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Survivors of sexual assault share experiences, describe aftermath of incident

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, December 9, 2010

After Maria, now a junior, was raped in a neighboring male dorm after winter break of her freshman year, simply walking out of her dorm became difficult.

“He lived 20 yards away from me. I saw him all the time. All the time,” she said. “It was awful.”

The first time she saw her perpetrator after he met her at a party, forced her onto a couch in his dorm room and had sex with her, she threw up “instantly.” After that, she had panic attacks every time she saw him.

But for Maria, these physical symptoms would only be the beginning of a long battle with the legal system, the University and herself to regain her sense of justice, faith and self-worth.

The Observer changed the names of sources in this article to protect the identity of victims of a crime.

Maria reached out for help immediately — telling her friends and the Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP), obtaining a rape kit at the hospital and, ultimately, pressing charges.

She took her perpetrator to court in St. Joseph County, but he was not charged.

“They didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute him,” Maria said. “Basically, I didn’t have any bruises. I wasn’t beaten or anything like that.”

The next step was to take it to the University’s Office of Residence Life and Housing (ORLH), which held a disciplinary hearing — the more formal and serious of meetings — for the male student. But the panel that heard his case did not find the student responsible for sexual misconduct, and he graduated with a degree from Notre Dame later that year, Maria said.

Other survivors of sexual assault said they have questioned whether what happened to them can be considered sexual assault.

Natalie, a junior, attended a University-sponsored event in South Dining Hall one night during her freshman year and went into the entrance of the dining hall to put her coat and scarf in a cubby.

An acquaintance, who had previously asked for her number after class, approached Natalie. She said she did not know him well enough to remember his name at the time.

“One second, I think I was just putting my stuff into the cubbies and the next second, he was just grabbing me and trying to fondle me and feel me up,” she said.

He wrapped his arms around her, whispered into her ear and attempted to grab her breasts. Natalie tried to get out of the tight hold he had her in, but backed into a wall.

Finally, the male student let her go and she immediately left the event. She did not report the incident to the University.

“I was just really happy to leave. I didn’t really think what had happened to me was assault,” she said. “Later, I realized it was.”

For Kristen, now a senior, the involvement of alcohol made it difficult to know whether she had consented to sex with a male student during her freshman year.

She woke up one morning hanging off the side of her bed and had no idea how she had gotten there. When a friend asked her what boy had been in her bed the previous night, Kristen had no idea. She narrowed it down, and one male student admitted to having sex with her.

“He then messaged me a couple hours later and said I had better go to Planned Parenthood and get plan B because he hadn’t used a condom,” she said.

But it wasn’t until a friend bluntly told her she had been raped that she had the realization that literally stopped her dead in her tracks.

“It’s a hard line to draw. What is rape and what is just drunk sex that is consensual?” Kristen said. “Looking back on it now, I realize that I had not [consented].”

Kristen got a rape kit at the local hospital and reported it to NDSP. Eventually, though, she stopped the investigation so she could focus on her upcoming finals.

She decided not to press charges and opted instead to file a no-contact order, which meant neither party could enter the other’s dorm, and they could not communicate at all.

The decision to report the incident, and to what extent to pursue an investigation, was something each survivor battled with in the aftermath of the sexual assault.

Maria went into the ORLH hearing knowing she would most likely not be successful, but went through the “long and painful process” because she wanted the administration to have written record of the incident.

“I wanted the paperwork to pile up,” she said. “They’re not going to do anything to change if they don’t have the bureaucracy of paperwork piled up on their desks.”

Maria said even if a student is not found guilty of sexual misconduct, the University should mandate some sort of counseling.

“If you’re trying to protect the students, you have an obligation to protect the victim and the perpetrator,” she said. “It should be just as mandatory as the alcohol classes are for people who get drinking tickets.”

Natalie sometimes regrets not reporting the male student who fondled her in the dining hall. Although she said the incident was not “that big of a deal,” she still sees the student in classes and the two share mutual friends.

“That’s when I really regret it,” she said. “When I see him talking to one of my really good girl friends and see that he has interest in them.”

Having mixed feelings about reporting the incident was only one of the long-term side effects these survivors of sexual assault experienced.

After being raped, Maria lost faith — both in God and in the administration.

“Having Notre Dame tell me that this didn’t happen was like being raped all over again,” Maria, who had always associated her faith in God with Notre Dame, said. “I couldn’t go to a Mass being said by a Notre Dame priest because I didn’t believe.”

But she did find support in her rectress, resident assistant and the University Counseling Center. These aspects of the University have allowed her to maintain her love for Notre Dame.

“It was hard for awhile, but I have re-fallen in love with it because it’s more than just the administration,” Maria said. “It’s the family, it’s the friendships, it’s the beauty of the campus.”

Kristen said she felt fully supported by faculty and the administration, but often felt the student body chose to ignore that rape occurs at Notre Dame.

“There is an apathy among Notre Dame students for this that just shakes me to my core,” she said.

The University attempts to raise awareness about sexual assault through programs like “College Has Issues,” a seminar every student is required to attend as a freshman, but Kristen said it is difficult to understand until you have experienced it.

“I very vividly remember sitting in ‘College Has Issues’ and making fun of what they said about consent,” she said. “Now I’m realizing how true it was.”