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I just came here to make friends and get a degree…

Writing by Ayesha Dawson. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.

Content warning: contains discussion of sexual assault.

My all-girl school did not prepare me for the insidious rape culture that goes on around the university and behind closed doors, even in the alleged safety of my own room. I am so grateful for having had a comparatively stress-free existence at school, surrounded by strong female role models - it was only when I came to university that I truly realised that not everyone is a feminist, as naïve as that sounds. Female empowerment seemed a given, and I took it for granted at the time.

I’ve learnt that consent is not like the tea video I was shown in school. Just because I say no, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll stop. Sometimes I don’t say no because I’m scared that he won’t stop even if I do, so I make excuses - I’m tired, it hurts, let’s take a break - but sometimes even that doesn’t work. It’s simply an attempt at maintaining control, a cruel mind game I play with myself to preserve some small, sacred part of me. Something that saves me in the short term, but ultimately makes future allegations and reports all the flimsier.

My initial refusal leads to a gradual wearing down until I’m so weary that I give in. My mind wanders. I am somewhere and someone else. This is not happening to me. I convince myself I’m enjoying it. I convince myself that what has happened is of my own volition - I simply cannot live with the reality of my body not being fully my own, of something being taken, snatched, stolen from me, my most intimate part exposed and revealed to the world. Deep shame and humiliation follows, obsessive second guessing and gaslighting.

Sometimes, living here feels like I’ve gone back in time. I must have travelled in a perverse time machine to a place where women have little intellectual value. Bodily autonomy is out of the question. Instead, we become objects of sexual desire, our only purpose to please and appease the men around us. My fierce opinions are dismissed - snowflake lefty, bloody feminist.

My promiscuity is taken as an open invitation to disrespect my boundaries. I must be wanting it. I must be kinky and enjoying the pain. Inside, I’ve never felt quite so petrified, so small, unable to move, unable to say no. I detach myself from my body, watch from above as a girl who can’t possibly be me is reduced to her body parts, preyed upon animal-like.

He lives above me, omnipresent, his appearance possible at any given moment, like some malevolent God - at least that’s how he views himself. I have learnt to wear a suit of armour when I leave my room now, just in case. I try to suppress the churning feeling in my stomach and the sharp sting behind my eyes and nose every time he reveals himself to me.

I feel rage at his carefree, remorseless existence. His lack of empathy is almost laughable. Almost.

The most insidious thing must have been when the two of them hugged - the first having assaulted me, the second would go on to assault me later that night. Two strangers who had little in common apart from... well... a shared interest.

I’ve formed bonds over trauma, my sisters in arms. We cry and laugh on each others’ floors as we try to rationalise the pain caused. But there is no real answer as to why what has happened has happened. A sick power play perhaps, a performance of entitlement, a deep lack of understanding, of basic empathy and human decency. They’ve caused a deep and continuous trauma, which is triggered at times, when we walk past our very same abusers who walk scot-free, making friends, getting their degrees, heads held high.

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