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We asked about sexual assault, and you told us. The incidents you described occurred in residence halls and a “rape closet,” at parties and in parking lots, at high school, at home, online, and beyond. They included indecent exposure and groping, stalking and sexual coercion, and rape. The aggressors were friends, acquaintances, strangers, coworkers, intimate partners, and relatives.

Most responses came from women who had been sexually assaulted by men—as children, teens, or adults (often, as college students). We also heard from men who had struggled with the societal unwillingness to recognize their experiences as assault.

Student Health 101 thanks every student who responded. The students quoted here are identified by their year and college or university, or not, depending on their preference.

Closet

In the residence hall and the rape closet

Among women students who’d been sexually assaulted as adults or children, shame and self-doubt were common themes. Survivors’ self-blame reflects the blame that comes at them from society.

“I was raped in my residence hall room”

“Many questions were asked. ‘Had you been drinking?’ ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Did you fight back?’ ‘What time?’ 

“What I really needed to hear was ‘I believe you,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘It’s not your fault.’ 

“The society we live in teaches us to ask questions rather than listen. Survivors deserve more than that. We deserve to know that those who love us will be there for us no matter what.

“I was raped in my residence hall room, in sweatpants and one of the largest T-shirts I own and a sports bra, hair up and no make-up, without a drop of alcohol or drugs in my body. The fact of the matter was that I said ‘no’ and he did it anyways. That is what rape is.

“Please listen to someone, rather than question them, the next time they come to you in confidence. Tell them you believe them. Tell them it wasn’t their fault. Tell them you love them. Tell them until they believe it.” —Second-year undergraduate, Lasell College, Massachusetts

“They called it the rape closet”

“I was a freshman at a party. My ex-boyfriend and a roommate put me in a closet under the stairs to sleep off [the alcohol]. I was told later that a male I did not know told them they should all ‘run a train’ on me (have sex with me). They said no. At around 5 a.m., that man came in and choked and raped me.

“My ex and his roommates started blaming me for the rape and making references to the ‘rape closet’ on Facebook. They told me if I’d done things differently that night, it wouldn’t have happened. They called me and my roommates (who were very supportive of me) the ‘rape pity party brigade.’

“I started having panic attacks. My heart would race, and I would hyperventilate with no cause. I was diagnosed with PTSD, put on anxiety medication, and underwent counseling. I ended up going through with a court case. Getting justice is possible. He got three years in prison and had to register as a lifetime sex offender. I found out that when he was 14 he raped a five-year-old. I highly doubt I was his only adult victim.” —First-year graduate student, California Lutheran University

“This had nothing to do with who I am”

“It’s true what they say: You freeze”
“It’s true what they say: You freeze when it happens. When you see stories like this and it hasn’t happened to you, you know you’d yell for help, you’d push him/her away in disgust. But it never happens that way.

“I was in an art gallery, and he just started talking to me. He was nice and had a soft voice. We talked about God. We walked around the gallery together; ‘Come on, let me show you something.’ We’d pause in front of pieces of art for some time in silence. That’s the only part of the story I can bring myself to talk about.

“It’s true what they say: You blame yourself. Before, he looked down at my legs and asked, ‘Aren’t you cold?’ But he was smiling. I should’ve known.

“I feel strange when men touch me, even by accident. I feel hot inside and I just want to curl up. It has affected me to this day. And it wasn’t even that bad compared to other stories. It wasn’t rape. Other women are much stronger than me.” —First-year undergraduate, University of Saskatchewan

“I bet I can make you love men”
“He asked if I was interested in going out with him. I said no. He laughed, and said, ‘If you haven’t slept with a guy, you have no idea whether or not you like it; I bet I could make you love men.’ He grabbed me by my hair. I was kissed and touched with force and without consent. He kept telling me to stop fighting it, learn to enjoy it, and not to be a prude.

“I felt so empty. I felt like a part of me had been taken away with him and that I had been made dirty. I have come to terms that this was an act of violence and had nothing to do with who I am. People need to know that [by speaking up] they can prevent other people from getting hurt, too.” —Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University

Gender symbol

In no-man’s land

A recurring theme in men’s stories was society’s resistance to the concept that men can be sexually assaulted. This makes it difficult for male survivors to seek support.

“I have never told another male”

“I was raped when I was a freshman in high school. I’ve only told a handful of people, none of them being a therapist or my family. My ex-girlfriend asked if she could use my experiences and stories anonymously for her graduation project. She worked with a local counseling and crisis center to create a more welcoming environment for men. I have never told another male about what happened because I don’t think I’d get support or understanding. It is still taboo and challenges preconceived ideas of masculinity.” —Second-year undergraduate, Maryland

“I acted like it wasn’t happening”

“I was sexually assaulted by another male who was previously a good friend of mine. Lots of alcohol was involved, and in the moment I chose to act like it wasn’t happening, as opposed to retaliating. It took me almost two years to come to terms with it, and I still feel like the few that I told sort of wrote it off because I’m a male. Shed some light on this and help change it.” —Graduate student, Kansas

“My friends said it must have been hot”

“My friends said I should have just done it”
“My sophomore year, a female friend got me alone in a room and pushed me to the ground. She kept telling me she knew I wanted it, while rubbing my crotch. I almost gave in, even though I was unwilling, until my roommate walked in on us and she got up and left. I tried to tell a few friends, and they didn’t believe me. They were adamant that it was ‘hot’ and that I ‘should’ve just done it.’ Since then, I’ve never engaged in the ‘hookup’ culture because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to leave a situation if I was uncomfortable and wanted to retract my consent.” —Second-year graduate student, Massachusetts

“You must be liking it”
“I was part of a sports team at my high school. One late night after practice, several of my teammates locked the door of the change room. They held me down so I couldn’t escape and took their turn forcing me to do things I did not want to do. ‘You’re gay so you must be liking it anyway,’ they said.

“It haunts me to this day. There are times when I go to sleep and all I can see are their faces. People who haven’t been sexually assaulted never understand. How could they? You need to seek closure within yourself. The only reason I can wake from the nightmare is because I took it upon myself to charge every single one of them. I made sure that they either spent time in jail or were charged a huge chunk of money. Although someone might not understand what you’re going through, you need to tell someone. To the people who are trying to help, be an open hand, a shoulder to cry on.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

“I was assaulted by my caregiver”
“I was sexually assaulted by the caregiver when I was in a foster home. Her husband (a truck driver) was gone, and she took advantage of me. I was 13 years old at the time and unsure of what was going on. I tried to report it to DHS and was told it was all a fantasy. I became very reserved toward everyone, became a loner for many years. I didn’t trust anyone for a long time.” —Undergraduate, Iowa

How professionals responded

Several survivors who participated in our survey had successfully reported assaults to the police or campus authorities. Others described unhelpful responses from professionals.

The college reporting process
“I was 20 and a student during winter term. I made sure to not lead him on, but it was still out of my control. It made me feel powerless. I had tried to be his friend. I reported to my area coordinator and then later the public safety staff. I had to give a statement at the student board. Long process. Took three months to come up with a verdict.” —Undergraduate, Oregon

Facing police skepticism
“My boyfriend gave me the courage to go to the [town] police. The police said, ‘You had some history with the guy; is it possible that you said yes in the moment, or that your boyfriend is making you say this?’ I tried to convince the police that I was going to them with the best intentions, that this wasn’t a case of me having regrets the next day. They took a report and sent me on my way. There wasn’t any follow-up. I didn’t talk to anyone on campus about what happened. I didn’t tell my friends. I figured if the police can’t do anything, what could anyone else do?” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Blocked by a school counselor
“I was a freshman in college. It was during a snowstorm, after a beer and a round of MarioKart. He grabbed my neck and threw me into his bedroom, where I was sexually assaulted. The school counselor told me that since I had been drinking and had willingly gone to his apartment, I shouldn’t report it. It took me a long time to get the support I needed to move forward.” —Undergraduate, Massachusetts

Recovering from camp
“After my first year of college, I worked as a summer camp counselor. I was sexually assaulted by two male counselors in the safe lounge while 15 other counselors watched and did nothing. The camp found me at fault and gave me the option to get over it or quit. It was three years until I told anyone. The aftermath left me depressed, nervous, and afraid of men. When I was 21, I finally decided I wanted to take my life back. That is when I told my parents. After years of therapy and baby steps, I finally feel like I am back to the 18-year-old who left for camp five years ago.” —Undergraduate, Virginia

Computer

Coerced, harassed, and stalked

Recognizing the harm in negative stereotypes and offhand comments allows us to build a more positive culture.

“I could not look in the mirror, I hated myself so much”

“I was hanging out with some older people I was trying to be friends with, but was having a hard time getting into the group. The group leader said he would let me be friends with them in return for a sexual favor. Desperate for acceptance, I did it. He kept his word and let me hang out with them, but afterward all I wanted was to be alone. I could not look in the mirror without wanting to yell, scream, cry, and pull my hair out because I hated myself so much.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of North Texas

Comments, grabbing, clicking, and stalking

“It tells us we are objects”
“A lot of men seem to find it acceptable to stare as they drive past me, to honk, hoot, or holler, or yell derogatory things or sexually implicit comments. It’s degrading and uncomfortable. The culture we live in allows this behavior and perceives it as normal, when really it tells young women that we are subject to objectification and sexualization even in public areas. Tolerance tells us it is OK when it most definitely is not.” —Third-year undergraduate, Canada

“One click can really hurt”
“My information was pulled from Facebook and Snapchat and manipulated to be posted on websites that contained adult sexual content. I was confused: I was receiving calls and messages from people on those sites. I tried going to the police and university staff. Now, I always tell people to be wary of things they post. If I see cases like that, I try to make my friends understand how one action, click, or hurtful message can really harm someone else.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of California, Irvine

“People think this made me asexual”
“I was studying abroad. I was walking under a bridge in daylight, with people around, when the man who had been sleeping there grabbed my chest. I have dysphoria [emotional discomfort] about my chest. I spent a while crying. It was a good month before I was able to go back under the bridge.

“The school had already tried to have me sent home because of my autism, so I didn’t report it. Now that I am home, my dysphoria is a lot worse than before. My asexuality helps me avoid some possible triggers. But people assume the asexuality is because of the assault; actually I was asexual before.

“Even if your story fits none of the dominant narratives, what happened is still real, can still be traumatizing, and it’s OK to need support dealing with it, whatever support looks like for you.” —First-year graduate student, University of Rhode Island

“The voyeur still harasses us”
“I had a peeping Tom last summer. It was in off-campus housing. He was caught, but the police couldn’t do anything about it. So he continued to harass me and my roommates, because he still lives in our apartment complex.” —Graduate student, Utah

Community

The impact on survivors and communities

Survivors lost their trust in others, their sense of safety, and their self-belief. Some described the impact on their relationships, capturing the harm that sexual violence inflicts on communities and social networks.

“My feelings would never matter”

“It heavily impacted my college life, how I felt about myself and my social environments. I was just an object. My opinions or feelings would never matter. I wasn’t good enough. I felt used and scared. I was repulsed by myself, by my reflection. To this day, what happened to me has given me a general distrust for everyone.” —Undergraduate, Massachusetts

What sexual assault means for survivors

“I couldn’t hang out with my guy friends”
“Afterward it was hard to hang out with some of my best friends, because they were guys. I was so afraid of guys.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of West Georgia

“You can never wash it off”
“It feels like constantly being dirty and never being able to wash it off, even if you scrub till you turn red.” —First-year undergraduate (male), Pennsylvania

“I haven’t trusted anyone since I was 15”
“That was the moment I stopped trusting anyone. Literally, if you said the sun was shining, I would go and verify. I am constantly worried someone is trying to hurt me.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

“I was always on guard”
“I ended up leaving the apartment complex [at college] so I didn’t have to see the guy again. I didn’t want to go out as much, I didn’t want to be alone with people, I didn’t want to drink with other people. I was always on guard. I started making up excuses. I would say, ‘I have so much homework,’ or, ‘I don’t feel well and I just can’t go out.’ Since I switched to a different college in another state, I’m starting to open up a bit more. Now I feel that not every person is the same. Nine times out of ten, nothing will happen.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Survivors’ messages to other survivors

“You still deserve good in the world”
“Your body isn’t ruined or dirty because someone else touched it without permission. You deserved good in the world before it happened, and you still deserve good after. Please don’t let someone else’s ill intentions become your new view of yourself and your body. Talking to someone you trust really helps.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Lowell

“My boyfriend listened without judgment”
“Looking back, I wish I had told more people. Everyone needs support, whether they recognize it or not. It’s not something that you need to experience alone. My boyfriend was very supportive. He was almost as mad as I was at the police. The biggest thing he did is that he listened without judgment.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“I can move on and do great things”
“Something that helped me is to first tell someone who you trust and who you trust will have the right reaction. Second, to know that even though it hurts, it is not yours to carry. I believe God wants me to give him the sadness and anger so that I can move on and do great things. I was not in college at the time. I was only two years old.” —Undergraduate, New Hampshire

“Everyone has the right to safety on campus”
“Being stalked during college is terrifying, especially when your stalker lives in the same dorm. Seek help, make it known, let as many people know about your situation as possible. Let staff, educators, directors, etc., know. Do not stop until results have been made that ensure your safety. Everyone has the right to live in safety while attending campus.” —Graduate student, Canada

“How to take that knife out”
“There’s not a thing I can do to change what happened, but through prayer and forgiveness I was able to walk away from it. If you don’t forgive, it’s like that knife of pain they put into you; you’re just digging it around in your belly, saying, ‘This is what happened to me, look how they hurt me! Look how sharp this knife is!’

“Forgiveness is the act of pulling that knife out and dropping it. It hurts. It’s not because they deserve to be forgiven. It’s because you deserve to walk free of it. Forgiveness is the only way to take that knife out.” —Third-year undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

Intimate betrayals: Abuse by partners and family members

For many, sexual assault and coercion were part of intimate relationships or close friendships with boyfriends and husbands (occasionally, girlfriends). Others had been sexually abused by family members during childhood.

“A bomb went off”
“I didn’t realize it was rape until I was in a social problems class and the professor was talking about date rape. It was like a bomb went off—a total whirlwind—and I was the only one experiencing it. The room was actually spinning.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Parkside

“He said he was thinking of suicide”
“I became roommates with another guy, and he told me he loved me. I said nothing would happen. Every other night he would ask to be with me. He’d turn into a wreck, saying it would make his life better and he’d thought about suicide. One night, when we saw each other at the bar, he sexually assaulted me there.” —Student, Omaha, Nebraska

“I make sure everyone knows what he did”
“I was molested by my brother-in-law. This forever changed my relationship with my sister (his wife). These events can happen to anyone by anyone under any type of situation. I was 11 years old. Too weak to fight him and too scared to tell. It leaves scars and nightmares.

“But one thing that this has taught me is I did nothing to be ashamed of. To this day I make his life and everyone in it aware of what he did and what he is. I keep him out of school systems and away from children’s sports activities. This is something he has done for years, and I was not the only one. He also did this to his own niece. Talking about it and protecting others has become my priority. My sister has since divorced him.” —First-year graduate student, California

“Our grandfather abused both of us”
“I was sexually abused as a child by my grandfather. I never told—I locked the memories away in a deep, dark corner of my mind. They didn’t come forward again until after I learned that my younger brother was being molested. I didn’t believe it at first. Why didn’t he tell? We tell our boys that men don’t cry, men can’t be hurt. Those are two big, black lies. Even though my brother was very young, he believed those lies and remained a silent victim. I admire those men who do speak up. As a society, we need to learn that it’s OK to not pretend to be invincible.” —Undergraduate (female), Utah

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Article sources

Student Health 101 surveys, July 2015, December 2015, February 2016.