Six days after my sexual assault in March of 2015, I go back to a frat party. There’s sweat everywhere, streaming from the walls to my neck to the cup between my teeth. I drink vodka, and it tastes like a slap. There are bodies on all sides of me – belly buttons lit by neon, glints of fingernails and teeth pushing against each other. Everyone is drunk and entwined. I fumble for the stairs. I need space, and time, and unsticky air. I slip through the rows of couples wound around each other, people I recognize from classes grinding in the colored lights. Everywhere is a reminder of how I should feel my freshman year of college: eager, easy and normal. But I don’t know where I fit into this space, with a body that no longer feels like mine.
For sexual assault survivors in college, navigating hookup culture can be an additional struggle in the process to heal. Casual sex is baked into campus life. But at the same time that students are figuring out how to respond to a 2 a.m. “u up?” text, many are reeling from sexual violence. The first six weeks of fall semester are known as “The Red Zone”, when college freshmen are most likely to experience sexual assault; RAINN reports that 50% of campus assaults occur between September and November. I spent a lot of my time in college surrounded by a constant conversation about sex – who was having it, and when, and with whom – while trying to build a new normal in the aftermath of my assault. Hookup culture and the sexual assault epidemic seemed to be two looming forces on the same campus, in the same bedrooms, existing in parallel but never openly intersecting. In a place where so many of our experiences and dialogues revolved around sex, there seemed to be no space to talk about sexual assault.
The summer before I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, where one in four women say they have been sexually assaulted, the New York Times ran a piece about Penn’s hookup culture entitled, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” It was the first but far from the last time I heard hooking up described as a game. There were established rules in place, I learned. There were ways to win and lose.
In her book American Hookup, Dr. Lisa Wade writes that hookup culture on college campuses is “an occupying force, coercive and omnipresent.” Because hookup culture is so visible, she explained in a phone interview, “you’re going to have to interact with that and respond to it, whether you share those ideas or not.” Almost by osmosis, students on college campuses learn the regiments and rules of hookup culture. There are formulas and formalities. It is an attitude towards sex that can seem so foreign from how some survivors process after rape.
There’s no self–help guide for how to get better from this.
Erica Rego, University of Pennsylvania student
“There’s no self–help guide for how to get better from this,” says Erica Rego, a 21-year-old Penn student who, like me, was sexually assaulted on campus during her freshman year. “There’s no how-to guide. There’s trial and error.” She struggled to isolate when hooking up was healing and when it became a form of self–harm; there’s a thin line between the two, she says, and sometimes she doesn’t even know which is occuring.
“You do feel like your body was robbed from you,” she said. “And I mean, it’s proving to yourself that you can take it back... It’s the like the best and the worst at the same time. ‘Cause the best is like, look, I’m fine, I can enjoy sex and not think about him. And then there are times when I’m hooking up with a guy, and all of a sudden, it’s like my rapist is on top of me.”
Elise (not her real name), 24, came to Haverford College, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, knowing she’d feel safe enough there to have sex. Campus was small and green, and the student body subscribed to an established honor code; she watched upperclassmen take care of freshmen, in an almost palpable atmosphere of trust. Elise had been raped in high school, when she had wanted to wait until “much later” to be introduced to sex. College, she told herself, would be different.
“I felt like there was a wall,” she said. “And instead of just chipping at that wall, I burst through. I was like, I’m just going to go out and meet a ton of people and get through this.”
So she did. She approached men at parties and danced with them in sweat–slicked basements, choosing “guys I had seen before but I didn’t know too well, so I could avoid them after.” She sat with them in the grass and then followed them back to dorms she used to live in, where she knew the rooms and hallways well. Elise and her friends would mark a map of campus of the different places they’d had sex in. She felt she could be normal, just another college student having fun, meaningless sex.
“I tried my hardest to fit in,” she said. “Even though, deep down I knew it wasn’t safe for me.”
It would take Elise until after college, in her last year of graduate school, to go into therapy. There, she learned that she had certain triggers, ones she hadn’t realized when she was hooking up at Haverford. “I just kept putting myself in situations that felt fun in the moment, and I remember them as fun, but then a couple days later, I’d feel shitty and didn’t know why.” She would experience violent flashbacks to her high school assault in the days after a hookup; she struggled with self–harm throughout college. The more she tried to run away from her past, the more it seemed to catch up with her.
“ It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows,” she says.
Seven minutes. Carrie (not her real name) remembers the length of the conversation exactly. She had asked a guy she’d hooked up with to come over and talk; she gripped onto his dresser to stop from shaking. In brief, vague terms, she told him about the first time she was assaulted, at a summer camp when she was 16. “Oh, okay,” she remembers him saying. As soon as she told him, she felt safer.
Carrie, who is now 23, felt like she didn’t fit into Princeton’s hookup culture. She wanted to be able to have easy, casual intimacy – to make out with a stranger on the dance floor, the way her friends did, or to follow a cute guy back to his dorm. But she was also intensely, paralyzingly afraid of what might happen. “It felt super unfair,” she says. “I couldn’t be who I wanted to be, in this space where other people could do whatever they wanted.”
To her, sex had an additional weight after her assault. She didn’t know how to have sex without assigning meaning to it; she was grateful for every consensual encounter. She couldn’t take that for granted. And she thought it was important to disclose her history of sexual violence before sleeping with someone, which seemed almost impossible to do if she went home with a random man from a party. Her trauma stopped her from hooking up with as many people as she wanted to — she hooked up with three men during her four years at Princeton, which she considers to be a low number. She feels like she missed out on a typical college experience.
“Why couldn’t I be normal?” she says. “I was carrying around all my baggage, and looking at all the other people who were just skipping around without anything.”
What she wanted was to view herself as sexually liberated. But she also wanted to be able to acknowledge and process her assault.
What she wanted was to view herself as sexually liberated. But she also wanted to be able to acknowledge and process her assault. The two seemed incompatible with each other.
“Sometimes it can feel like if you bring up the sad part of it, it’s just going to consume all the positivity and empowerment we put so much effort into building,” she says. “You know, like I would so much rather see myself as this empowered person who has wanted all, even if they’re not many, but all of the sexual experiences that I’ve had in my life, than to be someone where like half of the men I’ve interacted with have assaulted me. I have intense fear and shame around that,” she says. She pushes her hands apart. “I just kind of separate them.”
For Willow Hubsher, 22, who graduated from Cornell in May, that idea of sexual empowerment was always present in her campus hookups. “You trick yourself into feeling empowered because this is what you should be doing. This is what a strong woman does,” she says.
Nobody was surprised, Willow says, when she wrote about her assault in her school paper. Sexual violence at Cornell is “omnipresent”, she says. It wasn’t uncommon for her to walk past a frat house and have a friend nudge her and say, oh, I know people who were raped there. “It’s just considered to be part of college,” she says. The column, which ran in The Cornell Daily Sun in October, was titled, “Me Too, Because Obviously.”
She doesn’t think her assault changed her relationship to sex. She was determined to lessen its impact. “I didn’t want this guy to change my college experience, and I think I pushed through that in a way that, for better or for worse, made me still open to sexual opportunities.” She wanted to push her assault “down the roster,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be like, oh, the only time I hooked up with a guy freshman year was that time. You want to, like, bury it at the end of the Google results.”
The first time Clarissa (not her real name) told anyone about her rape, it was seconds after she’d been called a slut. A friend had been chastising her for the number of people she’d slept with. “She mentioned in particular the person who raped me,” Clarissa, a 26-year-old University of Oklahoma graduate said. “I got so mad that she was putting that label on me that I finally told her, you need to back off. You don’t know what’s going on in my life.”
Like a lot of college women, Clarissa’s sex life also had a social component. Think of the Sex and the City brunch table, recreated in dining halls across the country. Talking about hookups after the fact plays a “huge, huge” role in fostering the culture, Dr. Wade said. “It’s a powerful motivating force. It’s part of the rewards structure,” she said. Clarissa would drag herself to breakfast after a night out and debrief about where she had partied, who she had slept with. “It became this thing where I felt like I had to be proud of the sex that I was having,” she said. “Because otherwise I was going to be shamed for it.” The first year at school, after Clarissa was raped, was a splintering one; she had a series of one night stands with men she didn’t know or like. Often, she dissociated, feeling hollow and separated from herself, waiting for sex to be over. But when she and her friends talked about their sex lives, “I couldn’t be negative,” she said. “I definitely had to spin it in a positive light.” There was no room in the dialogue to talk about her trauma.
Part of the reason for that, she thinks, is because while hooking up is pretty easy to define, not everyone can recognize rape. I nod so hard my neck aches when she says this — I remember walking back to my dorm the morning after my assault with bruises purpling under my jeans, and how my roommate told me to stop crying because she “always felt bad after a one night stand.” In a society where rape can be framed as just regrettable sex because the victim was drinking, or because of what a woman wore, to label an experience as assault means to invite judgement and doubt.
There’s another aspect to why assault is absent from these conversations, though, and it has to do with fear more than anything else. “If you’re going into a known dangerous environment, like a fraternity party, if you want to go to the party, then you need to do a little bit of mental gymnastics to try to figure out why that’s okay,” said Dr. Wade. “When women don’t want to talk about or aren’t very supportive of other women who talk about sexual assault, they don’t want to accept, it could happen to me, and the only way to do that is to say, ‘because I’m not stupid like those other girls, I wouldn’t let that happen to myself, I’m not the victim.’ The only way to walk into the front door of that frat party is to think that you are somehow different from those other women.”
When I walked through those frat party doors all the times before I was raped, I shared the same mentality. I knew the statistics about sexual assault, and then when I arrived on campus, I watched my friends become them. Still, I thought I could be immune — because I used the buddy system, because I counted my drinks, because I worked out and stayed fit and imagined I’d be able to fight someone off if the time came. I wanted to believe my body could protect itself. I wanted to believe I was enough.
In the coming weeks, flurries of freshmen will move into dorm rooms across the country. They’ll giggle or gag through their first sips of bottom–shelf whiskey and cling to each other at orientation week parties. Their phones will fill with contacts they don’t recognize. They’ll get lost on the way to class. Some of them will move freely through their new sexual environment. They’ll trade kisses that taste like beer foam and smile to themselves on walks back from someone else’s dorm.
But thousands of others will wake up like I did the morning after my assault: with the thrum of panic, the sense that they’ve been stolen. I stayed silent about my rape for so long it slivered me — I didn’t know there was another option. I hope that the survivors still on campus will have a space to talk. I hope that when they do, we’ll listen.