On the morning I wrote this column, I was walking down Franklin Street, flowers under my arm, taking in my last few days of studenthood.
The sun hit the nape of my neck and filled me with light. In the reflection of a plate-glass window, I noticed a man had been walking behind me. I thought nothing of it until he inched closer — turning around the same corners as I was, mirroring my steps, staring intently at my backpack and the exposed backside of my head.
I whipped my head around to ask what he was doing and — thankfully — he scurried away.
What once filled me with rage and fear and self-loathing was now as dry as a mosquito on the neck.
On my very first day of classes, back in August of 2018, another student in my lecture hall slid his hand under my skirt and tried grabbing my thigh. I said nothing and quietly exited the hall. I was too afraid to make a scene.
Suddenly everything — the pencils and color-coded notebooks I laid out, the sessions I spent logging professor’s office hours in my Google Calendar — was unimportant, childish and meaningless. I walked back to my dorm room and cried in the shower.
On my very first day of classes as a senior, back in August of 2021, I felt confident and content following a year back on campus after COVID-19.
I’d missed the freedom of riding the bus, spending the afternoon studying in coffee shops, gasping with laughter and surprise at familiar faces on the street. I’d gotten onto the bus to go back to my new apartment, and as I scrolled on my phone, a man slid behind me. Our bodies were smushed together by the forty other passengers. Suddenly, he grabbed my ass, squeezing and contorting, laughing into the nape of my neck. I felt the unmistakable weight of a closed knife in his shorts’ pocket. Before the doors could close, I got off the bus as quickly as I could and ran down the street.
I cried in an alleyway, feeling exactly the same way I felt when I was 18: shame, confusion, violation, anger and indignity.
For the past year, all of my personal traumas — from sexual harassment to downright assault — have inoculated everything I’ve done.
I was once a bright, talkative student; now I struggled to get to class because the thought of walking on Franklin Street alone or having to ride the bus back to my apartment made me throw up with anxiety. I was once sociable and spunky; now I spent most Friday evenings on my couch because I didn’t want anyone to see my body.
I became convinced it was built for forfeit, and often made note of the ways I’d make myself less noticeable or vulnerable in the future. Maybe if I got a breast reduction, maybe if I wore more hoodies and leggings, I would be less of a target. I cried tears of relief on the days I could Zoom into class.
I often blamed myself for what happened to me, as harassment continued both in and out of the classroom. Again and again, I never reported or said anything. I was a scholarship student. I had a contractual duty to acquiesce, to represent UNC, to do good.
And I do represent UNC. I represent the one in three women who are sexually assaulted on college campuses. I represent the intelligent young women who come into this institution to study and accomplish great work, only to be exorcized of all morale, their diplomas inked with pain and fear. I also represent the lucky ones — the women who barely come out of that pain alive.
I do not blame myself anymore, because I know what happened to me was not my fault. It was the product of a wider culture of sexual harassment and inequity in this country, and a simulacrum of it was certainly felt on this campus. The fact of the matter is that UNC does not care about sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The administration has made it clear, time and time again, that they have a vested interest in avoiding scandal, with hundreds of sexual assault perpetrators since 2007 receiving zero punishment for their actions.
In doing so, they have created a noxious feedback loop where students like myself don’t pursue justice because they know they won’t receive any.
I often imagined myself outside of my body, acting in the role of attorney/social worker/UNC administrator/police officer, asking – Why didn’t you report it? Why did you say nothing?
There is no other way to say it: I knew that no matter what paperwork I filled out or horrible memories I had to divulge, nothing would happen to my abusers. Evidence would collect dust on a station shelf, or simply be thrown out, such as the 1,000+ rape kits tossed in the trash in Charlotte. My body would be twisted into another statistic, floating into the ether.
UNC has expended countless time and energy in order to prevent people from understanding their disciplinary actions surrounding sexual assault on this campus. I have been writing about sexual assault and power at UNC for the past four years, and even I cannot fully make sense of it.
If they actually cared about the lives of female students on campus, there would be institutional changes: more comprehensive anti-sexual violence training for students each year; a transparent process around records release; more gender violence service coordinators employed; more non-police and non-carceral solutions; so on and so forth.
As I move forward with these last few days of classes, I often think of the people, places, departments and more that supported me through my journey of trauma, grief and reckoning.
The help of trusted professors, the Carolina Women’s Center, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault have all comforted me, encouraged me, and led me toward healing when I previously thought it was impossible.
On a normal day, I might not have felt confident enough to confront the man following me, but the thing that changed my mind was a girl walking on the other side of the pavement. I didn’t know her at all, but we exchanged a cursory smile. Suddenly, I felt protected.
Here was another person at UNC, someone who was probably all too familiar with the leering glances and the warnings about going out at night. At that moment, I felt safe, because we both understood what it meant to be here. And after the man walked away, I kept walking, flowers under my arm.
Somewhere, I think I’m still walking, just like that.
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