September 1, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Campus of Cowards

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“I’ll make you cum.” Two weeks into college I found myself locked in the bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably. His vile words lingered in my mind, adamant and uncompromising, insisting we were going back to his room to have sex and swearing he would bring me to orgasm. I thought of how little my voice mattered. How my pathetic, intoxicated protestations were no match for a strong will and forceful grasp. Undeterred, he continued to shove his tongue down my throat as my words glanced off of him. I shuddered at the thought of what might have happened had someone not seen me struggling and pulled us apart.

Although it has been years, my memory of that night is still fresh and the wound still raw. The actions of my aggressor, though, are only partly to blame. More than anything, it has been the consequent actions of my peers that have made this experience so hard to come to terms with. The night I was almost raped marks the beginning of an ensuing blight that has infected my love for Cornell and distanced myself from some of my closest friends.

Of all the horrible emotions I endured that night, an overpowering loneliness hurt the most. Since I had only just arrived, I didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to. My assailant, Jake*, was my floormate — essentially everyone I knew knew him as well. The one person who I felt comfortable enough telling at the time shrugged it off with a “that sucks,” and left. He didn’t care.

Later that night another girl from my floor found me and started comforting me. She walked me to my room and wished me goodnight, and while still shaken, it was such a relief that someone genuinely cared.

Or so I thought. For all the feelings of trust and gratitude that she had evoked in me that miserable night, I experienced a very different set of emotions when the very next day I saw her and Jake sitting snugly together, ordering pizza and engaging in cheerful, almost flirtatious discussion. A feeling of bitterness and betrayal quickly overtook me. Had everything he had put me through last night mattered so little to her? But anger slowly faded to a dejected resignation as I thought back to my conversation with my first “friend” and it dawned on me that, yes, it really didn’t matter to them at all — perhaps it wouldn’t to anyone.

It was only then that an insidious rationalization began to creep its way into my thoughts: what had happened the night before must not have been a big deal — I was overreacting. So I resolved to be mature about the whole incident and keep it to myself — going so far as to establish a casual acquaintanceship with Jake (despite his inability to apologize) and act as if nothing had happened. I think that a large part of me knew that I was right to be angry and what he had done was unforgivable, but I didn’t have the support I needed to pursue another course of action. And although I could’ve tried to reach out to others, ultimately I was scared that they, too, would disappoint.

For the remainder of freshman year this issue lied dormant in my head, rarely, if ever, coming to mind after the initial shock. It wasn’t until a year later when things finally started to change. Slowly at first as I was confronted with an increasing number of women who shared similar experiences with Jake, until finally reaching a boiling point when I found out that my friend Emily had been raped. Furious, I decided that I could no longer stay silent.

But things were not better this time around —  they were far worse. My words were met with a crushing lack of credence from my peers, the reactions a combination of disbelief, indifference and even outright hostility. One, who previously flaunted his victim advocacy for a friend of his who was raped, protested that he had met Jake several times and that he did “not seem like the type of person capable of something like that.” Another yelled in my face, dismissing my accounts as mere “hearsay” inappropriate of being “spread around.” Others were more credulous and seemed to acknowledge the seriousness of what was being told, but then proceeded to interact with Jake as if nothing had changed. A sorority “sister” of Emily’s went from being her staunchest victim advocate the night of her assault, telling her that what had happened was indeed rape and that she should report it, to inviting Jake to date night — all within the course of a few weeks. Beyond these feelings of indifference and disbelief, Emily herself was heavily criticized. I was asked to explain several of Emily’s actions the night of her assault, as if something she had done had brought the assault onto herself. I was told that Emily should keep quiet as failing to do so could result in serious consequences for Jake. As my peers lamented over the fragile state of their accused friend it dawned on me that in their eyes Jake, not Emily, was the victim.

To them, this story has a happy ending. Emily ultimately decided she didn’t want to recount her story over and over again under such scrutiny and face severe repercussions to her social life, and Jake remains a thriving member of our Cornell community. Looking back, I cannot find the words to describe the sense of profound bitterness and disillusionment I now feel. At the most basic level, the actions of my peers seem to defy fundamental principles of compassion, friendship and morality — much to the expense of victims such as Emily and myself. Worse still, they contribute to a hazardous atmosphere where rape and other forms of sexual aggression are tacitly sanctioned by a complete and utter lack of accountability. That such apathy, moral weakness and malignant conformity exists in a purportedly intelligent and “caring” community is not only confounding, but absolutely unacceptable. Where is the outrage? If we can’t even bring ourselves to stand up for our own friends and peers who are hurt by people like Jake, all we really are is a campus of cowards.
*names have been changed

Vendela Norman is a student at Cornell. Comments may be sent to Guest Room appears periodically this semester.