I never considered myself a stereotypical “feminist.” I wanted to wear a bra and spend time in the kitchen. I was just fine with not having to register for selective service, and as long as I retained the right to vote, which ironically has been called into question by many supporters of a certain presidential candidate this month, I would be content. Part of me thought “rape culture” was an exaggeration. I had never been a victim of unwanted sexual attention, and I didn’t entirely disagree with those who touted the “she was asking for it” argument.
Then I decided to run a marathon. Not because I thought I needed to get healthier or work out more or look better; I just wanted to see if I could do it, for me. I started training nearly 10 months before the October race, knowing it would take me awhile to get over the six-mile hump. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and began running in winter when few people are out on the streets, and I was covered headband to thermal socks in thick clothing. During my five runs a week, a car would occasionally honk as it passed me, or I’d get the upward nod or a whistle from a man on the sidewalk. I thought nothing of it.
But as spring came, the streets and downtown area — where I preferred to run — became increasingly crowded, I shed my wool tights in exchange for running short, and my mileage increased from 20 miles a week to 30 miles a week. Now I started to notice. I’d get a few car honks, a few nods, a few whistles, the occasional lewd comment shouted at me from across the street. But I could still blow it off; boys will be boys.
Late spring, 35 to 45 miles a week. I began to count the number of catcalls I would get during my runs, disaggregating by level of inappropriateness, age and gender of the offender. This was certainly not a precise science, but it gave me something to think about while I ran, besides the general misery of my legs and the little man in my head telling me that running marathons was for stronger people than me. When I finished each run, I would record my distance and time in my meticulously detailed running journal, and in the notes section I would record the number of unwanted or rude comments. Bearing in mind that I guessed at age ranges based on the very limited view of my gentleman callers and that I omitted car honks from my data entirely, by mid-summer, I was averaging about one catcall per mile. Mostly, the offenders were male, ranging anywhere from middle school boys to elderly men. Some were as innocent as a wink or an upward nod, others as lewd as comments made by our Republican candidate for president.
I couldn’t blow it off anymore. It’s one thing to get harassed once per mile while running less than three miles in a day; it’s another thing entirely when you’re running 15+ miles. I’m not a fast runner. Imagine getting catcalled about every 10 minutes for more than two and a half hours. I started avoiding certain streets on my runs, construction sites and areas with sports bars. But I had little reprieve. I turned up my music, put on my blinders and just ran, for me.
One day in late July, I ducked out of my office a few minutes early to get in a short run before teaching at my Pilates studio. It was around 95 degrees with 80 percent humidity, but I only planned to run two miles or so. I changed into the running clothes I’d brought for such weather: bright orange running shorts, a sports bra and a purple mesh tank top. About a mile into my run, a man passing me on the sidewalk said something to me that no human should ever think, and certainly should never verbalize. This was not a playful wink or a honk or even a lewd comment. This was a verbal assault — a truly repulsive comment that cannot and should not be printed, or even repeated. I didn’t get a good look at the man, and I’m glad I didn’t. I ran past, said nothing, stopped in a running store a block away for a drink of water, and then took the metro back to my Pilates studio to avoid having to run back the way I came. The words stuck in my head and I could feel my face burning as I sat on the metro, partially from the day’s heat, partially from the anger I felt at not finishing my run, but mostly out of shame. Why did I feel ashamed?
I arrived in the air conditioned bliss of my Pilates studio — a tranquil place with paintings of forests and waterfalls and a community of people I had come to love and trust. These women were some of the most supportive people you could imagine. My Pilates studio was filled with strong, health-conscious women who were there to be the best versions of themselves, to de-stress from a day at work or to take a few minutes’ break from raising families to focus on their bodies and their health.
The shame of the verbal assault began to drift away. It must have still shown on my face though, because as I entered the mat room, a woman I knew quite well, in her late 50s or so, asked me what was wrong. I mentioned briefly that I’d gotten a pretty nasty catcall on my run and that it was still ringing in my ears. The woman paused for a second, looked at me with a motherly expression and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry that happened. Maybe you could wear some of your longer shorts around here.”
“Wear some of your longer shorts.” The words rang in my head loudly enough to drown out the obscene comment from earlier. I looked down at my body, saw my mesh tank top, my running shorts and my running shoes. These clothes were made for running by companies that specialize in women’s fitness apparel. I saw my bare legs, exposed to just a few inches below my hips. “Yeah, I guess.”
I sat down on my mat to stretch. Was this outfit inappropriate? Did I ask for it? But then it hit me. This. Right here. This is rape culture. I wasn’t dressed this way to get attention from men, or from anyone. I was wearing this outfit because it was 95 degrees and I was training for a marathon. I was running … for me. I wore these shorts because they don’t chafe in the heat, because I had been to a Nike outlet earlier that year, and these were the cheapest running shorts. And yet another woman, well-intentioned though I’m sure she was, had advised me not to wear this outfit again, because it would attract the unwanted attention of men. Was the man excused for his nauseating comment because he couldn’t help saying his thoughts out loud while I was dressed this way? Am I to blame for daring to wear such clothes when there might be a man present? Was I asking for it?
No. I was not asking for it. No runner is asking for it.
No woman is asking to be a victim. We’re not running — or walking — down the street, hoping to get honked at or to have strangers yell obscenities at us that would put Billy Bush and Donald Trump to shame. And no, we do not take it as a compliment. Yet, when those things happen, we feel like we’re to blame.
I started to think of my options to avoid future unpleasant situations like the one I’d experienced that day. I could follow the woman’s advice: wear longer clothes, suffer through the heat and deal with the one-catcall-per-mile. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not an option. I don’t do heat.
I could run when it’s cooler outside, early in the morning. Yes! That’s the perfect solution. I’ll run very early in the morning, when there are fewer people on the streets and I can cover my bare legs without suffering from heat exhaustion. I could run in the dark, in the city, very early in the morning …
But if something happened to me then … what would people say?
Last semester, Rachel* went home with a guy she met at a party. While they were hooking up, he penetrated her with a large object. She told him to stop, but he refused, leaving her bloodied and bruised. When she got back to her room, a friend helped her shower and get into bed.
The next morning, she woke up with fuzzy memories of the night, but with enough recollection and lingering pain to know she had experienced something violent. However, when a friend visited her room in tears, telling her he was sorry for what had happened to her, she wasn’t sure her distress matched his.
“Part of me felt like I was the worst human on earth,” Rachel said. She had the sense that she wasn’t reacting to her experience in the “right way.”
“I felt hungover. That was my number-one feeling, and my vagina hurt a lot. It was physical stuff I felt … I just felt so much pressure to feel [traumatized] and like everyone expected that from me.”
Three days after the assault, Rachel and two friends walked to the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resource and Education Center (SHARE) at Yale Health. She saw a counselor within three minutes of arriving and delivered a matter-of-fact description of what had happened, explaining that she had come to SHARE because it seemed like “the right thing to do.” Her counselor explained various options for initiating a complaint against her assailant, formal or informal, and receiving further mental health treatment. But Rachel didn’t feel she needed anything more from SHARE.
Four days after the assault, Rachel drove to her gynecologist’s office. She recalls that everyone in the office seemed to be “walking on eggshells.” The nurse practitioner, a middle-aged woman with a daughter Rachel’s age, greeted her with a hug — a change, Rachel noted, from earlier visits when she insinuated that Rachel’s choice to have multiple sexual partners was irresponsible.
Rachel explained that she hadn’t used a condom and needed treatment for STIs. Then the nurse practitioner examined Rachel and showed her areas of her body — bruises, abrasions — to watch for signs of infection. She took photographs of the wounds in case Rachel ever wanted to press charges.
“Fucking guys,” Rachel recalls the nurse practitioner saying, enraged.
Back on campus, a close friend encouraged Rachel to talk to a Communication and Consent Educator about the experience, but Rachel didn’t want to. For a while, she felt guilty about it. For a while, she wondered why the man from that night had done what he did.
Within a few weeks, however, she decided he hadn’t meant to hurt her. She doesn’t feel uncomfortable around the man from that night, and she thinks it’s possible he was so drunk he didn’t realize what he was doing. She doesn’t identify as a survivor. She considers what happened that night an act of violence, but not one significantly different from, she says, a punch to the arm.
That conclusion is not one she feels all of her friends and family immediately embraced. “I think everyone just thought I was in denial,” Rachel says. “It wasn’t like people were mad at me or thought I was bad or stupid. I think they thought I hadn’t come to terms with what had happened, and so they thought I was being matter-of fact for that reason … But I just don’t think so.”
Rachel is clear her experience does not necessarily hold any specific lessons for other women dealing with sexual violence. The lesson it does hold — for survivors, for Yalies, for anyone who may one day listen to a friend tell a story of a deeply personal trauma — is that there is no universal script and certainly no “right way” to experience the aftermath of sexual violence.
In the wake of sexual assault, regardless of whether survivors pursue disciplinary action against their attacker, they may face a transformed Yale. A space they once inhabited with ease may become a minefield of unwanted encounters, a landscape of potential pain. Friendships may disintegrate under the weight of doubt or feelings of betrayal. The residential college system may fail, in a time of crisis, to offer them the resources, support and sense of community for which it is celebrated. Something as simple as going to dinner in a dining hall can cause memories of trauma to come rushing back.
At the same time, survivors’ deeply personal experiences combine to form an increasingly public, political fabric: the campus sexual assault epidemic and the debate surrounding it — how to talk about it, what universities need to do to address it, whether it even exists.
Yale has played a significant role in the decades-long national conversation surrounding sexual misconduct on college campuses — Alexander v. Yale, “No means yes, yes means anal,” a Title IX suit, among other high-profile incidents. But those stories, while central to understanding sexual assault on campus, have already been told.
The narrative, meanwhile, has left some stories untold. Those stories are of women attempting to live — not just survive — in this small community after acts of sexual violence.
* * *
In 2009, the Report of the Women Faculty Forum Council on Sexual Misconduct at Yale noted that the University had a “confusing, patchwork quilt system of formal and informal procedures” to address sexual assault. The proposed solution, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, would offer a centralized body for addressing formal and informal complaints.
Sylvia* never wanted the things that a UWC case had the potential to give her. She didn’t want retribution or the expulsion of her assailant. The most she wanted was for him to apologize, and she knew that filing a complaint with an administrative disciplinary committee couldn’t give her that.
Sylvia recalls being raped by someone in her friend group at a party during her freshman year. Although she can hardly remember the assault, some witnesses later told her that she could barely walk and claimed they saw her alleged assailant pull her into her bedroom. Two students from that party went to Yale Health for intoxication.
“I probably should have gone [to Yale Health] too,” she said.
When she woke up the next morning, Sylvia had no idea what happened to her. She found over 25 texts on her phone from others not at the party, asking whether she was okay. Later, Sylvia found out that while she was passed out, he was typing texts and telling the people in her friend group what had happened — shaping in their minds what occurred. Friends told Sylvia later that he told them that “it wasn’t even sex” because he didn’t ejaculate. Little by little, Sylvia pieced together what transpired that night.
But her close friends had already decided for her what had happened. They called it “an awkward situation” that she “needed to fix.” They wanted her to reach a speedy and amicable reconciliation with her assailant for the sake of the friend group. They viewed the experience as a drunken mistake, rather than assault.
But she wasn’t able to resolve things so easily. Whenever she saw her assailant around campus, she tensed up and immediately left the area.
“My [sexual assault] experience was stolen from me, and I therefore couldn’t even admit to myself what had happened,” she sighed. Sylvia could not admit to herself the pain of what had occurred because others tried to force her to believe it was her fault.
She never considered filing a complaint, and she was hesitant to visit mental health facilities because, she said, of their reputation on campus for making Yale students withdraw.
Sylvia contemplated transferring to another school. She started drinking herself to sleep. What hurt her most after her experience, she says, was not the thought of her assailant walking around campus — it was that she had no support system for herself and no one to validate her feelings.
Unlike the usual survivor story, Sylvia did not seek disciplinary retribution. While she still feels unsettled by the fact that her assailant holds a prominent position in a student group on campus, and though she finds it hard to be in the same room as him, she said that her goal was never his expulsion or imprisonment. Instead, she just wanted him to show some sense of remorse or acknowledge that what he did was wrong.
Not until Sylvia took part in the Sexual Literacy Forum (SeLF) — a discussion group that meets weekly and addresses issues of consent — did she finally admit to herself the truth and cope with the resulting emotions. In a workshop called “Violation of Boundaries,” she described to peers in her group what happened to her. Contrary to how her friends had treated the incident, the group members listened, stunned. She remembers them saying, “What happened to you sucks.” Although their sentiments may not have been well articulated, Sylvia remembers this moment as one of relief and acceptance.
For Sylvia, this safe space on campus, rather than the conventional means of seeking justice, was the key to reclaiming her agency. The kind of informal support she found through SeLF exists in other smaller networks, which fall outside the domain of Yale’s institutional safety net.
Jessica Leão ’16 has found this to be the case with her sorority. Gathering in their sorority house once a month, Leão and her sisters place anonymous notes into a box according to a three-year-old ritual called “Things our sisters like and things our sisters dislike.” Concerns with campus sexual culture and personal experiences are often brought up. Leão explained that it is never their place to label each other as survivors of sexual assault or not; instead, they listen to one another and validate each other’s experiences.
Communication and Consent Educator Corey Malone-Smolla ’16, who is in the same sorority, explained that an instructional module teaches every new sorority sister proper ways to respond to a friend who has revealed an experience with sexual assault.
Exasperated by her friends’ response to her assault, Sylvia said Yale students and administrators have a tendency to lay undue emphasis on the “perfect rape victim,” who bears little resemblance to most people at Yale who experience sexual violence.
“People are silenced by this narrative of victimhood, and [survivors] of rape are held to this one emotional response, having to report it in one way,” said Women’s Center Outreach Coordinator Isabel Cruz ’17. “[We] need to recognize that there are a lot of other experiences and a lot of other people who are being swept under the rug by the traditional narrative of what happens in sexual assault.”
* * *
Standing with her parents on Commencement Day, Eden Ohayon ’14 froze — her assailant had just walked past. The man who took advantage of her on a night she can barely remember was uncomfortably close to her family. Later, about to approach some of her best friends from another residential college, she turned back because he was standing nearby. The walks back to her off-campus apartment in her last semester were ridden with anxiety because he lived close to her.
Ohayon felt that he had violated a particularly meaningful space. “I don’t have many roots because my homelife was scattered all over the country,” she said. “That was my one room and [Yale was a] home for me, and then I was completely let down by it. I think that was the worst part.”
Last semester, Ohayon wrote a column for the News in which she described her frustration with the ruling of her UWC case: Her assailant was found not to have violated Yale’s sexual misconduct policy. But her everyday experiences after the assault raises the question of how communities within Yale, aside from seeking justice, can make the environment a safe and comfortable one for survivors, even when the assailant and survivor must live alongside one another.
Masters, deans and administrators seek to make Yale a home for every student. Master of Branford College Elizabeth Bradley admitted that this task can be difficult when every student who has experienced sexual assault has a unique story. Bradley said it has always been her mission to make Branford a loving and inclusive community, a “psychologically safe space” for all students.
Although Bradley wants each student to feel comfortable enough to talk to her about anything, she hesitated to say she would ever directly address sexual assault with the Branford community at large. Besides the beginning of freshman year, when students receive instruction from CCEs, Bradley only comes in contact with entire classes during the holidays, Commencement or through her weekly Sunday email. Bradley felt that these forums are inappropriate times and places to address the gravity of sexual assault.
When contemplating what she could write to all students in an email she said, “What would you say? It is hard to say something of a general nature that is really helpful. So, for people who have never had an experience [with sexual assault] or don’t know anyone who has had an experience, they would read something like that and it is in one ear, out the other. And then for the people who are really hurting they will think, ‘Well that was pretty superficial.’”
Yale administrators defend the University’s institutional resources for sexual assault survivors. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said that since leaving his position as master of Calhoun College for the dean’s office, he has gained a greater appreciation for the complexity of each case.
“I don’t know that [the UWC process] will ever be satisfactory to the students involved in the case,” he said.
Laura* received her desired result from her UWC case: The assailant was told to leave Yale. She commended Yale’s systems for receiving reports of sexual assault, as well as the SHARE facilities. Nonetheless, a large portion of Laura’s senior year was spent thinking about her experience and doubting her own emotions. No longer able to summon the energy to perform, she took time off from her extracurriculars.
Meanwhile, other friends expected her to write op-eds and speak in a political way about her experience. But she wasn’t ready to do so.
“Friends would ask me, ‘Well, are you going to write op-eds and, like, become an activist now?’” Laura explained. “And that idea was so exhausting.”
Laura did find solace in what she calls a “subculture of survivors.” She was not the only person hurt by her assailant, who had assaulted several other students on campus. She felt more powerful and less victimized as part of the community of women who were also hurt by the assailant and as part of the larger community of survivors at Yale. After she began speaking openly about her assault, other survivors shared their stories with her.
“People are excited now about the momentum surrounding this really important student activist movement, which I’m now really very much a part of, but I think that becoming a part of that [movement] took time and took autonomy. People want you to be a certain type of survivor right away, but every survivor feels a bit differently,” she added.
* * *
Unlike many women at Yale,for Rachel, moving forward has not been an emotionally fraught process. In thinking about her experience and discussing it with friends, however, she has come to believe that, as a campus, we’re incapable of discussing sexual encounters that are uncomfortable, but which don’t qualify as assault or harassment. She considers herself fortunate to have a group of sex-positive female friends who are troubled by the presumption that if a girl gets drunk and has sex, her consent was necessarily violated.
Early on during their time at Yale, her friends would warn her at parties if they thought that she was too drunk to hook up with someone. She thinks their concern stemmed from the same well-meaning, but ultimately incorrect, belief that she needed to be protected.
“There is a conversation here and I think part of that conversation needs to be women enjoy sex, should feel great having sex, should feel encouraged to have sex,” Rachel said.
Molly,* the friend of Rachel’s who helped her get to bed the night she was assaulted, recalled that Rachel had been confused, upset and in pain. But when Rachel said she wasn’t traumatized, Molly believed her. Molly, too, has had sexual experiences she considers “uncomfortable.”
Last year, she was having sex with a man when she told him she was in pain. “I’m almost finished,” she recalls him responding.
“But it’s not sexual assault, it’s just like an uncomfortable thing,” Molly said. “But it’s also hard to talk about, because I had slept with that person before and I slept with them again. If you talk with someone about that, would they say you’re a weak person because you slept with someone after they wronged you?”
Even after Laura received the results she wanted from the UWC, her healing entailed working with Melanie Boyd to create CCE videos explaining the UWC process as well as speaking at “Take Back the Night.” Laura wanted to share the empowering end to her story, so she spoke about the day she decided to destroy the dress she was assaulted in.
Right after spring break of her senior year, Laura was cleaning her room when she found the dress lying across her closet floor.
“It was such a great dress. I had held onto it. I had worn it the night I was assaulted but I also wore it on the night of my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner,” Laura explained. “At this point, the associations with it were marred, to say the least. I knew that in order to totally leave the past behind and get the most out of my last amount of time at Yale, I had to cut up the dress. So, my friend and I skipped to Cross Campus and decided we were central enough on campus to have our private exciting moment and then we just fucking tore the dress to shreds. It was amazing.”
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
Correction: Feb. 13
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Communication and Consent Educators as Community and Consent Educators.