Punting sexual assault response
Getting support from S^3 was harder than expected
“MIT stands with survivors of sexual assault.” How many times have I heard that in the last year? Too many to count. Every time I hear it or read it, I feel the physicalized anxiety that I carry inside me from my past abusive relationship rise to the surface. My hands begin to sweat, the lump in my throat swells, and one time I threw up in a bathroom in my dorm.
This may seem strange — after all, I should be happy the Institute is standing behind people who are raped, harassed, abused, and/or stalked.
Perhaps it is because I know it to be untrue, at least in the recent past, from experience.
You see, this past summer I went to Student Support Services (S^3) to inquire about getting academic accommodations. My ex-boyfriend had been repeatedly sexually assaulting me and harassing me, and had once escalated to physical violence. A kiss with a fist, shall we say. I thought my trouble would be over when we broke up.
But I was wrong.
I wrote my advisor an email saying I had recently been sexually assaulted. I wanted to know that I could get academic accommodations if I found I needed them because many rape victims get PTSD or other health complications. I thought this would be easy. Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act ensured me that I would not have a weird battle with the administration like so many of my friends at other schools had.
Nevertheless, I was slightly nervous that it wasn’t going to be easy — those laws supposedly protected my friends as well but, to our horror, didn’t seem to have any effect. So when my advisor suggested I go to S^3, I asked him to come along.
I am glad I did. It was a pretty strange meeting. For whatever reason, the phrase “sexual assault” seemed to terrify the dean, so rather than using it he used the euphemisms “these matters” and “these issues.” I guess he thought that if he didn’t use the phrase “sexual assault” he felt he wouldn’t be obligated to offer me a room change nor academic accommodations as he is legally required to do. Instead he offered me advice: “Just so you know, I can’t keep your confidentiality, I could get subpoenaed,” and “You should go to the VPR [Violence Prevention and Response].”
However, rather than saying it once, he said it over and over. He told me he was going to call several offices on my behalf, including the VPR staff members who I was very clearly not comfortable going to see. My advisor spoke up, trying to get the dean to leave me alone and stop badgering me, but he didn’t drop the subject.
Two days later, I got a call from a number I didn’t know. I was being informed by the same dean that it was a “conflict of interest” for me to be speaking to my advisor about “these matters” and that I was henceforth forbidden from discussing them with him. When I asked why, asking, “Are there mandatory reporting laws?” he responded, “Well, yes, but more than that, we think that it is a conflict of interest to have the person who is advising you on your classes know about this. We think you should go to the VPR for these issues. We will be contacting [advisor] and letting him know the same.”
I didn’t want to go to the VPR; it was being shoved down my throat. I wanted to speak to my advisor, which shouldn’t have been such a problem. A survivor has the right to seek support or not seek support from anyone they/she/he chooses and the school cannot legally prevent a student-survivor from speaking to a mandatory reporter, if that is what they, she or he desires. There is no “right way” to heal, despite the dean telling me, “In my experience there are ups and downs with this kind of thing and it is best to have pre-established contact with the VPR.”
At this point, I turned to the only way I had left to take some kind of control of my life: becoming a survivor-activist with survivor-activist friends. I discuss rape culture and the abuse I had suffered both at the hands of the my ex boyfriend and at the hands of the school. I study harder than I ever have, laughing at those who don’t expect great things from me.
I help my friends with their projects and articles and poured my heart and soul into becoming the hard-faced woman who stands before you somewhere in these halls, among many other such hard-faced people. It became my passion to prove that in spite of what was at best negligence by those I should have been able to trust, I could stand on my own even as the waves crashed over me, physically and emotionally. That MIT supports sexual assault survivors is, at least in my case, a lie, but I learned something more powerful — other survivors stand with survivors of sexual violence.
Happy, sad, anxious, healing, everything and nothing, sexual assault awareness month.
This account is anonymous to protect the identity of the author.