA+ relationships. Yes, I do know that donors do not like to hear about statistics of assault and violence on campus. But, you can’t make the school a better place simply by throwing money into a flawed system. Furthermore, silencing victims won’t achieve anything but forcefully eternalize the shame that many survivors already have.
As college students, we are told that we shouldn’t put our drinks down or accept them from strangers. It is concerning to be standing in the lunch line and hear the person behind me say, “Just put your hand on the back of her neck and drag her off.” The ways we are approaching the narratives of those sexually assaulted in college must change. Before coming to college, I had an idealized version of safety in my head. Stay away from parties and you’ll be fine, right? The parties aren’t the issue. The issue is the lack of discussion and dedication to real reform. Why was I the only one to turn around in the lunch line and ask the person behind me about their alarming comment? I know for a fact that students at my school are aware of the pervasiveness of this issue, yet there is such a taboo surrounding dialogue on the topic that no one feels safe enough to speak up.
Consent is not sexy. It is necessary. A society in which, in order for people to withstand from violently assaulting others, need to be told that asking first is sexy, is a society I do not want to live in.
Amelia Eskenazi is a first year student at Colorado College where she hopes to major in Feminist and Gender Studies with a double minor in Race, Ethnic, and Migration Studies as well as Photographic Theory and Practice. She is an active participant in organizations on campus such as the Student Organization for Sexual Safety and Feminist Collective. In the past, she has written for sites such as Progress Women and Young Global Initiative.
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