One evening last week, my suitemate turned to me and shared a statistic from her phone. “One in five college-age women experience sexual assault. Do you really think that’s true?”
I shrugged. “Sounds about right to me,” I said, thinking that if anything, the number was probably higher. She looked bewildered. “I mean, just think about all the people who are groped at parties,” I added.
“Oh, that doesn’t count as sexual assault,” she said quickly, turning back to her phone.
I found the confidence in her voice jarring. As someone whose body has been touched without consent both on and off of this campus, I would classify my experiences, technically, as assault. Yale, for example, defines sexual assault as “any kind of nonconsensual sexual contact, including rape [or] groping.” Thus, on paper, I and many other Yalies have been sexually assaulted. Yet coming forward with “minor” stories of assault, and labeling them as such, can be incredibly difficult.
There exists a gap in our vocabulary, a gap between “sexual assault” and consensual behavior. It is defined by experiences that we hesitate to label — lest we are taking them too seriously — but nonetheless affect us. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach after a stranger grabs your ass or your newfound uneasiness in crowds. Are these indicative of sexual assault? Technically, yes. If one feels this term is appropriate for their experience, then yes, of course. But many of us don’t feel comfortable using this phrase. So, in the gap, we lose the voices of people who, like my suitemate, only associate “assault” with severe trauma — and not something as “minor” as a “weird moment” on Friday night.
Today, this gap is widening, especially with the use of the term “survivor” and the weight that term carries. Survivors’ voices need to be elevated, without a doubt; we need to stand in solidarity with them. However, we should perhaps discuss how the intensity of the words “survivor” and “assault” can be difficult for some to identify with.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable labeling myself a survivor,” said a friend, who has also been groped on Yale’s campus. We agreed that sharing our experiences under this term would feel as if we were detracting from the stories of those who have gone through much worse. I feel guilty coming forward to speak about the brief moments that I’ve been groped, when others have experienced unspeakable trauma.
Yet as a community, we have an obligation to address these incidents, however commonplace, because they are so commonplace. When we don’t call them out and label them as something, anything — groping, sexual assault, not okay — they become normalized. We begin to equate these experiences with a typical night out, drinking a little too much, failing to stand with your back to a wall. However, we owe it to ourselves to draw a strong distinction between consent and violation, even as we recognize and respect a spectrum of sexual assault that ranges from minor to severe.
Most importantly, we owe it to first years, whose impressions of college culture — and, more generally, adult life — begin to form during Camp Yale. These are critical weeks in which the distinction between okay and not okay behavior needs to be clarified. Just the other day, I got lunch with a first year. She mentioned during our conversation that she had been groped at a fraternity in her first month at Yale. “That’s so shitty,” I said, alarmed by the story. “Are you okay?” She laughed uncomfortably, brushing off my concern, assuring me that it was merely a “funny” moment.
And that’s exactly what many of us do. While some do choose to speak out, prepared to deal with the backlash of “what’s the big deal,” or “at least you weren’t raped,” most of us don’t. We crack jokes to make these instances easier to live with, no matter how many times they occur. We remind ourselves that it’s just a part of life — a natural consequence of wearing shorts to a dark, crowded party. A “minor” incident, though, does not mean minor impacts. My suitemate said it herself, even after suggesting “assault” was too strong a word. “These things linger,” she said quietly. She’s right. Violations, however small they may be, stick with you.
We need to start thinking about how to label these experiences, so that they don’t disappear from our discourse entirely once we’ve woken up, eaten brunch and started our readings. At Yale, we are expected to handle personal struggles efficiently in tandem with our classes, extracurriculars and jobs. It follows that we are experts in facing trauma privately and independently — but we shouldn’t have to be. Why aren’t we talking about the everyday swipes at our bodies on the street, in our suites and at blurry parties? Our very reluctance to label these incidents as assault perpetuates the rape culture we live in.
Maya Juman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .