A Response to Dear Harvard

I don’t know who you are, mystery woman from this now famous Crimson article (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/3/31/Harvard-sexual-assault/) but I thank you. If we walked past each other in the street, we would not know each other but it is articles much like yours that changed my life for the better. Last year I was sexually assaulted here in Oxford by a fellow student. I’m not going into details. But while the Universities culture is not friendly to survivors, I received invaluable support and compassion by both my college and Oxford University’s administration. So I am writing this to tell women and men of Oxford who are survivors of sexual violence that you can come forward, and that contrary to popular perception, Oxford will not ignore or belittle your experiences.

One of the worst experiences any survivor can have is finding that some of those you once thought you trusted and could rely on don’t believe you, or worse, slander you to him and his friends. On finding that those I trusted didn’t believe me I started lying about it. Eventually lying to the outside world turned into lying to myself; my friends knew him as such a sweet, nice guy, so he couldn’t possibly have done this!

So I didn’t go to college administration at the time. But months down the line, I stumbled across an article about the definitions of rape & sexual assault, and something inside my head clicked. Some friends had recognised it for what it was at the time, but I could never bring myself to acknowledge it as assault before – but here it was in cold hard English. I was ashamed by what happened; it took me months, but eventually I felt as though I could emotionally stand the loneliness and isolation and pain no longer. 

Once I did reach out, I remember feeling so safe that I was able to really cry for the first time. I sat there in a wooden chair in someone’s office, so broken and covered in tears that I couldn’t even sit up or form a sentence. I previously had felt so unsafe, as if I couldn’t trust my friends and if I talked about it then he would somehow find out. I had no space of trust to really talk to someone – I grew, after all, to mistrust my friends due to the incident. I still feel distant and isolated from them, but talking with college gave me the courage and safe space to start accepting what had happened. 

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I didn’t take any action against the attacker; for fear that no one would believe me over him and fear that he would try to turn my friends against me. It was so bad at one point that I was on the verge of rustication. Many people told me that I was cowardly, that I was ‘protecting him’ – but honestly, I was only ever trying to protect myself from him. I only hope that they understand.

I have lost more friends than I could count on a single hand over what happened. I felt as though the ensuing ordeal was my fault, that it was my fault that it had gotten back to him, that I felt that I could no longer trust anyone. I became paranoid and depressed. I covered it up with drink, drugs and sex for a long time until I realised that I was spiralling out of control.

It was hard going to someone. It will always be hard to talk about what happened and wonder whether they believe you, whether they’re stacking up your character against his in their minds, whether they care or whether they really want to be working instead. But once I started crying that afternoon in that chair, I realised that I could not find fault with the administration who I spoke to regarding the assault. They encouraged me to come to them but never forced me – they simply were there for months, knowing but giving me space. They helped me seek out counselling, they talked it over with me for many, many hours over many, many cups of tea.

They assured me that should I feel it necessary, he could be banned from college.

They said that the Proctors would know about my circumstances so that the stress that I was overwhelmed with at the time would not have affected my exam results. Even though I never took any of those routes due to fear and an unwillingness to address the incident at the time, the fact that they were so supportive shocked me – and the fact that even though I never took action they are still supportive and caring and check up on me now, a year and a half on, has meant so much to me. Thank you if you are reading this.

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That is why I am so grateful to the anonymous woman from Harvard. The authorities at Harvard may be against her, but the authorities at Oxford are not against us, despite what the media perception of Oxford may imply. I am grateful to her and those like her – without those kinds of articles I would never have been aware of what happened to me, I would never have spoken to my college and found the support that I never realised I needed, and I would have lived in a state of confusion for years.

These articles are written by strong, inspiring women who take on their attackers and universities and win and those help many others. This article is trying to help those women who have been assaulted here at Oxford to come forward – not necessarily publicly – but to come to something safe, to somewhere that you can get help and support. Addressing your assault doesn’t have to inspire you to change a system that works, and it will take your side in battles – aside from those you have with yourself. I was so proud and so scared for so long that I unnecessarily lived in fear for months. It’s hard to do, but I felt so much better once I had – and you will be surprised at how much is available for you. Good luck, and whatever you decide to do, however it feels at the moment, there is a safe space for you somewhere. So email a welfare officer and you might be surprised – there’s always at least one person rooting for you.