The costs of being a survivor

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Video by Molly Schrum. 

There are many times in life when you can find yourself at a loss for words. The shocking times, during a breakup you didn’t expect. The happy times, when your older sister says she’s engaged. And sometimes, when you least expect it but most need the words, the devastating times, when your best friend tells you she was sexually assaulted. And somehow, though your stomach drops and your heart breaks for her, you can’t say a single thing.

Despite the vastness of the English language, words will never seem more insufficient than when confronted with a situation like that. And what if your sympathy is mistaken for pity? What if she shies away from your touch? What can you possibly say that can encompass what you’re feeling? Is saying nothing better than saying something wrong?  

Unfortunately, when someone opens up and tells a trusted friend or adult that she was sexually assaulted, the wrong questions are asked. What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Why did you go home with him? Why didn’t you report? And though American society has come far in normalizing conversations about sexual assault with the #MeToo movement, how can a victim truly convey the heaviness of the pain, the loneliness or the burden that they carry with them for days, weeks and years to come? What are the true costs of being a survivor?

Internalizing Trauma

People react to trauma differently. A natural instinct is to ignore— shoving the traumatic experience so far in the back of your memory in the hopes that, one day, you will forget.

Four years after the incident, Cal Poly alumna Melissa Giddens still doesn’t know what happened that night. All she remembers is waking up in her bed the morning after a party, groggy and disoriented, with a man’s hand down her pants. For a full year afterward, she pushed the incident to the back of her mind.

“That year I started getting weirdly sick. My stomach would always hurt and I started throwing up just randomly and I didn’t really know why,” Giddens said. “I was a WOW leader my junior year, a year after it had occurred, and we had the presentation on sexual assault and I had a panic attack watching it.” Even then, she still didn’t fully comprehend what was happening to her. After going to multiple different doctors, which accumulated a lot of medical fees, it was a dietician who finally told her that the seemingly random stomach sickness was a result of internalizing her stress and trauma.

This routine of internalizing trauma isn’t unique to Giddens’ case.

Every weekend, anthropology and geography junior Elle Concejo takes a trip back home to the Bay Area. She goes to see her friends and occasionally party. But what a lot of people don’t know is that she goes to avoid seeing her assailant, who lives five minutes away from her home in San Luis Obispo.

“I keep seeing my perpetrator around and it makes me very uncomfortable,” Concejo said. “ I see him when I go to school, where I live and when I go to parties. I feel uncomfortable to live my life here. Obviously that takes time and a lot of money because I have to pay for gas and transportation.”

As Concejo found, distractions can be expensive. Animal science junior Sydra Gianassi had a similar experience after she was sexually assaulted last year.

“I would go to a lot of concerts [and] buy a lot of clothes, to get rid of everything that I had before [the assault],” Gianassi said, “It was substituting any of my feelings for a while.”

Coming to terms with a sexual assault can take a lot of time. It means acknowledging you were violated. It might mean acknowledging you were violated by someone you know. And in some cases, like Concejo’s, it may even mean acknowledging you were violated by someone you care about, and someone you thought cared about you.

“I chose not to report because I [have known] my perpetrator for two years, and after it happened I still tried to be with him, still tried to be his friend,” Concejo said. “But then I realized that wasn’t healthy for me. But I didn’t report him because to this day I still care about him. I kind of regret that because I feel like [reporting] could’ve served me justice in some way and I wouldn’t have to beat myself up over it.”

When asked whether or not she would report if she could go back, Concejo said she would.  

“I deserve more than a sorry,” she said. “God, yeah I deserve more than a sorry”

But for women who did decide to report, the process comes with its own set of problems.

The Burden of Reporting

Giddens reported her incident to Title IX her senior year at Cal Poly, on Jan. 27, 2017, over two years after it actually happened. After months of nightmares and stomach issues, she realized whatever she was doing to forget wasn’t working.

“It seemed like the next logical thing in my healing process was to get it out there,” she said. “I mean they tell us to [report], not necessarily from Cal Poly, but from Safer, WOW, different Cal Poly programs. It feels like the right thing to do because they say [they will] support you and if you feel assaulted then report it. But they don’t.”

Intimidation by the perpetrator and his friends. The mental space it takes to tell— and relive— the story over and over again. The burden of finding witnesses. The strain of trying to remember even the most minute details about an incident you’ve spent so long trying to force yourself to forget. The cost of therapy. The cost of retaking classes you failed because you spent so much time at the Title IX office, and had no energy after appointments to study. More tuition, more rent. The fact that, despite all these costs, Title IX’s final decision most likely will not be in your favor.

“I knew I was going to have to retell the story,” Giddens said. “I didn’t know I was going to have to say it so many times. I didn’t know they were going to make me feel like I was lying. I didn’t know that I was going to have to see everything he said about me[…] And I didn’t know it was going to be so long either.”

The 2016-17 report from Cal Poly’s Title IX office shows that out of the 76 reported incidents of Sexual Misconduct, Dating and Domestic Violence and Stalking that year, 23 were investigated. Out of these investigations, only 12 cases emerged in which the perpetrator was held responsible.

The question shouldn’t be why women choose not to report, but how bad things must be for her to do so.

Business administration junior Arushi* was assaulted October of her freshman year at Cal Poly. She reported the incident to the police and to the school’s Title IX office in January 2016.  

“I had to give an interview to the Title IX Coordinator three or four different times kind of reliving the experience over the course of the months from January to July so my whole freshman year was cloaked by this event,” Arushi said. “I was never able to get away, or heal or escape from it in the way that I had wanted to.”

Gianassi had a similar experience during the reporting process. She too did not feel supported or even trusted, and was forced to relive her traumatic experience over and over. She spent months in limbo as she waited to hear back from the investigator, constantly questioning whether she would receive the closure she deserved.

“I was checking my email every day, seeing if the results would come in or not. I was so fixated on it. It made me depressed and get really bad flashbacks to the point where I would get panic attacks,” Gianassi said.

As her investigation dragged on, Arushi silently dealt with the mental health spiral that was triggered by her assault.

“I didn’t have a family to really lean on,” Arushi said. “I had friends who didn’t know how to deal with real life here. Everyone was out partying every weekend and I’m [the one] staying inside because I’m afraid of a stranger touching me.”

During the year of the assault and investigation, Arushi shared a classroom with her perpetrator.  

“I talked to Title IX and they asked him to leave the classroom 10 minutes early and whatnot. He didn’t because there was no one to enforce it,” Arushi said. “And me, who did nothing wrong but go out and have a good time with my friend and just stumble into the wrong company, I had to have someone walk me to and from class and to and from campus. I had a neighbor freshman year that looked a lot like the perpetrator and that would send me into anxiety attacks.”

And still, what seemed like a never-ending investigation lagged on, bouncing around from one person to the next. Each time the cases were handed off to someone new the survivors would answer the same questions: “What substances were you consuming? How much were you consuming?”

The way America works is that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but the way it felt when I went in was that I was guilty of lying until I could really prove I wasn’t. -Melissa Giddens

The very battle was trying to prove my story right,” Arushi said. “He didn’t have to defend himself at all.”

The most disconcerting aspects of the Title IX process for Giddens was the coldness of the investigators who interviewed her, the secrecy shrouding the entire thing and the unprofessional way in which her case was handled.

“They tell you up front that they have to stay neutral, but even though they say that it definitely feels like they’re on the side of the accused because of the way they question you, the tone they use, the vocabulary they use,” Giddens said. “This wasn’t ‘neutral’. It was disinterest. Disbelief. It always felt like when I went in there I was on trial. And they were trying to break me. Like where will she say something that’s not going to add up?”

At the point in the process where Title IX was supposed to share their preliminary findings with Giddens, her investigator forgot her laptop and instead told her the findings from a couple written notes and memory.

“It seemed unprofessional and inaccurate,” Giddens said. “It was my chance to hear what had been said, to add anything else, to contradict anything, to provide more witnesses, and I felt like I didn’t get the fair process to do that because [all the information] wasn’t there for me.”  

Under the Obama-era guidelines, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had articulated a “prompt and effective” standard for addressing notice of sexual assault on campuses, generally between 30 and 60 days for the entire process. This means 60 days from initial notice through final determination of any appeals and remedial actions. The OCR also states that 3 to ten extra days can be taken if necessary for law enforcement officials to gather more evidence.

Arushi filed the report in January of 2016. Her case bounced back and forth between several different people multiple times, and got extended twice. It was not closed until July 2016. Giddens reported in January 2017, and her case was not closed until June 2017.

According to the NCHERM group, a consulting firm serving schools and colleges, “When a school delays their investigation and resolution processes beyond the sixty-day requirement, they are failing to adequately meet the mandated elements as set forth by the OCR for compliance with Title IX.” However, the new guidance under Betsy DeVos states that there will no longer be a fixed time frame in which a school must complete an investigation.

In the end, neither Giddens’, Arushi’s or Gianassi’s perpetrators faced any charges or consequences, although the Title IX office admitted to finding strong evidence of wrong actions taken by the male student in Arushi’s and Gianassi’s cases. Furthermore, Title IX’s final reports for Arushi and Giddens were riddled with errors.

“In the email when the new lady took over my case, she spelled my name wrong, there was spelling errors in the official document itself, the facts were incorrect,” Arushi said.

“It felt like an eighth grader wrote it. There were typos everywhere, the logic didn’t make sense, they included information I asked them not to include because I never said it.They just made it up,” Giddens said.

Giddens was given 10 days to re-appeal, which she did with a six page letter. It was disregarded by Title IX and the case was not taken up again.

“I was ready to write letters and re-appeal but I didn’t have that fight in me,” Arushi said. “I just felt like another number that the school discarded. It was a big slap in the face, the whole reporting process, and I would never ever do it again. I’m someone who cannot stay silent when injustice is being done but I would try and find a different way to handle this if I could.”

There were a total of three Title IX reports and seven formal complaints with Safer towards Giannasi’s same persecutor. Even then, that was not enough. Title IX was, as Gianassi states, “simply looking for an excuse.”

“The way America works is that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but the way it felt when I went in was that I was guilty of lying until I could really prove I wasn’t,” Giddens said. “Why would I come in here and lie? This is such a lengthy process. Why would anyone do this unless they had to?”  

Academic Sacrifice  

Whether or not survivors choose to report, the effects of sexual assault can creep up in every aspect of their lives. The ability to learn is often hit the fastest and hardest.

When Concejo came to Cal Poly, she was already struggling. Her high school was in the low-income side of town, and didn’t have enough funding to give the students the resources they needed to succeed. She was not prepared for the academic rigor of college-level classes as a freshman, and her second year only got worse.

“Right after [the assault] happened, I was in this state of denial and I didn’t want to say it was rape, but really it was, and that took me weeks to understand,” she said. “In those weeks I would get sick a lot and because I was so sick I would miss class, and would have to leave in between classes too. That took a toll. I got put on academic probation and I was really disappointed in myself.”

After an incident, campus can quickly turn into a nightmare for many survivors who fear running into their perpetrator, seeing someone who looks like their perpetrator or even the act of bumping into a stranger in the hallway. It was triggers like these that eventually led Arushi to drop out of school this last fall and try to put the pieces of her life and mental health together back at home.

“From the day the assault happened to this winter quarter I have kind of been struggling and dealing with the effects. It’s been a ripple effect,” she said. “Fall quarter [this] year I actually withdrew from school because my mental health had just deteriorated to the point where I could barely get up and get out of bed.”

Gianassi came very close to transferring.

“It was really hard. I started failing classes, I didn’t want to go to school because I was so scared I would run into him and the constant fear of that made me want to go do something else,” Giannasi said. “I started working a lot more because I felt so much safer there than any other place and it was a really good distraction. I never did school work. I almost transferred to Cuesta because I felt like I couldn’t do Cal Poly anymore and it wasn’t until I came out to my parents that it really helped me and did better in school.”  

Giddens did not notice the effects her assault had on her grades until she was a senior applying to graduate schools. During the year after her assault, she went from getting As and Bs to struggling to get Bs. And for the first time in her life, she got a D.

Moving forward

So where does all of this end? And where does the healing begin? It’s hard to say.

While the reporting process wasn’t easy, there was one upside for Giddens, and many other women who reported.

“The one good thing I tell myself is that this is on his record, if something else happened, they would see that and it would look better for the next [victim],” Giddens said. “That’s why I’m glad I reported it. But on the other hand, that was a terrible process that did nothing for me.”

If I can empower one person to speak up and even if it’s not reporting— just telling someone they have been afraid to tell— then I will gladly talk about this incident for years to come. -Arushi 

For Arushi, two and a half years after her assault, true healing has only just begun. She credits Safer on campus as having been a saving grace.

“Safer saved my life,” Arushi said. “Safer is the one who advocated for me. Time and again they have made sure I’ve been ok. They feel our anger and they feel our pain. I mean I’ve had them sit there and cry with [me] and that in itself means so much.”

Though the assault has taken a heavy toll on her everyday life, Gianassi’s friends have provided her a strong support system.

“If I run into him at the gym my friends will be there in a second. If you don’t report, definitely tell someone. People will be there for you,” Gianassi said.

Concejo found solace in her roommates, and advises survivors to find their people.

“The people you surround yourself with who actually care will help you realize, like my roommates helped me realize, that it was rape,” she said. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Seek help but when you’re ready. I wish I could tell my sophomore year self that.”

And although this incident has taken so much away from Arushi, it has given her a strength that she never expected. She is determined to keep fighting for the voices that are lost in the darkness that she knows too well.

“This became my passion. I’m not going to let anyone win. I’m not going to let them silence me,” Arushi said. “If I can empower one person to speak up and even if it’s not reporting— just telling someone they have been afraid to tell— then I will gladly talk about this incident for years to come. Because I know what it’s like to be lost and feel like there is no one on your side. If they can read this interview or if they can get anything from this then I feel like my job is done. I don’t need anything else.”

This is where our story ends. But it is not the end for these four survivors or the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual violence on campuses around the world. Each and every one of them will pay the price of being a survivor for years and years to come.

If someone comes out and tells you they were sexually assaulted, start by believing. Because the costs of being a survivor are too great to be questioned.  

*Due to confidentiality requested by the source, Arushi’s last name is not published in this story.


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