jess 2Jessica Mahan

Last year I was sexually assaulted by one of my best friends. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll call her Anna. I don’t want to talk about that night or how it has physically, emotionally, or spiritually impacted me. I’m also not seeking to lay out Anna’s wrongs or slander her in any way. The purpose of this blog is to talk about how our situation was treated differently because we were both women.

Personally, my own heteronormative schema made it hard for me to recognize what had happened as assault.  I had the ingrained assumption that a woman’s role in assault was always the victim.  Therefore, I considered both Anna and myself victims of circumstances rather than as assailant and victim.  My best friend asked me once if I would be responding the same way if Anna had been a boy.  At first I thought this question was irrelevant, but as time went on I couldn’t help wondering what differences that might have made.

Through my processing, I was blessed to have a couple friends who I could confide in about what was going on.  But that doesn’t mean we got everything right.  I think the phrase we said more than anything was, “it’s just so complicated”.  It was complicated because Anna was drunk that night.  It was complicated because we said she was just sexually frustrated.  It was complicated because we loved her, and wanted to find ways to excuse what had happened.

But would we have let those things be an excuse if Anna had been a boy?

People do still plead those excuses for assault done by men, but would I and my friends?  We who are so progressive, so feminist; would we have excused a boy for assault because he was drunk and frustrated?  I doubt it.  So why did we believe these excuses were valid for Anna?  Why was she allowed to assault me and have it be ‘just so complicated’? 

Actually, Anna was the first person to call what had happened assault.  Despite our attempts to excuse her, she felt the weight of what took place.  Because of this, she confessed to several Gordon authority figures.  When Anna told our Resident Director, who I’ll call Marie, she first assumed that it was Anna who had been taken advantage of.  Marie actually made several assumptions.  First, since Anna didn’t name me, she assumed that Anna had been with a boy.  Then Marie assumed that since Anna was with a boy she was the true victim in the situation.  When Anna told Marie who I was, the question of assault was taken off the table.   The same thing happened when Anna’s story was shared with other Residence Life staff and our Center for Student Development.  From my research on what took place, I know that, although not all details of our story were shared, if it had been a male-female interaction the question of assault would certainly have been raised.  The lack of male presence prevented intervention from taking place.  The only thing I ever heard from Gordon authorities was a message passed on to me, through Anna—through the person who assaulted me—that I should go to counseling.  What upsets me is not that Anna was never punished. What upsets me is that nobody bothered to check that I was alright.  This made me feel worthless.  It made my safety seem inconsequential.

Despite obvious symptoms of severe hurt, the lack of concern made it hard to convince myself that I was justified in seeking professional help.  However, on the advice of a close friend, I eventually did go see a Gordon counsellor.  That meeting is where I finally accepted that what had happened to me was not only important, but confirmed that it had in fact been a case of sexual assault.  According to the US Department of Justice, sexual assault is, “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” You will note that nowhere in the definition is there a reference to the sex or gender of the assailant and victim.  Women can commit assault.  Men can be assaulted. 

There is one final point I would like to make.  For a brief time, this experience made me afraid of women who are attracted to other women.  While this may have been a natural response, it was none-the-less inappropriate.  The last message I want this blog to send is to be wary of sexual minority women.  Anna herself does not even identify as a sexual minority. We should, however, be educated and aware that sexual assault does not always play by heterosexual rules.  We should not allow our heteronormative biases to act as blinders.  When assault falls out of those boundaries we need to still be ready to give appropriate and effective responses.

To that end, I finally went to Gordon authorities myself.  I went in expecting to have to defend myself, and why what happened mattered.  To my surprise, our Dean of Student Life confessed that the system had failed and needs work.  I am currently conversing with Gordon to improve how our campus deals with assault.  The hope is to increase educational opportunities and resources among students and staff so that we will be better equipped to handle future cases.  It is too late for Gordon to help me, but it is not too late for Gordon to change.