Content warning: The following text describes assault and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
My story starts the same way as many other women on this campus.
It was a Thursday in September of my freshman year. I run into him in the hallway. We’d met the past weekend. He asks me if we can hang out, as I had off–handedly mentioned that my roommate was gone for the night. Coming to this campus with such little experience relating to men, I don't fully comprehend why he is so eager.
I remember running around my room, making sure that all my Dormify–purchased decorations are in the right place. I act nonchalant when I open the door, pretending as if this isn’t basically the most exciting “romantic” thing to happen my whole adolescence.
We start watching Netflix, and I think just spending time with each other will be enough. But it never seems to be, and soon he begins to want more. “Maybe later,” I say, my words not a strong enough barrier to keep him from climbing on top of me. “We can do whatever you’re comfortable with … but I think we should do this,” he says. Even with the pressure, I manage to choke out an: “Is it okay if we just sit here?”
To make a long story short, it isn’t. Though I manage to stave off his attempts for me to give in, the repeated trials, his hands searching for the underneath of my shirt, the button of my pants, him leaning over me, trapping me, telling me that I “didn’t have a choice” is enough.
I remember stripping my bed with my roommate the next day, hoping that removing the sheets will remove any traces of that event from my mind. Of course, this is not enough either.
Six months later, though my experience level hasn’t risen much, my ability to deal with men has. Now in my second semester, I am able to skillfully navigate my way through a frat basement, dodging unwanted advances left and right—staying long enough to get a few compliments, but never long enough for anything more.
I think this night will be the same. “You’re super cute,” an old acquaintance whispers in my ear. “Thanks,” I reply with a smile. He nearly falls into me when he leans in. I dodge. “You’re drunk,” I calmly say. I think I can get away with talking just a little longer, but he tries, again. I dodge, again. “Are you nervous?” he asks. “Maybe a little,” I say, turning my body away to politely shut down the possibility of the situation escalating. Instead, I feel a strong hand on the back of my head, pulling me forward until our lips meet.
Now, the amount of times I’ve had my boundaries grossly disrespected on this campus is equal to the amount of semesters I’ve spent here. And as I said earlier, my story is far too similar to many other girls on this campus. I’ve bonded with far too many women here over finding themselves in these types of situations. Most girls who consistently go out have had their wishes disrespected to varying degrees during their time at Penn. Instead of blaming ourselves, I choose to instead point the finger at the larger Penn hookup culture, specifically how it manifests itself at parties.
There’s been many critiques of how the men here believe themselves entitled to play with girls’ feelings but less of their perceived “claim” to the female body.
Guys think that girls want what we see in movies and TV—the scene in The Vampire Diaries where Damon pins Elena against the wall, Chuck passionately kissing Blair without notice in Gossip Girl. Men who don’t ask but just take—the common belief seems to be that this is what girls are attracted to.
The key component that the Penn men are lacking is the established history of the characters in these scenarios. These actions are completely fine in the context of two people who trust each other and have previously established boundaries. However, for random men that you’re interacting with for the first time in a sweaty frat house basement, where the music is too loud to even hear yourself think, these actions become very scary, very quickly. It’s always better to explicitly ask for permission, erring on the side of caution—I promise, it won’t ruin the moment.
Adding alcohol into the mix, men gain the confidence boost of inebriation and become pushier. They think that if you give a no or, even worse, a maybe they can change it to a yes. This is just blatant coercion and isn’t acceptable no matter how long you’ve known the person.
The most prominent form of sexual assault around this campus is not the kind we all learned about in our middle school health class. Before all the women reading this went to college, I’m sure our parents all lectured us about staying safe in Philadelphia—never walking alone at night, keeping a buddy with us, avoiding dangerous areas of the city.
But sexual assault on this campus is not a strange man lurking in the dark as we trudge home from the frats down Locust. It’s the supposed friend who you thought was getting “a little too drunk” to properly hear your no; it’s hiding behind men who don’t want to accept that an enthusiastic yes, not a begrudging sure, is part of consent, and the simple act of nonresistance doesn’t give them license to do as they please.
It’s about men who believe they can hide behind an “I never meant to make you uncomfortable.” Men who shame you because you didn’t yell or scream (because who could fathom the concept that a man, who is probably bigger, stronger, and heavier than you, could inspire fear to not speak out). They think that maybe, because it never even escalated to the point where they tried to put something inside of you, that they can get off scot–free. That fear only enters one body if they’re being forcibly held down. That the only way to feel traumatized is to have your hymen broken. That there is no fear associated with coercion.
The key to fixing assault culture at Penn first comes with a change in our own thinking. Instead of thinking of assault as this hazy evil lining the Philadelphia streets, think instead of paying closer attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues from your partner, explicitly asking for consent before initiating a hookup, and erring on the side of caution if you even pick up a hint of your partner’s discomfort—you could be saving someone years of healing.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary, and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine Level (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday-Friday), 12-5pm Wednesdays & 12-5pm Fridays located in Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.