This week, The Tide will publish a series of three reflections from Wheaton students on their experience with sexual assault. The series seeks to give voice to the stories of survivors in the midst of a larger campus conversation on this issue. It is our hope that these reflections will draw attention to how deeply personal and real sexual assault is to survivors on campus. If you would like to add your story to this collection click here.
After enduring sexual harassment for over a month, I was sexually assaulted by a coworker the summer after my sophomore year. The church-run resale shop where I worked fired my assaulter, but also fired me. Their reasoning was simple: “You’re gay, he’s gay, you must have wanted it.”
I came back to Wheaton College a couple months after that, and confided in a few friends about what had happened. Most people just gave me hugs, but no real advice. Realistically, what else can you say to your friend who was assaulted over the summer? What else can you say but “I’m so sorry,” and “I love you,”? After my friends had done all they could do, I was still lacking real advice on my situation. Was it my fault? Did I lead him on? Should I have called the police? Sued my workplace?
For just about anyone else, this would have been the perfect time to take a walk over to the Counseling Center on campus and speak to a professional about his or her experience. For me, however, this was not possible, because my counselor at the Counseling Center had turned me away at the end of my sophomore year after I publicly came out as gay, saying, “I don’t think there’s anything else I can do for you.” The Counseling Center was not a safe space for me, and so I avoided it consistently throughout the rest of my college career, taking on the burden of processing my assault alone. Very quickly, it settled on the back burner; I had far too much going on academically and socially to have a breakdown processing what had happened. It became much easier to pretend that it didn’t happen, or to at least tell myself that nothing was wrong, that I was fine.
The first time I remember telling a faculty member about what had happened to me was in a meeting in my American Literature professor’s office. We were writing papers on A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was focusing mine on the main character that is raped at the end of the novel. I told my professor that I was drawn to that character because something similar had happened to me over the summer. We cried together. After that interaction, her office became a safe space.
The next time I talked about my assault was in my Sociology of Sexuality class, during our unit on sexual violence. I explained to the class that I had been essentially fired for being assaulted, and my professor said, “That is absolutely unacceptable.” I fought the rest of the class to hold back tears; it was the first time an authority figure had verbalized that what happened to me was wrong, both being assaulted and being fired for it. Her classroom became a safe space.
In all, I spoke with five professors privately about what had happened to me over my junior and senior year: three in the English Department, one in the Sociology department, and one in the Anthropology department, and all of them tried to help me in some tangible way. One attempted to help me find work on campus, to make up for the wages I had lost after being fired. Another vocalized her support of me writing a memoir piece about my assault and the ensuing fallout. In all, I was able to create at least five safe spaces on campus, and those spaces helped me find my voice and be much more vocal about my assault.
Despite all of this support, however, I still had not processed with a professional. Yes, I was talking more about what had happened to me, but if admitting that something was wrong was all one needed to feel healthy again, there would be no need for therapists of any kind. Now my assault was front and center, and with no real way to process it on campus, my stress levels went through the roof. Everything in my college life took a hit: my social life, my grades, and my mood. The smallest things would send me into emotional spirals, from having to walk back to my house alone at night, to a stranger’s eyes lingering on me for too long. It didn’t help that my assaulter was attempting to contact me through social media sporadically throughout the year. Without a space to both de-stress and process, my only real solution was to graduate and find professional help away from my college.
At the beginning of my senior year, Wheaton kicked its focus on sexual consent into high gear. All students were required to watch an informational video on sexual consent and sexual violence, and a few talks on these subjects took place on campus. At one of these talks, a panel sponsored by the Wheaton College Christian Feminists group, a member of the Counseling Center said that the Counseling Center was a safe space for all students to process through trauma and grief.
I became extremely upset. The Counseling Center was presenting itself as a safe space for all, when in reality it had turned me away and forced me to create my own safe spaces. During a Q&A session immediately following the panel talk, I took the microphone and tearfully informed the panel that the Counseling Center was not a safe space for all students, sharing my experience of being turned away. The response I got from the Counseling Center representative was something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you don’t feel safe with us. You should feel safe with us.” It was a line I’d been fed many times at Wheaton, especially in regards to being gay. You shouldn’t feel unwelcome. You shouldn’t feel alone. You shouldn’t feel the way you are currently feeling. It’s a dismissive tactic, one that implicitly expresses that you are wrong for feeling the way you are feeling, and denies any responsibility for said feelings. In a Town Hall chapel, for example, Dr. Ryken told me that I shouldn’t feel unwelcome at Wheaton as a gay person, when just a few seconds before, a student had launched a piece of fruit at another student for asking an LGBT-related question. The tactic is used to placate, but not to actually affect any change. In keeping with this tactic, the Counseling Center never reached out to me after the event, and never attempted to apologize for forcing me out. Instead, other people continued to step in and attempt to fill the space that the Counseling Center should have been trying to fill.
Allison Ash, the dean of Student Care, caught up with me after the event and set up a meeting with me in her office. It was there that she asked the question that should have been asked by the Counseling Center. “What can I do to help you feel safer? What do you need?” Her office became perhaps the safest space at Wheaton College for me; I wouldn’t have graduated on time had she not stepped in and offered her time and assistance to me.
When I graduated from Wheaton College, I still had not seen a counselor regarding any of the stressors or trauma in my life. I had barely graduated with the exact amount of credits I needed, and my GPA had slipped dramatically. I sat on the stage in Edman Chapel in my blue robes and listened to the head of the Alumni Association express that Wheaton College seeks to support all Wheaton students and alumni in all areas of their life, knowing implicitly that both myself and my situation were not a part of that “all”. Receiving my diploma from Dr. Ryken was perhaps one of the most freeing moments of my life.
If you ask Wheaton College as an institution what it has in place for students suffering from trauma, it will point to the Counseling Center. It will not point to a back office in the English Department, or a downtown coffee shop, or a kitchen table at a professor’s home. Those were spaces that I had to find and create for myself due to Wheaton’s (the institution’s) lack of care for people like me. I’m grateful for the support and care that certain students, faculty members, and administrative members gave me during my time at Wheaton, but as I write this piece, I still have not gotten any professional help regarding my assault. Life has become far too busy to afford seeing a therapist or counselor.
I was not offered the same help as other Wheaton students might be offered, and I suffered and continue to suffer more than necessary because of that. If I were straight, even if I identified as gay but wanted to be straight, Wheaton as an institution would have helped me and supported me fully. I did not meet their standards though, and when I really did need professional counseling, Wheaton had nothing to offer me. The few faculty and administrative members that openly support LGBT students on campus can only do so much until Wheaton as an institution takes responsibility for ostracizing sexual minorities, when they stop saying “You should feel safe and welcome,” and start asking, “What can we do to help you?”