Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence

‘I woke up in a small bed. It was a similar size to the one my son sleeps in now; narrow, the mattress thin, there were metal frames at the foot and the head of the bed. At first I didn’t notice that it was not the only one in the large room. There were a number of beds with a sleeping person in each one of them.

I had woken up in a dormitory in a men’s residence at the university where I was a student. It’s one of the older, established residences where generations of young men have spent their youths proudly studying, playing sport… drinking and exploring their sexuality.

Before I became aware of the room, I had felt the presence of someone in the bed with me. He was still asleep. I recognised him as the quiet, brooding law student who was in my philosophy class. His beautiful, tall and blonde girlfriend was a perfect student: clever and accomplished.

My throat was sore from smoking strong unfiltered cigarettes; my head sore from too much cheap red wine. I stank. I felt a rawness and moistness between my legs. I had no memory of how I had got into this bed. Or what had happened during the night.

Once I became aware of where I was, I moved quietly and quickly to get out of the bed, out of the room and far away from the res before anybody noticed me. As the only woman that morning in a building of more than 200 men, I would be lucky to leave unnoticed. A trickle of thick liquid ran down one of my thighs.

I felt ashamed, yet determined not to be ashamed. I was also determined not to be angry or upset. If I had drunk so much that I couldn’t remember what happened that night, how could I be upset at the thought of someone having sex with me; of being raped? (It couldn’t have been consensual, could it?) I had behaved badly. It was my fault for getting myself into this situation. My survival strategy over the next few weeks, months, was to pretend that nothing had happened. I’d fight my embarrassment. Hide it. I was sure people were talking about it. A few days, maybe weeks, later, I noticed that the man and his girlfriend had broken up. He asked to see me.

When we met, awkwardly, he apologised. I accepted. Shaking it off with a giggle. ‘Don’t worry. It’s forgotten.’

We finished our studies, received our degrees.

I have repressed that night. For years. And then in January 2015, Brock Turner raped a woman at Stanford University in California. The 20-year-old former swimmer sexually assaulted a 23-year-old woman after they had both been at a campus party. Two people cycling past a skip saw Brock assaulting the woman. According to reports, they dragged him off and the woman was taken to hospital. News reports stated that she ‘woke up with dried blood and bandages on her hands and elbow. Her knickers were gone. Her vagina was sore, and she had no idea what had happened to her. Her attacker, Brock Turner, was caught by the police and convicted on three charges of sexual assault including intent to rape – crimes that carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail.’ He was given a sentence of six months in jail. That’s all. Six months.

In a victim-impact statement, the woman wrote of her experience. The 12-page statement went viral at the time. It’s a devastating read. I read it. Rivetted at how she was able to articulate something that I wasn’t able to 20 years earlier.

In her letter, she wrote, ‘Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.’

My experience was very different to this woman’s experience. Actually, who knows how different it really was. I have no idea what my experience was. It didn’t go to court. I didn’t report it. I didn’t experience it at the time as sexual assault. What this young woman has taught me is that it is time to talk about what happened. The more of us who talk about what happens, the better chance of change there is. It’s time universities become safe spaces for young women. If we speak up and take action and demand that authorities take responsibility, we can make a difference. We can only try.’

Read more Class of Consent articles.⁠⁠⁠⁠

Your voice is the most important. If you have a story you would like to share, or an opinion you think we should read, please email us at michelleh@assocmedia.co.za.