1 year before Sept. 2012…

“Just submitted my common app! It’s all complete.” The joy beams down the stairs of your brick home situated in a quiet neighborhood in northwest Indiana. This town has fewer residents than the university you will eventually attend. “I can’t believe you’ll be going off to college next year.” You can already hear the parental protectiveness washing over your mother. You are her only daughter, but the middle child, so you feel she should calm down a bit. She’s done this whole “child goes off to college” ordeal. Unlike most of your high school classmates, you am aiming for out of state. You want to go off on my own and really discover more about yourself.

“You know, dear, you are going to have to be extra careful when in college.” You wish you had earplugs. Not the safety talk again. “I saw a story on Facebook. A girl was drugged at a party. She put her drink down, just for a second. She was raped. You have to be careful.”

“I know mom.” Your response sounds like a recorded voicemail, automated and emotionless. At this point, it was like she was asking you to breathe to stay alive. You’ve heard this a million times. You won’t just be hanging around with strangers, but rather your friends you make from your college. You’re more independent than your mom likes to accept. You can handle your own. College opens up the doors to live on your own while pursuing your dreams and establishing lifelong friendships. You absolutely cannot wait, and your mom’s overactive nervousness regarding absurd crimes won’t drain you from this excitement. Added bonus, too, for leaving Indiana and exploring a new place on your own. Your family doesn’t even lock the doors to your room all the time. You can walk to a neighbors to ask for that one egg you need, or give the a key to your home so they can feed your dog while you are on vacation. The camaraderie makes Indiana cozy. But you are ready to move on. Find your own place elsewhere.

1 year 3 months after Sept. 2012…

The Michigan winter brutally pushes its wind through your parka and chills you to the bone on your walk home from the library. You hear footsteps behind you. I knew this would happen. You’re just asking for trouble. It’s 2AM, and you have been cramming for you exams. You have organic chemistry and physics finals on the same day. You didn’t mean to stay out so late, but you had to study. You try to remember that this is absurd. People just like you are walking home from the library. You never had to force these thoughts into your head before, but now it’s different. Any situation where you are vulnerable, you must protect yourself. Don’t be naïve. You don’t know why this person is walking so late. You turn to notice it’s a male. You face forward. Your heart starts racing. Your pace picks up. Your palms start sweating. He must be following you. Would anyone be up? Who could I call? He picked up his pace too, you swear. You cross the street. But that might not be good enough to help get you to safety. You turn around and walk the other way. He continues walking toward his original destination. Your keen sense of awareness saved your life tonight. As it does every night you walk home in the dark.       Does everyone get this like this? All scared and paranoid when alone at night? When susceptible to other’s decisions. Not paranoid, this is being smart. You try to move forward, to your home and away form these thoughts. One thing you aren’t sure of is if others feel this way, but you don’t want to understand why you do. That pains you, so you keep moving forward.

Ah, the old, “It’ll never happen to me.” I consider myself to be a positive person, but there is a difference in positivity and naivety. You don’t have to be walking the streets of New York City alone at 3am to be assaulted. Don’t go around thinking that every person you meet is out to get you, but do be aware that these aren’t just things that happen in big cities and on TV shows. We always like to think this won’t happen to me, and along with that, this wouldn’t happen to someone I know. That last part can be especially dangerous thinking.

I was honestly blessed that night to have a friend there who knew to go looking for me. My palms start to sweat, heart begins racing, stomachs churns, when I think about if Natalie hadn’t been there or if she had just gone home, assuming I was fine. She went looking for me because she believed that something was off, and I think way too often we want to believe that everything is fine. We instinctively try to damage control, down play whatever is going on and normalize the situation. This doesn’t always have to be in the case of sexual assault. This happens. all. the. time. Just think about it. I’m going to list off a few instances I can remember from the past year alone, and take a second to realize when this might have happened around you.

  • I don’t like going to this one bar because the dance floor is always extremely crowded, and the people tend to aggressively attempt to dance with you. One time, a man came up out of nowhere and grabbed my ass. Like full handful. I wasn’t dancing with him, he was simply passing by. I shouted something like don’t do that again and screw off, but a little more potent. My friend turned to me and told me to “chill out”, that he just grabbed my butt. H o l d U p. This man decided it was okay to grab me, in a portion of the body that is sexualized and considered private, and I am at wrong for telling him off?
  • After a night of going out for a class bar crawl, one of my friend’s told me about how one of our classmates, who is notoriously flirtatious, grabbed her hand and put it on his genitals while making a negative comment about her boyfriend. A couple weeks later, the incident came up while we were around some of our guy friends, who were also in our class. They brushed it off, “That’s just how he is.” Oh, okay. Sorry for mentioning that I was violated, that’s just how is he? So if he had been really conservative, would it have then been a problem that he violated her?
  • The guy who I dated last year got really drunk one night and became very grabby and physical with me. I did not like it, so I kept telling him to stop, and he would not. I finally yelled at him and pushed him away. One of our friends who was with us told me to give him a break, that he was just drunk.

*I am almost 24 years old and in my second year of medical school. These situations and comments came from young professionals. This isn’t just a problem in teenagers, even as young adults were struggle with how to deal with situations that make us uncomfortable.*

None of these instances were huge cases that you would report to the police or that would require immediate bystander intervention. But it is more so how those dismissive comments shape our mindsets. When someone makes you feel like you overreacted, you take a step back. Try to think about how maybe you need to come down. So next time it happens, next time someone grabs your butt, you don’t say anything, because you SO overreacted last time, and this is fine. Next time, someone grabs your hand and put it on their genitals, you don’t even mention it to anyone. It’s not like it’s a big deal, anyway. You feel weird inside, but you are just being dramatic.

This is the train of thought we can push people into when we start normalize inappropriate behavior. And this is so dangerous. This can make victims feel invalidated in their thoughts and emotions and it can potentially cause bystanders to get desensitized to situations, which can slowly cause them to miss maybe more of the bigger warning signs for a more serious event. Again, the situations described above did not require filing a report or having someone step in, but if one of the bystanders could have listen to the person (either me or my friend in these cases) and simply have validated their feels, that could have done so much. “Hey, I’m sorry that made you feel uncomfortable, do you wanna talk about?” “Wow, that is so annoying. What an idiot.” “People can be so ignorant sometimes. I’m sorry.” Just a few ideas of phrases you could through out instead of, “It’s not a big deal.” “Relax.” “Calm down.” It seems so simple, but trust me, it can really help someone by validating their feelings. Know that bad things can happen to you and your friends. And sometimes all that it takes is a little hug and an empathetic statement to help someone through an uncomfortable situation.