A forgotten narrative: survivors of sexual assault speak out on hookup culture, relationships and love at Occidental

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In the fall of her sophomore year, Hannah* was enjoying another weekend night out with her friends when she came across a cute girl at an off-campus party. The two hit it off, and after some light banter, Hannah found herself on a couch, tongue deep in the mouth of a girl whose enthusiasm for this turn of events was matched only by her level of intoxication.

“She asked me if I wanted to hook up — have sex — and I was like, ‘You are drunk, no,'” Hannah said.

Instead, Hannah walked her back to campus. While she had no reservations over her decision to turn down a girl too inebriated to give consent, Hannah was shocked — and disappointed — by how many of her friends did. When she later recounted the story, many of them were curious as to why the hook up didn’t go further.

According to Hannah, one friend pointed out that they were together for the majority of the night and questioned why she hadn’t had sex with the other student.

This is not the first time Hannah has been asked this question. Poking and prodding at an individual’s sexual escapades (or lack thereof) has become a common, seemingly innocuous practice at a place like Occidental, whose glorified hookup culture and emphasis on sexual liberation has created a habit of equating sexual empowerment with promiscuity. But for someone like Hannah, who was coerced into having sex by a friend of hers when she was 17, getting teased for so-called prudish behavior is anything but empowering. In fact, she said the experience can be incredibly triggering for someone striving for healthy, affirmative consent after a traumatic experience.

While Hannah said that she was initially uncomfortable with the idea that her friends thought she should have hooked up with the intoxicated student, she was also surprised to find that they considered intercourse between two girls to be an exception. According to Hannah, several of them implied that sexual assault did not occur in female relationships and, therefore, wondered why she didn’t “just go for it.”

For Hannah, these microaggressions against her experience both as a survivor and as a queer woman only served to further alienate her from this campus.

“I started to feel like I don’t fit in this world,” Hannah said. “I can’t do the ‘get super drunk, have sex and feel no fear or remorse.’ I am incapable of it. A lot of people just assume everyone’s down for the same thing … and that’s just fundamentally not true when you’re a survivor.”

Occidental has a long and tumultuous history with sexual violence. Most well known are the events that took place in the spring of 2013 when, Feb. 25, a student reported to the administration that another student raped her. In violation of the 10 demands the administration had agreed to in 2012, former Dean of Students Barbara Avery sent out an email to the student body addressing the assault only after local media reported it, days after the incident had occurred. Outraged, approximately 300 students gathered in front of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC) on March 1, 2013, to protest Dean Avery’s email and Occidental’s failure to use the campus alert system to inform students of the assault, sparking a new wave of activism that caught the attention of the administration and the national media.

In April 2013, Occidental became one of the first of many higher education systems in the country to be accused of mishandling sexual assault cases when certain members of faculty and students from Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) filed two federal civil rights complaints against the college, alleging violations of both Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 and the Clery Act. An official investigation by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights began in May 2013, and in response to the allegations, President Jonathan Veitch enacted a number of measures in an attempt to meet student demands. These included hiring a full-time survivor advocate and Title IX coordinator, implementing a new interim sexual misconduct policy and 24/7 telephone hotline and expanding preventative education through first-year orientation, Project S.A.F.E., mandatory online programs and Residential Education.

But for survivors at Occidental — many of whom have been forced to switch residence halls, drop classes or dramatically alter their lifestyles in other ways to avoid running into their perpetrators on campus — these changes have done little to improve their emotional well-being and safety. After her assault, Julia* was forced to attend school with her perpetrator for a year. This only served to further undermine her sense of safety on campus.

“I’m so fearful of people, especially guys on this campus, especially guys in SAE,” Julia said, who was assaulted by a former member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity in 2014. “I know people like to get defensive about SAE, but I’m sorry, no, I know too many stories that sound the same way mine does … Nothing feels right on this campus because of that. It tainted this space for me.”

Nor have the changes mended survivors’ distrust of the administration.

“If you took a survey on this campus of survivors who felt comfortable going to the administration about their stories, it would be one in 100,” Luke*, a survivor who was sexually assaulted during his first year at Occidental, said. “And trust me, there are 100 survivors on this campus. Yes, we have a Title IX coordinator … but how humanizing is that? How centering of the experience of the survivor is that?”

Furthermore, despite growing public dialogue on sexual assault in the wake of Kesha’s legal battle with Sony, the conviction of police officer Daniel Holtzclaw and other major news headlines, Occidental’s discourse and activism surrounding the subject has remained relatively stagnant since controversy over the college’s handling of sexual violence erupted a little over three years ago. Luke attributed this silence to the student body’s lack of unanimous support for survivors.

Julia believes this lack of visibility is a mark of Occidental’s ongoing activism for various causes.

“Sexual assault isn’t the cool cause to get behind at Oxy anymore,” Julia said. “Almost every semester they pick up a new cause and they’re like, ‘This is what we’re going to fight for and be here for 110 percent.’ You picking up another cause doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice other things. Those other things didn’t stop being a problem. We can have [Oxy United for Black Liberation] and still have an actual dialogue about the sexual assault climate here, which I don’t feel like there really is.”

Luke, however, believed that last semester’s activism was the closest the student body has come to unifying around the issue.

“OSAC was problematic in a lot of ways,” Luke said. “It did not deal with sexual assault intersectionally, and quite intentionally, because that was the way they would get attention: by centering it on white women. The organizers for OUBL were amazing in trying to center these experiences on the intersection of blackness and sexual assault, and through that centering, those of us who were not black or [people of color] who’ve experienced sexual assault were able to have a safe environment as well.”

Nevertheless, Luke agreed that campus activism surrounding sexual assault has dissipated over the years. He believes that the administration has returned to old bureaucratic habits regarding sexual assault, which have largely gone unchecked by the student body — and that this relapse undermines students’ experiences.

Faced with a flawed administration and an apathetic student body, many survivors are left battling to recover on their own. At least, that’s how it feels for Julia, who spent the last two years of high school in an abusive relationship and was raped by her abuser the summer prior to the start of her first year at Occidental. Once she started college, Julia was able to get away from her abuser and ultimately end the relationship. Coming to terms with and making sense of the experience, however, would take much longer.

“First semester freshman year, I was so cripplingly anxious all the time,” Julia said. “It was right after I had gotten out of the relationship, and I felt like I couldn’t even communicate with people. I had very physical symptoms, like shaking uncontrollably, feeling cold … it was something I’d cry about all the time.”

At the time, Julia was suffering from acute symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it wasn’t until much later, after admitting to a close friend that she was assaulted, that she began seeking help from a therapist at Emmons Wellness Center. Even then, Julia felt that she was battling a stigma that hindered her efforts to heal. Despite the wealth of education students at Occidental receive from Project S.A.F.E., she still struggled to find people on campus who understood her experiences.

“I don’t go into any details about the relationship,” Julia said. “Because I feel like once I start adding those nuances in then it’ll be like, ‘Oh, but you told him you loved him, you stayed with him for like two months after he raped you, how was that assault?’ So I feel like the view that people have of what assault is is so small compared to what it actually is.“

When Julia was sexually assaulted again during the second semester of her first year, her distrust for the school only grew, partially because the wide circle of people surrounding her that night failed to protect her from her assailant.

“[It] made me feel really unsafe on this campus,” Julia said. “People had seen what was going on and thought it was an awkward hookup, but to me it was such a shattering experience and made me so distrustful of my friends here because I felt like they had literally abandoned me.”

After the assault, Julia sent an anonymous report to Title IX. It was ignored.

“There was no acknowledgement, no repercussions … which I guess is the reality of submitting a report anonymously,” Julia said. “It doesn’t really feel very impactful.”

 

This is the difficult reality many survivors at Occidental face in the aftermath of sexual trauma — even after structural changes have been made. Inevitably, this sort of trauma can and does affect survivors in myriad ways, whether those be mental health, academics, social relationships, sense of safety or lifestyle. But what often remains overlooked in the conversation surrounding campus rape culture and affirmative consent is the complicated aftermath of sexual recovery.

There are many reasons for this oversight: at a time when advocates are still tackling destructive rape myths and perpetrators roam free on college campuses, discussing sexual barriers in the aftermath of an assault may seem less of a priority than other battles. Furthermore, sex may be a difficult thing for survivors to talk about due to negative or triggering memories.

“I can’t speak for all survivors, but the words love and sex will always remind me, in some way, of my assault … so that’s why, for me at least, it can be hard to talk about those things,” Julia said.

Nevertheless, navigating sexual safety, satisfaction, healing and empowerment after this sort of trauma is a very real and difficult battle for survivors.

“Sexual assault is a direct hit to the most core, fundamental part of yourself,” said Wendy Meltz, sex therapist and author of “The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse,” in an interview with Mic. “No wonder the repercussions radiate out in so many ways.”

These repercussions include abstinence, hypersexuality, vaginal pain, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction or emotional distance during sex. And these are just some of the more common symptoms — there are as many reactions and coping mechanisms to sexual activity as there are survivors. These changes were certainly a reality for Julia, who avoided sex for the better part of her first year at Occidental.

“Every time someone would try to have sex with me, I’d be like, ‘Nope.’ Not just that I didn’t want to, I couldn’t,” says Julia. “I don’t like having sex. It’s not ever fun and it’s probably because a lot of the memories I have with sex … are negative memories. For others … it’s not tied to anything else or, if it is, it’s tied to feelings of love and happiness. For me, it’s tied to these feelings of power being taken away from me and being used. So it’s not really enjoyable.”

Aversion to sex — or any other potentially triggering sexual activity — is a normal reaction during the recovery process, according to Meltz.

For other survivors, venturing into a period of hypersexuality shortly after the assault can be a means of reclaiming their sexuality. And while many survivors are able to distinguish their rape from other acts of consensual sex, others may use it as a potentially harmful coping mechanism. When Dana Michaels (senior) was sexually assaulted by a family member at age 17, she didn’t tell anyone for four years out of anger, shame and self-blame.

“My most immediate reaction was, ‘Wow, be as normal as possible,'” Michaels said. “Do anything possible to avoid people asking you, ‘Are you okay?’”

This coping strategy affected her sexuality.

“[I] found myself recreating [the assault] because I’ve never really been like, straight, and so it was really strange to have an immediate response of like, ‘I need to f— a lot of dudes, and this is how I’m going to be normal now,’” Michaels said. “That was the worst part of it, that I was recreating that situation over and over and over again, and it was so ugly and so bad.”

In her interview with Refinery29, Meltz said that survivors often have to “re-learn touch.” Because sexual violence usually occurs on such a physical level, there are a lot of tactile associations with sexual intimacy. As such, practicing certain exercises — such as using one’s finger to draw messages on a partner’s back — may help survivors establish a new file cabinet of healthier and more positive associations.

“You need a certain amount of time to recover from experiences of assault,” said Meltz in the interview with Mic. “Time where you can reclaim your body and process your feelings, so you can re-approach sex slowly, tuning into what makes you comfortable.”

But this can be hard at Occidental, where sticky bodies grind their way through the ATO basement, anonymous students brag about their Friday night threesomes via Oxy Confessions, optimistic first years stuff their backpacks with handfuls of free condoms and hook ups and casual sexual encounters — regardless of how exaggerated the phenomenon may be — have become as synonymous to the culture here as evening runs to the Tiger Cooler.

“For me it hasn’t ruined sex, but I’m a lot more wary of who I’m hooking up with,” Luke said. “I really have not participated in hookup culture, and maybe if I hadn’t experienced an assault my first year that would have been different because it was incredibly traumatic.”

For many survivors, the mainstream narrative of hookup culture at Occidental is not only incompatible with their sexual needs, but can often exacerbate struggles and insecurities they already face during the recovery process, such as isolation and disempowerment.

“The [list of] boxes I have to check to feel safe and comfortable is a lot longer than it used to be…[and] hook up culture is not made for that kind of sexual practice,” Hannah said. “When it comes to casual sex, which is so glorified on this campus, there’s no communication because it’d be ‘too serious.’ Like, ‘What, you’re trying to date me?’ ‘No, I’m just trying to make sure I’m not assaulting you.’ A lot of people scoff at what I need in terms of consent. Or they’re like, ‘I would feel so uncomfortable doing that…’ It’s really hard. It’s meant a lot of times when I’ve wished I was physically intimate with someone, but I knew it was better not to be. There’s a lot of loneliness in that.”

For example, Hannah met a girl her first year who wanted to get involved with her on a casual basis.

“She basically communicated to me that she’d be down to have casual sex and I have been struggling with the fact that I can’t,” Hannah said.Casual sex can make me feel so uncomfortable and upset, and she got really upset with me … It was a similar experience of someone wanting something from me and I couldn’t follow through. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I just can’t.”

Julia had similar difficulties with a friend of hers that she was seeing casually during her first year and sophomore year at Occidental.

“Having sex was never good, never healthy. And that’s also because he’s very typical in the mentality of feeling like he’s deserving of a woman’s body without exception,” Julia said.

That’s not to say that finding patient and supportive sexual partners on campus is impossible. While Hannah hasn’t been able to have sex as often because of her higher standards, for her, waiting for the right partner has been worth it.

“When I do find someone who is willing to do that though, my sex life is amazing and so much better than it ever was in high school,” Hannah said. “You can be sexually empowered by not having sex. That means you’re empowered because you’re making your own decisions … a lot of people say to me, ‘You’re in college now and you haven’t had sex in like a year, how could you do that?’ and I’m like, ‘‘cause I gotta.’”

For many survivors, the lingering effects of PTSD, depression and emotional distress can make the process of finding love — or, at the very least, connection and trust with an intimate partner — that much more challenging.

“Relationships at Oxy have never ever worked out well,” Julia said. “I am always very quick to blame myself for that, and if I’m not blaming myself then I’m blaming my assault for that. I see [relationships] as giving up so much power. Instead of gaining something, gaining this mutually caring relationship, I see it as losing something.”

These struggles have carried out in the relationships she’s attempted at college. During the first semester of her sophomore year, Julia began hooking up with another student at Occidental. She said it was the closest she’d been with anyone since the assault.

The relationship ended up lasting a little over one month. After that, Julia’s partner ended things with her.

“I just felt blindsided, but I shouldn’t have … “ Julia said. “I thought that because I was feeling a way I had never ever felt before, with this kind of a connection with some decent person, that he was also in the same place. And now I know that very rarely in a relationship are two people in the same place emotionally.”

Julia experienced a similar dynamic with another student during her junior year at Occidental. In this case, though, Julia felt like the one who was not giving enough in the relationship. After two weeks of hooking up, Julia’s partner had declared her love for Julia. Having seen many parallels between this relationship and her last one, Julia was skeptical.

“When you can see that they’re giving 80 and you’re giving 20, you know that that’s not healthy,” Julia said, who attributes a lot of her issues with intimacy and commitment to her struggles with depression and trauma. “It’s hard to figure out if this is a disease or if this is just not a relationship that I care to be in.”

After about a month and a half, Julia broke things off. Then she panicked.

“I thought, ‘I’m never ever gonna be in a relationship … I’ve lost the fundamental ability to love,'” she said.

Self-doubt is common in the aftermath of sexual assault, according to Sarah Ogden Trotta, a clinician and scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview with Mic. Many survivors may doubt their taste in partners, their ability to enjoy sex or even find love. Some may begin to believe they’re unworthy of healthy, meaningful relationships. In reality, navigation into healthy sex and dating lives is achievable. It just takes time and patience — something that Julia was eventually able to come to terms with.

“What I experienced with him, even though it had components of love and trust, they weren’t the same thing,” Julia said. “Those feelings can be extracted from that experience, and they need to be if I’m ever going to be in a genuine, healthy, loving relationship … but at the moment I don’t feel any need to be in a relationship.”

Hannah had a similar experience.

“After being assaulted I just thought … no grass is greener,” Hannah said. “There’s no other side. This is just a part of who I am now and I’ll just have to take it step by step.”

And she did so.

“I was like, ‘I’m never gonna have sex again,’ but I did,” Hannah said. “I’m good.”

Now nearing his final month at Occidental, Luke says he still struggles to find connections with others on campus.

“It’s been lonely,” Luke said. “Because I feel like there’s no one here that I can trust like that … but that’s just part of my journey.”

And though he is excited to get out of such a triggering community, Luke has begun to look at his past in a different light.

“I’ve changed a lot for the better,” Luke said. “Yes, that’s me trying to find the goodness in a really sh–ty, traumatic experience, but my awareness and the amount that I care about issues of social justice has greatly increased because I have gone through that. And through deconstructing it, I have learned how it’s touched so many different fabrics of my life and the social forces around me.”

And as consuming as the process has been, Michaels is also grateful for what her experiences have taught her.

“It’s been one of the most important parts of my development, for sure,” Michaels said. “It’s allowed me to re-find out things for me and redo all that sh– I had done to myself in repressing my own story … I think I found a real sense of love for myself.”

But while she may be grateful for the things she has learned throughout her healing process, Michaels is less hopeful about the issues that brought her to this journey in the first place: sexism. Rape culture. Hook up culture. Occidental. To her, these things are all interconnected.

“Instances in healing are so intrinsically connected to this place, and while my counselors and support groups and friends are mostly associated with Oxy, there’s still so much baggage and pain and sh– that I’ve dredged through both internally and working with friends who didn’t get it or partners who are sh–ty and having all those things associated with one place … there’s just so much shame, silencing, devaluation that goes on,” Michaels said. “It’s honestly really bleak … Just kidding, there has to be hope somewhere. This all sounds really cynical, I’m trying not to be.”

She paused.

“Hoping is living through it … [and] I think all that I can tangibly do as a survivor … is to keep talking about it. No matter how many times they tell you not to talk about it.”

*Names of survivors have been changed to protect their privacy.