‘The body speaks’: My frosh year assault, four years later

In this weekly creative nonfiction series, we explore themes of intimacy and sexual assault, as experienced by Stanford students. Storytellers take agency over their bodies, directing narratives that make their experiences visible. This story is a retelling of the sexual assault our storyteller experienced her frosh year — the story was constructed based on verbal interviews with the storyteller, with narrative elements added by the author.

This series is meant to connect people, validate shared experiences and help survivors tell their stories. It is a space for healing, so come in, take your shoes off and make yourself at home. Most importantly, take care of yourself. 

Content warning: This series mentions sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

This narrative is a direct account of the sexual assault our storyteller experienced her frosh year. Our storyteller will refer to herself as “K,” her assaulter as “S” and her male friend as “B.” These pseudonyms were arbitrarily selected by the storyteller to protect individual identities. It is a special feeling to introduce you to the first of many stories in this series. Please welcome K as her body speaks.

You know that feeling when you keep waking up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, and you go back to sleep, and you don’t realize that you had a nightmare until you get up in the morning?

My frosh year, I lived in Donner. My friends and I would go out with the rest of the dorm on the weekends, and we would get drunk together. You don’t know everyone in an all-frosh dorm, but it’s not hard to make friends when you’re intoxicated. That’s how I met S. While we weren’t particularly good close friends, we had met a few times and were always pretty friendly with each other. When we went out, our friend groups would often run into each other at the law school, outside of frats and anywhere else that drunk first-years might stumble across. 

During my third week at Stanford, my friends and I went out with people in Larkin. We got drunk to celebrate hours of studying at Green for chemistry midterms and then headed back to Donner. With my new friends, snacks from the on-call and our RF’s golden retriever together in the common room, I felt like everything was right in the world. S and his friends rolled by the lounge to say hi before people started heading in different directions for the night. After I said I was cold, he offered me his jacket. In my semi-intoxicated state, I questioned if maybe he was making a move but quickly redirected my thoughts — not all guys were after something, and I had no reason to doubt his intentions. 

We ended up in S’s room, and he poured me another drink. Again, I thought — and quickly erased the thought — that S was only being friendly toward me because he wanted me. Looking back, I wonder if I had minimized my anxieties about S’s niceness because I so badly wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. What kind of world would we live in if I couldn’t take a man’s actions for face value? I let my guard down and allowed myself to ease into the night. Things started to die down, and I was alone with a few of my friends, S and a couple of his friends. I became more and more tired and even more drunk.

The darkness of S’s room was overpowering, and I fell asleep near him while my friends sat on random furniture in his room. I was slouched over, half conscious, when I woke up into a nightmare: I felt two of his fingers inside of me, and his hands grabbing around beneath my shirt. I was barely awake, and started to question whether what I was feeling was real. I was so out of control of my body that I kept falling asleep and waking up into the same nightmare. To some degree, I also doubted whether something wrong was even happening to me. Some of my friends were in the room, and I subconsciously doubted if anything that bad could even be occurring because I wasn’t alone. I didn’t try to stop it or say anything — maybe if I kept falling back asleep, the next time I came to I would realize none of it was real, or it would stop. It didn’t.

Around 4 a.m., I woke up because I heard footsteps shuffling and people getting ready to leave. I noticed that something about my body felt off. My chest felt cold, and when I glanced down at S’s jacket, I realized that my tube top had been forced off. As I hastily pulled up my shirt, I remember thinking, “Okay, alarm” — this was real. I walked into my friend B’s room before I went to bed, incoherently and rapidly asking the same question over and over: “What happened to me?” He didn’t have an answer. 

The best analogy I have for my experience is this: you know that feeling when you keep waking up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, and you go back to sleep, and you don’t realize that you had a nightmare until you get up in the morning? That’s what experiencing sexual assault was like for me. The thing about nightmares, though, is that they aren’t real. This was.

In the morning, one of my friends asked if S and I were a thing. She had fallen asleep in the same room as us before he assaulted me, but on the side had been wondering if there were “vibes” that night. Maybe it was because I was wearing his jacket, or maybe it was because of how close we were sitting when I fell asleep in his room. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what had happened, so I just said nothing had happened. I reinforced that I wasn’t interested in him, but that was the extent of what I admitted that day. She was sorry for making it awkward, and I was sorry too. I was sorry because I knew that what S had done was going to stick with me for life, but I didn’t want to make it a big deal. I couldn’t deny what S had done, and I also wasn’t ready to admit that it was unforgivable. So, instead of doubting him, I started doubting myself: maybe I gave him the wrong idea by taking his jacket. Maybe I texted him back too enthusiastically, and he thought it made him special. Maybe I made him think I was interested because I would give him a hug and say hi every time we ran into each other. Maybe I got so drunk that I fell asleep and couldn’t defend myself. Maybe I was being dramatic. Maybe it was my fault. 

I could’ve told my friend, who is now one of my closest friends. She would’ve been there for me. Back then, though, I didn’t want to start off the year with trauma — this was supposed to be fun. I couldn’t be someone who tore our frosh dorm community apart for any reason, even though I would never have treated anyone else that way.

That same afternoon, B pulled me into a room with him. He was really uncomfortable with what he witnessed, and he wanted to address my panic from the night before. He didn’t call it what it was, though. After beating around the bush about S’s violating touches, B asked me how he could best protect me when our friend group was around S. Not if we were around S, but when. Although S so clearly and publicly violated me, and although my friend knew the gravity of what had happened, no one addressed the absoluteness of my trauma, choosing instead to embrace a more comfortable gray area that left me feeling hopeless.

If I had the knowledge that I do now, I might have asked, “What makes you think I’ll be around him again?” But I didn’t; I accommodated his presence and gave my friends the answers they wanted to hear to maintain some sense of comfort. I would be the problem if I spoke up, and who was I to destroy our friend group? I didn’t want to be a buzzkill or be unhappy with my own experience just because S made me feel sick. I let the fear sit inside and wash over me. I would rather be uncomfortable than be a problem.

There’s a shift when you get assaulted by someone. I avoided S because every time I saw him somewhere, my body would tense up. I felt so viscerally uncomfortable. I started overthinking every nice thing a guy would ever do for me. I stopped accepting anything from a guy — small favors, gestures for help, snacks — because even if they were genuine and innocently offered, I couldn’t bring myself to risk “owing” anything to any of them.

During the pandemic, I took a gap year. The time I spent away from school allowed me to finally confront my trauma. One night, a close friend opened up to me about her childhood sexual assault. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to say… What can you say when someone shares something so vulnerable with you? All I knew was that I didn’t want her to feel alone, because she wasn’t; hearing her story gave me the courage to face my fears and finally start processing what I had forced down for so long. When I heard her story, I could finally call what S did to me for what it was. I came to terms with the fact that I had been assaulted. A few moments later, warmed by her vulnerability, I said the words out loud that I had tried to not even think: S had sexually assaulted me.

For the next few weeks, I felt every emotion that I had been trying to avoid this whole time intensely. Sad, because I was starting to mourn my degraded sense of autonomy. Betrayed, because I wasn’t alone in the room with S, and how could my friend, who saw it with his own eyes, let that happen? Angry, because no one stuck up for me as they continued to stay friends with S. 

I healed a lot that year. Still, my frosh self that thought, “I don’t want to ruin his life. I don’t want to say anything or tell anyone,” rises inside me at times. When S rushed into the same frat as my friends, I didn’t make a big deal about it to protect his reputation. When I ran into him years later, I asked him to get lunch with me to preserve some sense of normalcy, trying to prove to myself that I was so fine and nobody had power over me and my being. These moments put me back into that night, with the fear that my needs could never come before his. 

Right after the assault, I wanted to text S a long message to give him a chance to explain himself. But I never did. Like many women who have been assaulted, I told myself that maybe he feels bad for what he’s done. After all, he avoided me as intensely as I avoided him. Maybe he’s not a bad person. Maybe he won’t do it again. 

To this day, I haven’t talked to my friends who were in that room with me about what S did. Maybe they know, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I find myself lost in the absoluteness of who I am now, as a senior at Stanford. No matter what your relationship with your assaulter is or isn’t, you are the only person who gets to define what you need. I won’t pretend like I wake up to perfect dreams all the time — progress is abstract and undefinable. But even if I wake up in a nightmare, I’ll go back to bed and face my fears. And in a few hours, the morning will bring a new day. 

 – K


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