The start of my freshman year at Georgetown was unremarkable. In the first couple weeks of school, I quickly fell into a group of friends — all male — who lived on the floor above me. We ate all our meals together, studied together and, on the weekends, went out together.
That all ended one Saturday night.
I felt too sick to go out that night, but the guys were pregaming and getting ready to hunt for a party. I didn’t want to be left out, so when one of them offered me a Mucinex DM, a cough suppressant with sedative and dissociative properties, I took it. They said I’d be fine, and I trusted them. So, I had one alcoholic drink. The combination of the two rendered me dizzy and exhausted. At around 2 a.m., they decided to head to Five Guys. I made it as far as Healy Circle before realizing that I needed to return to my dorm and go to sleep.
One of the guys offered to walk me to my room. I refused, more than once. As we walked, he assured me, “It’s alright if we hang out for a little bit. It’s alright, it’s alright.” A few seconds passed, and then, “It’s alright if we kiss for a little bit, and it’s alright if we make out for a little bit. It’s alright.” I did my best to push through my clouded state, quietly repeating over and over, “No, no, I’m tired. Really, I should just go to sleep. I need to go to sleep.”
Rather than walking me back to my room, he walked me to his.
Some may argue that I could have run away, that I could have screamed when he shut the door to his room and laid me on his bed, that I could have stopped this from happening to me. In the months following this encounter, I asked myself these questions. Why didn’t I run away? Why didn’t I scream?
Fast forward to January 2014. I was riding a bus in downtown Washington, D.C. Four months had passed since I had started college; four months had passed since the fateful encounter that ultimately altered the trajectory of my college career. I stared at my phone, reading and rereading the words that would clarify what happened to me that night.
“Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape.” — U.S. Department of Justice
Finally, after enduring four months of emotional breakdowns and anxiety attacks, I understood why it felt like my entire world was falling apart. Four months of living in near-constant fear was explained in a mere two sentences.
In the months following, I began to delve into research on sexual violence. Over time, I came to understand why I was unable to prevent my own assault — at last, I could stop blaming myself. Research shows that many survivors of sexual assault often find themselves unable to fight back or yell. When the amygdala detects an outside attack, the brain essentially freezes. Stress chemicals surge into the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think rationally. When this ability is inhibited, it becomes nearly impossible to make observations and to draw logical conclusions.
That night, I was physically incapable of leaving.
The night after I first read the legal definition of sexual assault, I found myself sitting on a bench in the Southwest Quad wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans. It was about 30 degrees outside — it felt like the weather couldn’t decide if it should be raining or snowing. I was freezing cold and sobbing uncontrollably. As I cried, countless people walked by me on their way to parties, but no one stopped. Not once. I had never felt so worthless in my entire life.
So what did I take from this experience? Although I communicated with the university, I realized that no amount of counseling would make me feel completely whole again. In order to help myself, I needed to help others: I became a resident assistant and a freshman retreat leader. I joined the Sexual Assault Working Group and Sexual Assault Peer Educators and applied for the board of Take Back the Night. I realized that I had a role to play in combating campus sexual assault — the prevalence of sexual assault on Georgetown’s campus cannot simply be pinned on the administration.
Yes, the university plays an enormous role in preventing and responding to sexual assault. Georgetown needs to create a more survivor-centric campus by bolstering existing mental health resources, clarifying and simplifying the process of seeking accommodations and support, supporting bystander intervention education for all students, educating students on Title IX and existing on-campus resources, ensuring that all first responders have received appropriate training, providing adequate training to faculty and staff on their mandatory reporting obligations — the list goes on.
We as students are right to pressure the university, but we also need to pressure ourselves. We, too, have an obligation.
We have an obligation to our peers to be honest with ourselves, and to recognize the role students play in changing campus culture. We have an obligation to speak up at parties, because preventing a possible assault is more important than potentially offending someone. We have an obligation to stop on the sidewalk and ask the person crying if he or she is OK. We have an obligation to believe survivors. We have an obligation to be better, to do better, to speak up and to listen because we are called to be women and men for others, and we are failing. Georgetown, we are failing.
Olivia Hinerfeld is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service.