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(Anna Seward)—[Trigger warning for sexual assault] Obviously, Amherst policy when it comes to sexual assault needs to change. Everything from the complete mismanagement to the basic lack of empathy in Angie’s article screams out for reform. Some of the changes necessary, however, are not so obvious. In the recent It Happens Here project, Amherst rape survivors hold up the words of administrators and peers who hurt and silenced them. These portraits depict a more comprehensive problem that pervades Amherst culture, that goes beyond the college’s official stance on sexual assault. We have created a culture of silence, of complicity even, in the effort to maintain our reputation and #2 spot.
Being abroad during this turning point in Amherst history is strange. There seems to be nothing to do here in England but read up and spread the word. When I saw my fellow Amherst students (one studying at UCL and another visiting from Copenhagen) after Angie’s article went viral, there was little more to say than: “Wow. I can’t believe we aren’t home right now,” before launching into: Did you read Biddy’s response, the letter the facebook group is sending, the call to protest, the meeting recap…?
Of course there is much more to say. I went abroad for many, many reasons. I had always planned on it, as an English major and somewhat of an Anglophile. Studying at Shakespeare’s Globe has always been a dream of mine; I’m ecstatic that I get to live it. I loved London even before I came here with my parents at seventeen. I found it how I expected it: an oddly comforting mix of old and new, cosmopolitan in an almost American way… I could write a love letter to London, and maybe I will someday, but that is not this post. What I am trying to say is I also went abroad to run away.
There were the usual reasons, sure. I had reached the apathy of sophomore year. Amherst is a small college in a small town of like-minded people. I needed to see new faces. But then I was raped spring semester. It began consensually, but evolved into something that was decidedly not. If you read Angie’s article, you know the Amherst administration has handled sexual assault horribly. However, I never made it to the official process. Before I even told my full story to a friend, I was called a liar. More specifically, I was told, “Oh, so he ‘raped’ you now? Bullshit.” I can put quotes around that because I remember it perfectly. Every word. And I probably always will. That was the first time anyone, myself included, had associated rape with what happened to me that night out loud. There was much more messy fall out that put me in self-denial for months. Was it rape if at first I said yes? Was it rape if he was “too drunk” to stop himself? By the time I could answer those questions with a definite yes or even think about going to the dean and face what seemed an endless process of proving myself, the semester was over.
Study abroad was a perfect fresh start. I chose a college where no one else from Amherst was going. I could almost forget what and who is waiting for me next semester. Who do I tell. How do I tell. Until, of course, Angie’s article. The link I clicked had a pretty obvious trigger warning on it, but I’ve never been able to stop myself from reading anything. Since then, I’ve been consumed with the latest updates and thinking over my own situation in the minute detail I did the last three months of last year. It’s caught up with me. As it would have, sooner or later. There’s only so far I could run.
I wasn’t sure I was going to write this post before I started. I had back-up topics including an amusing two hours my friend and I spent at Victoria station, coffee shops US vs. UK, voting abroad, and living in a big city (obviously this was less of a fully formed idea); but my heart wasn’t in it.“Silence has the rusty taste of shame.” I’m still not sure if this is the right time or place for my story to come out. But I won’t wait. I can’t hold off for the right moment with every person I am close to, worried that with a subtle word choice they won’t understand.
I’d like to give the former friend who said those words to me the benefit of the doubt, and assume she had no idea the damage she caused. But I can’t, just as I can’t give the Amherst administration the same benefit in relation to the many stories I’ve heard of their incompetence in this arena. We all have to take responsibility for our culture of silence. All I can hope, as I periodically check on Amherst from London, is that we demand not only new policy but new ways of discussing sexual assault that educate, not ignore; that respect, not shame; that elucidate, and never, ever silence.