Self and the City is a column intended to increase visibility and dialogue surrounding mental health, relationships, harmful stereotypes, and the necessity for self-care and vulnerability. Self and the City will be headlined by Jessa Chargois on a bi-weekly basis. Submissions and guest columnists are welcomed to send work to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trigger Warning: The following contains a discussion of sexual assault, violence, and physical harm. We acknowledge that this content may be difficult to read. We encourage you to care for your mental and emotional well-being and proceed with this in mind.
I believe while April is Sexual Assault Awarenss Month, thirty days of conciousness will not demand the change we not only deserve, but urgently need. Thus, I believe we, as a collective body, must work together to create a space in which conversations can be facilitated respectfully, sensitively, and productively. I am acutely aware of the privilege I hold in my ability to vocalize my thoughts and my truth on a platform such as this, influencing a large, loyal readership. While I may be lighthearted at times within the pages of Self and the City, I recognize the need to be brave and advocate on behalf of my truth, and the truth of the millions of my fellow survivors. I’ve stayed silent in the past because I thought that would be the easiest route, but through other life lessons, I’ve learned this simply is not the case.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve received compliments regarding my strength. What was packaged as a positive attribute, has at times, set me up to fail. Strangers, family members, and close friends alike have remarked on my physical and mental fortitude, stating how I am “just so tough,” “confident,” and “intimidating.” I’ve been called “cool” by strangers too many times to count, something I would have yearned for when I was at the ripe age of seventeen, stepping on to the magical grounds of an Ivy League University. Now, at the age of twenty-four, still far too young to possess these memories, the “cool” girl act is a bit old, composed of layered grief disguised as ease. I can now only reflect on the ways in which being overly-confident has placed me in harm’s way. To be clear, I would never suggest that my confidence or strength is something I would change, nor blame for the actions that others have taken against me. Rather, my confidence in my own ability to handle situations falsely led me down a path where I felt I did not need to ask for help or question the motives of strangers. I let my perception of myself act as my armor against all, and unfortunately, “confident” girls can get hurt, too. “Strong” women often need your help, they may just be too stubborn to ask. The “cool” girl is barely holding the act together, and the “intimidating” one may just be afraid to let you in, because she is afraid you will also break her. Time can heal a lot, but so can sharing your story. I’m tired of being uncomfortable in order to fit within the narratives of others. I’m a very strong, confident, intimidating, and damn cool woman who is finally ready to admit that even the strongest amongst us, can be taken advantage of, can be abused, and can finally forgive themselves for the blame they originally placed on themselves.
I was a freshman in college.
I was sexually assaulted.
We met on campus, and you invited me back to your dorm room. You rolled a joint while I looked out your window and made small talk, glancing across the illuminated courtyard, the very courtyard I would shortly stumble home through. You asked me to come sit next to you on your bed, and watched as I took a deep inhale. Why weren’t you smoking from this joint? Why was the room spinning? Why couldn’t I move my legs? Why were you unbuttoning my pants? Why couldn’t I speak clearly? Why wouldn’t you stop? Why wouldn’t you stop? Why wouldn’t you stop? Why?
I was a sophomore in college.
I was sexually assaulted.
This, this, is the story that broke me.
I met you by chance, amongst a crowd of men destined to become some of my biggest supporters, a fate we both failed to expect. I was supposed to be elsewhere that evening, originally a date to another ever-so-boring fraternity brother’s event, yet, at the last minute, I found myself here. Surrounded by my new friends, united through a desire to fit in and find our “people,” I found myself standing next to you. Small talk turned into simple conversation, turned into flirting, turned into my regret as I left the sorority/fraternity party without asking for your number. Boldly, I found myself messaging you on social media, and quickly found myself back in the very same basement, a basement that became a sentimental home for me amongst my following years at college. Within weeks, we began to see one another regularly, and quickly, found myself dubbed your girlfriend. For the first few weeks, I floated through life, as an upperclassman deemed me worthy of his attention, his affection, his time. Despite our bright start, the light quickly faded, allowing for a troublesome, turbulent, and abusive future. My opinions slowly became invalid, my desire to sleep became a challenge for you to sleep with me, and my pleas of “enough” were interpreted as “more.” As I looked in the mirror that hung above the oak tree painted in your shared bedroom, glancing at the bruises that wrapped around my arms from your tight grasp, your roommate asked “Jessa, is this okay?”
The answer was, no, of course not. I had yet to come to grasp with the fact that my so-called relationship was closer to one of sexual, emotional, and physical assault than that of love, respect, and empathy. I had yet to recognize the fading sense of self overwhelming me. I had alienated myself from my closest friends, for fear of them recognizing what was occurring would tarnish their impression of me as the confident, cool girl. Would a cool girl have to grit her teeth and cry into a pillow? Would the “Jessa” I let everyone get to know, allow someone to talk to her like he did? Would the person I worked so hard to build cower behind turtlenecks and long sleeves, for fear of her friends questioning the rings of black and blue around her arms, her hips, her neck? The very friends who begged me to leave, physically collecting me from his room on multiple occasions when I had been too weak to leave. I had yet to accept that me, this strong young woman, had let someone abuse me, someone she thought she loved. Yet here’s the thing I’ve learned; rose colored glasses can tint even the darkest of black and blues into a tender hue of love-lust pinks.
Amongst the year long relationship, he would go on to cheat on our relationship, sometimes caught in the act, sometimes not. He would take advantage of me any time I would return to his bed after a long night of celebrating with my friends. For them, it was a joyous time, a brilliant night within their sophomore years. Yet, behind my heavily caked on makeup, I was drinking to forget what had happened to me the night before, and what would presumably happen later that evening. He would tell me he loved me, only to wake up the next day and reject the notion. He would become violent when angered, pushed by an array of triggers. If you were to look closely back then, you would notice a dent above his bed from when his fist missed my head by mere inches on a plain Tuesday morning. If you listened closely enough, you could hear my sobs from his room as we returned home from an event, me, heavily intoxicated, him, already pulling up my sundress despite my pleas.
Please do not think I wasn’t aware of what was happening here. I understood for far too long that I had to leave, yet, when you find yourself in something like this, like this abusive relationship, you become entranced. You believe you can change him. You believe he loves you. You believe he won’t actually hurt you again. You begin to believe your own lies. You believe you are in control of the situation, when in reality you lost it the first day you stepped foot inside that basement, waiting for him.
Now, here’s where the story takes a twist. Yes, he was a member of a fraternity. While I am in no position to, nor will I, defend this system of direct oppression, elitism, sexism, and racism, this specific group of men came to my defense. Individually, they approached me, asked questions regarding my welfare, my mental health, my emotional sanity, and my physical safety. Time and time again, they urged me to leave, to walk up the stairs from their basement and never return. For one whole year, the men of this organization watched as one of their own ruined me, and promptly, worked collectively to repair the damage done until I was ready to walk away. Once I chose to walk away, these men stood by my side to protect my wellbeing. Standing between him and myself, they took me in as one of their own, and reminded me that I am confident, I am worthy of love, and I am that “cool” girl I worked so hard to build. To this day, these men are some of the most important people in my life, and serve as a reminder that I chose myself.
I was a young woman living in a big city.
I was sexually assaulted.
Years later from previous instances, I found myself lonely and seeking any connection I could. A bright sunny Saturday was the perfect setting for an outdoor brunch date; a mimosa waiting for me, what a gentleman! Two, three, four more, to wash down the overwhelming sadness, a feeling I was all too familiar with. As we stumbled through the East Village, I felt his hand trace the length of my back, electrifying the air around me. As we stepped into his apartment building, the romantic atmosphere disappeared as he forcefully guided me into his room. Ignoring my pleas, he lifted my skirt and made choices for the both of us. As someone who fought hard to regain autonomy over her body, this date turned assault serves as a constant reminder to not let my guard down.
I hope this made you uncomfortable, made you want to check in with your friends regardless of their “strength” or their relationship status. This was not written for your pity or for your attention. This was written to prove that even the ones you deem “strong” can be fooled, can be broken, can be used and abused, and can be shattered inside despite the smile plastered across their face. While I’ve come to terms with the events that have transpired and found a way to really love myself once again, the haunting ghosts of the past remain. This is now part of my story, and sadly, not one that is uncommon. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Within university settings, among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males will experience sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. 1 out of every 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape her lifetime. 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male. 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted. So, let’s put to bed this notion that “only weak girls are taken advantage of,” shall we?
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, help is available:
RAINN: RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country.
- Online Chat Hotline
- Telephone hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse. Contacts to The Hotline can expect highly-trained, expert advocates to offer free, confidential, and compassionate support, crisis intervention information, education, and referral services in over 200 languages.
- Online Chat Hotline
- Telephone hotline: 800.799.SAFE
1in6: National Helpline for Male Survivors’ mission is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives.
Love is Respect: A project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, love is respect offers 24/7 information, support, and advocacy to young people between the ages of 13 and 26 who have questions or concerns about their romantic relationships. We also provide support to concerned friends and family members, teachers, counselors, and other service providers through the same free and confidential services via phone, text, and live chat.
- Online Chat Hotline
- Telephone hotline: 866.331.9474