A UCD student recently reached out to The University Observer to tell us her story about being sexually assaulted on UCD campus.
Editors Note: This article discusses sexual assault and could be triggering for some people. Name has been changed to protect identity.
In January 2015, two Swedish students on the Stanford University campus came across a female student being sexually assaulted behind a dumpster by university sports star Brock Turner. The ensuing case started a conversation about rape culture on college campuses, an important topic that needed attention. However, the optics of the case; it being an assault outdoors, in public by someone unknown to the victim, is not the reality for a large proportion of sexual assault cases on our college campuses.
A survey by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in 2016 found that 8% of female students had been the victim of rape or attempted rape. A further 11% of women reported to have been the victim of unwanted sexual contact. When asked why they did not report the incidents to the police, 57% said they did not think the incident was serious enough to report and 44% believed that what happened to them was not a crime.
A UCD student, Kate*, recently reached out to The University Observer to tell us her story about being sexually assaulted on UCD campus.
“When I was in third year, I was sexually assaulted, by another UCD student, on UCD campus. I don’t want to say that it changed my life. It did, but I don’t want to say it. I don’t think that sounds right.”
“It was a regular day. I remember everything I did that day, clearer than any other day, ever.”
It was agreed upon with Kate prior to the publication of this article that the details of the assault itself would not be included. Instead, the focus would be on what day to day life is like on campus since the assault, and how it has changed her experience in UCD, as well as the support she received from the relevant bodies on campus.
“I went to the Welfare Officer. I sat down with them and I said ‘This is how my weekend’s been, this is what happened.’ I had some bruises, and I showed them the bruises and they looked at me and they said ‘That was rape. You were raped.’ And that was the first time I thought about it. It was the first time I thought about that word. And I thought, ‘What? Was I? I was? Okay. Yeah.’”
“I’m scared of jumping in with the word, not for you, for me. I’m scared of the word.”
The struggle with accepting the word ‘rape’ is common. A US meta-analysis of 28 studies of women and girls aged 14 and older who had had non-consensual sex occurring through force, found that 60% of these victims didn’t acknowledge that they had been raped. When the respondents to the various studies were asked why they hesitated to use the term ‘rape’, many victims said that it simply took time to acknowledge what had happened to them.
“It’s such a scary word. It’s such a powerful word with a lot behind it. And even if you don’t have any personal ties to the word, it’s a scary word, it’s a heavy word, and it’s a hard one to swallow.”
“I didn’t say ‘he raped me’. I said ‘he hurt me’. That was the phrase I used for months and months.”
“My stomach would just eat me from the inside. I would choke up, my stomach would clench, my throat, my chest, everything would freeze like it did that night. I was stuck. I felt like every time I saw him I relived the trauma. I was properly obsessed with it. I was obsessed with the thought that every corner I turned, he would be there, everytime I went into the Clubhouse, he would be there. Any time someone says that name, I jump. I see someone with the same colour hair as him, I jump. The amount of times in the library I have almost screamed at random boys just for walking past me, you wouldn’t believe.”
Following advice from the Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Kate went to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) in the Rotunda Hospital; “The SATU clinic is in the Rotunda, which is where pregnant people go and babies are born. So when I went, it was all pregnant people, it was all babies, and me, the 20-year old who had just been raped.”
While the experience itself was unpleasant, Kate says the staff were understanding and empathetic. It had been a number of weeks since the assault when she attended the unit, so a DNA swab could not be taken. This is something she wishes she was aware of at the time of the assault; “I just wish I knew, I didn’t know, that if you’ve been raped and you want to report, you should go to a SATU or your Garda station ASAP so they can take a forensic medical examination, so they can take DNA, so they can take your clothes, so they can check for blood, semen, sweat, anything. But nobody thinks about that when this happens, it’s not what goes through your head.”
Kate did report her assault to the Gardaí, a number of months after the incident had taken place. “I decided to go to the police a few months later. I decided to go to the DRCC (Dublin Rape Crisis Centre) around the same time. I rang them, looking for an appointment for counselling. They put me on a waiting list, I got an appointment a few weeks later, went in and met a counsellor and told her my story. She was great, she was fantastic. She made me feel so normal, she validated everything that I said. The weight of the words and the things that happen, obviously with traumatic experiences, they eat you up and they fill you up, it’s really hard on you. When somebody validates that and says ‘Yeah, this thing did happen to you, it’s okay. Or maybe it’s not okay, but I’m just going to agree with you.’
“As I said, it took me a while to get used to the ‘R’ word. It was very scary then, and she (the DRCC counsellor) accepted that, which was the best thing ever. She totally accepted and validated that word for me if I wanted to. She asked me if I wanted to go to the police, and I had been terrified to go to the police, to tell anyone in authority, because I had no idea what would happen. I obviously thought ‘I was drunk, therefore I was asking for it, therefore I deserved it.’”
Kate’s decision to go to the authorities and report what had happened to her came after a long internal struggle and worry. “I’d spent enough time being upset, I’ve been living with it, I’ve been dealing with it, I’ve been getting on with my life, but this isn’t fair. Knowing you did no wrong- I did nothing wrong, absolutely nothing wrong- and here I am every single day anxious at just about catching a glimpse of somebody? In my head I had worked it up that if he saw me, he would come over and beat me up and kill me, because that’s what I thought he was going to do that night. And you just can’t carry that on your shoulders. That is the worst thing to carry, when you blame yourself and you have done absolutely nothing wrong.”
“Nobody has to live with all of this on their shoulders. All of this crap, and all of these worries, and medication and bruises. And that’s the easy stuff. The crazy stuff comes after when you think ‘I can never look at a boy again’, ‘How is a boy ever going to look at me again?’, ‘I can’t talk to another guy with the same name ever again’. And I did feel like that for a long time and I still kind of do.”
For cases of this kind, detail is crucial. When interviewed by the Gardaí, every minute of the evening must be accounted for and described in great detail. While this is understandable, it can be hugely difficult for victims to relive the experience. “I still had to tell them everything that happened, in every detail. That is not even rubbing salt into the wounds, it is throwing yourself into a bucket of salt, it is terrifying. Everything I thought, everything that I remember thinking and saying and doing, I had to say.”
“I had to prove that I had these bruises. And it makes sense, you have to show your evidence. But telling someone you were raped and telling someone what happened and then having to prove it, is really shit. Obviously, I know why they do it, it’s just not enough to say it. And I knew this, I knew that I wanted to do the legal process, I knew this was part of it, and they handled it so well, the police were so good to me. But having to prove that you were raped...”
“The clothes that I wore that night, I didn’t wear them ever again. The trousers, I really loved the trousers, haven’t worn them since. The jumper, I really loved the jumper too. The guards have them now, in a freezer somewhere.”
In our discussion, we talked about what life was like being on campus, knowing your rapist could be just around the corner. Kate has not encountered him in almost a year, but she remembers the last instance that she did. “I walked past him, and we made eye contact for a second, and there were so many people around I thought ‘I can either run away, or I can stay and just blend in. What’s he going to do? What am I going to do?’ I was still obsessed at the time thinking that he was going to kill me at some point, or beat me up or something crazy and stupid. But he didn’t of course, he just kept walking and didn’t acknowledge me at all. I don’t know what I would have done if he did.”
“I rang my detective on the anniversary of the event. That was a rough day. You can get triggered sometimes and get completely set off. Sometimes you can get angry, sometimes upset, sometimes it’s five minutes, it could be a day. The anniversary, I knew the day was coming, I won’t ever forget that date; the date, the day, the time, the place. I will never forget any of it. So when the anniversary came, I was in college. Everything that day just reminded me of the day, of the event. I laughed to myself thinking ‘this time last year I was having a cup of coffee, not knowing what the day was going to bring me’, which is really sadistic, but I guess that’s how you cope with it. ‘This time last year I was having lunch with my friend, and then I got raped that night’.”
When Kate reported the incident to the Welfare Officer, she was taken for a meeting with a Student Advisor and the Dean of Students. She decided not to push ahead with a complaint under the Dignity and Respect policy as she “was too afraid to fill it [the form] in”. After reporting the assault to the Gardaí, she went back to the Dean of Students to see if they were able to suspend the accused student. “I had a second conversation with the Dean of Students, I’d already gone through the legal process, I’d already gone to the police, and UCD can’t interfere when the police have already started, especially before he was brought in for questioning, because this guy doesn’t know the police are going to be knocking on his door any day to interview him, and if UCD decides to neutrally suspend him, I could be in trouble.”
In terms of what life is like now, some time after the assault, Kate admits that time has not been the best healer, particularly when reminders surround her everyday. “It doesn't get easier, no it doesn’t, because well, you know, you go from crying everyday, to crying once a week, to crying once a month, and that part gets easier I guess. But... little triggers, and the triggers have stopped being so personal, and I’ve stopped having the flashbacks, but I was only having the flashbacks when I was having sex, and I’ve stopped doing that because I’m too scared to do that. But it’s the snide comments, it’s the rape culture that is ingrained in everyone, it is the people who say things like “Well he hasn’t been proven guilty yet” in the bar, and you just roll your eyes, and you think ‘if you fucking knew’. It’s stupid things like that, but anything can trigger it.”
“I was diagnosed with PTSD recently as a result of this. I rang the legal lady again and said ‘Surely now this proves I was raped, because I have PTSD I am reliving this event, this traumatic event and I’m being caused stress’ and she said ‘No, can you prove that you did not consent to that that night? That is the only question we are being asked that the court has to decide on. So if he gets charged, if he is deemed guilty, then and only then I might get the chance to make an impact statement.”
Kate admits that no matter how many people share her experience, it does not make things any easier for herself. “The supportive, yet horrible thing, about being a victim of sexual assault, or rape, is when you tell people, namely other women, the first thing they’ll say to you is ‘yeah that happened to me too’, or ‘that happened to my friend, or my sister or my aunt or I saw that happen’. Everyone’s been through it, everyone’s witnessed it, we all have, even if we haven’t experienced it first hand. And that's kind of comforting, but in a horrible way, because it’s bad enough living with your own experience, nevermind having to live with everyone else's. Just knowing that this is such a common thing, it doesn’t help. So it’s more so anger in general, and upset in general, than it is personal upset. But obviously the general anger comes from my own personal upset and personal problems, and that’s not going to go away.”
“I’d say, once I’m finished in UCD, I will not come back. Just because it’s going to have to be a red X on the map for a while.”
UCDSU Welfare Officer, Úna Carroll, said in a statement: “As Welfare Officer I offer a range of options, Dignity and Respect being one of them. This isn’t the most common problem that comes to me, but it’s not uncommon. It’s not a problem that comes to me everyday, but this is an issue that needs more dedicated care than other issues that would come to me. Sometimes, in some cases I have dealt with, it has been a lengthier process. Some students don’t just need 15 minutes, they need a cup of tea and a chat, and an hour and a half to just be with someone. In that way, it takes up more of my time.”
As it stands, the Dignity and Respect Policy covers cases like this through an online form that a student fills in with details of the incident and the name and student or staff number of the accused. A board then looks into the accusation and decides whether to proceed or not. If the decision is made to proceed with the complaint, the accused receives email notification of the accusation and a formal or informal process begins depending on the severity of the accusations and the wishes of the person making the complaint. UCDSU have been working with UCD on an anonymous reporting tool to encourage more students to speak out about bullying, harassment and violence. The online tool will officially launch on 25th February, however it is currently available online. In the first three days of it being live, six complaints were received.
Kate spoke highly of the support she did receive within UCD, in particular the Welfare Officer, the Dean of Students and her Student Advisor. While this process is ongoing for her, she encouraged students going through similar to come forward and access the help they need.
“This is a real problem, this is something that happens on our campuses, it happens to students, it happens to everyone, it happens to a lot of different people. Unfortunately, it is not rare. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and there are supports available to you. The least and most comforting thing is the fact that the people around you have probably witnessed or experienced the same thing, in work, in school, at home. But, if you have survived these things you are a survivor and you, whether you realise it or not, are doing so well for still being here and still getting through what has happened to you, because I know for a fact it is not easy to still keep going and still keep living your life after it happens.
“Court and legal stuff aside, all I want is for this guy to know how much pain he has left me in, how anxious I am. I wish he was having panic attacks when he’s having sex, I wish he had to think about scrubbing his mouth out with soap and that he would never be able to touch anyone or look at anyone ever again. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t have what I have and he will never know if I don’t get to go to court and he doesn’t get charged. He will never know the impact that he has had on me. The worst part is you have to suffer in silence for a lot of it. You just suffer in silence, because it doesn’t matter, whatever impact it had because you have not proved that it happened yet so you might as well be lying.”
“It changes your life, your life perspective. Whatever might have happened to you may be scary, but it will be made easier if you reach out for support in UCD, outside UCD, talking to someone, anyone, even the smallest thing like that can help you get through it. I just wish we didn’t have to go through it. That’s really it. It’s normal, but it’s not normal. It shouldn’t be normal.”
*Name changed to protect identity
Student Advisors, Chaplains, and your Welfare Officer are available to give you more information on the support you can avail of in UCD.
Pieta House 24hr line: 1800 247 247, FREE TEXT 'HELP' to 51444
Samaritans 24hr line: 116 123, Text 087 260 90 90 90, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 77 88 88
LGBTQ+ Dublin Helpline: 1890 929 539, National Line: 1800 929 538
Drug & Alcohol Helpline: 1800 459 459, email email@example.com