Going to put a content warning here for descriptions of sexual assault, naturally, and ableism.
You’ll be friends with the people you meet in university for life, was advice I was given in upper sixth by one of my French teachers. I believed her and saw the reasoning – by studying the subject of my choosing, I’d be meeting like-minded people with similar interests and personalities, in theory. Once first year began, I latched on to a group and thought we would be good friends. Sure, there was a lot of teasing and needling each other, but for the most part, it was in that vitriolic, but friendly way. Bear in mind I said for the most part. It’s taken me a very long time to come to terms with this, but I now know and believe that those people were abusive towards me. We had our good times, yes, and there was genuine care and affection, yes, but here is the truth of the matter. Firstly, I was always the butt of the jokes, and my autism played a factor in this. They knew I had it but still mocked me for my reactions and pressured and forced me to sing and dance for their amusement despite my obvious discomfort and humiliation while we were spending time together. Some even saw me as a mere resource rather than a human being, just asking me for information and help without even so much as a “Hello, how are you doing”. While I was slightly flattered that I was the first one they came to for help, it also made me feel used and sub-human. I’m not an encyclopaedia. With the benefit of hindsight, therapy, opening my eyes and the support of many truly loving friends, I see this treatment for what it was. Abusive and discriminatory.
The worst thing they did to me came just after we started our second year. One night, we decided to stay in one member of our group’s houses, have a bit of a laugh, some food, some drink and a good time. Sounded like fun. It was four years ago now, but I still remember the night fairly clearly. The night proceeded as normally as one of our nights out always had really, but at about 2am, I’d had enough and decided to go to sleep in the conservatory (a terrible decision – caught a nasty cold). Now once I do get off to sleep, even if it takes a while, I am a very heavy sleeper, especially if I’ve been drinking. I’d had about four or five pints of cider that night, plus a King’s Cup, so while not completely blind drunk, I was still fairly intoxicated, as was everyone else. However, once I did eventually get off to sleep, some of the boys in the group decided it would be hilarious to do things to me while I slept, with one of them rubbing his genitals on my face and putting them in my mouth. I don’t know if photo or videographic evidence of this exists and I don’t want to know.
So from my description, an obvious question comes to mind: how do I know this happened if I was asleep? Simple, I was told. But I was not told out of concern, or out of disgust at what had happened. I was told mockingly, to wound me and to make it clear that I was a complete joke. I wasn’t told immediately. I was told a year and a half later, on the night that we graduated. My graduation was consciously ruined by these people mocking me once again, throwing the fact that I’d been sexually assaulted by one of them (who wasn’t there) at me as a total joke and that they were all complicit. I don’t know where to begin with how incredibly wrong this incident was from start to finish. My trust was abused. I was abused. Criminology students, who are exactly the sort of people who should understand the impact of sexual assault and how criminal what they did was, my peers, abused me and treated me as a joke. And that is deeply concerning on many levels.
It’s been two and a half years since I was told about my assault. I’ve frequently discussed it in therapy. I’ve discussed it with some close friends. I shared it with Everyday Sexism. And while many were sympathetic, some blamed me for passing out. What could I expect? Now that I know, I can’t unknow and I can’t unsee it. I regularly have images of what it might have looked like flash through my mind and keep me up all night. I feel sick. I feel like a thing, a toy. I never went to the police. Why would I? I had no evidence, I know how they treat survivors, and I knew that they would all back each other up. My word against six or seven others’.
That’s my story then. I’m still surviving and doing my PhD. I have much better friends than they could ever hope to have been to me, and if I ever have the misfortune to lay eyes on the one who specifically violated me, or those who enabled him, I’m not sure how I’ll react. Maybe I’ll cry. Maybe I’ll scream. Maybe I’ll fight. Don’t know. Would rather not have to deal with it. I deserve better. Which is the message I want to end on: I deserve better. Talk to your friends about people with autism. Tell them how to treat them with respect. Talk to your friends about consent and sexual assault. Make them understand if they don’t. I can hear people roll their eyes at this. “Decent people don’t rape”. “None of my friends are like that”.
Yeah, that’s what I thought too.