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Alexandra Tashman: Insensitive rhetoric invalidates struggles of sexual assault survivors

By Alexandra Tashman

April 10, 2014 3:44 pm

I’m a sexual assault survivor.

Even though it’s been many years since it happened, I still struggle to write that sentence. I was assaulted long before I came to UCLA and it changed my life forever.

There is no going back to before you were a survivor, as much as you may long for it. There’s only the pain, loneliness, self-doubt and shame that are left to overcome.

I’ve spent years imagining all the happiness and security I could have had if it never happened. But it did happen, and the feelings of terror and helplessness are something I will never forget.

In many ways, I lost myself after my assault.

It didn’t happen because I was drinking, walking home alone at night or wearing revealing clothing.

My narrative is not an unfamiliar one in the actual world of sexual assault survivors – a far cry from the cultural narratives of sluts and attacks by strangers. I was assaulted by someone I knew, in a situation where I should have been safe.

I never reported my assault, mostly because I was young and afraid and didn’t understand what reporting would entail. But on some level, I think I never reported it because I didn’t think anyone would believe me.

My assailant was known as a nice guy, funny and sweet. Guys like him weren’t sexual assaulters, or at least that’s what the narrative put forward in our society told me. Sexual assaulters were people who had to register on a database or who looked at child porn. I was always told that “nice guys” didn’t attack awkward girls with braces and frizzy hair who wore jean skirts and pink Converse.

That narrative is not only wrong, it’s harmful. In fact, it’s flat-out dangerous. Sexual assault happens all the time, in places that are supposed to be safe, and to people you know and love.

The reason I share my story now, publicly, is as a reminder of what sexual assault really looks like and in response to what I see as a disturbing trend in rhetoric regarding sexual assault on our campus.

Last year, I wrote a column criticizing a YouTube video made in support of Hakop Kaplanyan, a former UCLA men’s water polo player, that asserted he was innocent of sexual assault charges brought against him based on things like his smile and his popularity rather than on hard evidence.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard similar rhetoric used around campus when discussing former Undergraduate Students Association Council member Omar Arce, who is facing charges of false imprisonment, battery and sexual battery.

Although I fully believe in the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, conjecturing that someone didn’t commit a crime based on his or her reputation alone is irresponsible and unfair.

This rhetoric is also problematic because every time you argue for someone’s innocence based on those grounds rather than on hard evidence, you are invalidating the struggle and the fear that comes along with reporting a sexual assault.

And when you discount that narrative, you may unknowingly encourage another survivor to stay silent.

The problem with this type of rhetoric couldn’t have been clearer to me than it was this past Tuesday, when I walked past a sexual assault resource fair in Bruin Plaza. At the fair, there was a sign that said “What can 7,000 in Solidarity do to improve?” referencing the USAC campaign against sexual assault. And there, written among some of the more constructive responses, someone had put “Quit antagonizing men at UCLA.”

I saw that, and I wanted to cry. I do not understand how openly addressing the fact that sexual assault is something that happens at UCLA is considered “antagonizing men,” many of whom are also survivors. Speaking honestly is not antagonism.

The act of sexual assault is about silencing someone. It’s about having one person’s voice or desires override another’s. That’s why it’s so important to speak out, to reclaim your voice and yourself. In the Schoenberg quad on Thursday, survivors will Take Back the Night, telling their stories to fight back against what is often a silent crime.

Even if you don’t know someone in person who is a sexual assault survivor, now you know me. I’m somebody’s daughter, sister, best friend.

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