Note from the editor, Rachel Halder: Maggie Gilman, a close friend of mine from Goshen College, was taking a psychology course at a local community college in Oregon. She relayed the following story to me and I encouraged her to share it with the broader Our Stories Untold community, as I believe this is not a unique incident, but most likely happens at universities across the United States and world.
During a class discussion about trauma and stress coping, Maggie asked the professor whether the models the class was being shown would pertain to more serious trauma, for example coming back from war or an incident of rape. Her professor made several comments in the midst of which he said something like, “It depends different factors like what she was wearing.” Maggie raised her hand again and asked why what the person was wearing had anything to do with rape. The professor replied, “If a woman is dressed like a hooker, that looks inviting to some people.”
Out of frustration and a need to release her anger and emotion, Maggie wrote her professor a letter. She agreed to share the letter she wrote with you in hopes that you too can have the courage to stand up to the ignorance about violence against women that has permeated into our daily interactions, which is widely known as rape culture.
Dear Mr. Professor*,
I have sat down to write this journal entry many times now, and found it hard to
find the right words to express how I have felt throughout this class.
I want to start by saying that I truly believe that you are a good person that deeply
cares for his students and those around him. I also know that you take your roles and
responsibilities seriously as a professor and as a Christian.
Knowing these things has made it difficult for me to really know how to go about
telling you some very important things I have felt during our classes. I respect you and
would never want to offend you or be hurtful. My decision to write you directly in my
journals came out of that internal discussion because I feel it allows space for me to express
my important and valid feelings while also respecting you and possibly giving a better
opportunity for you to hear me without either of us worrying about rebuttals – though you
are definitely more than welcome to respond to me if you would like to.
I am writing this letter instead of journal entries, because I haven’t felt comfortable
sharing personal, real life situations and struggles with you and I did not want to bullshit
assignments. I don’t believe in doing that. I am also writing this because I care and I think
that you, as a loving, concerned kind of person, would want to be aware of why it is that I
do not feel comfortable sharing deeply with you.
I was really excited for this class as I was signing up for the term. I felt good coming
to class, ready to be open, and share and learn. I felt this way up until the day that we were
discussing trauma and stress coping strategies and I brought up rape. I do not know if you
even remember that day and conversation, but I haven’t been able to put it out of my mind.
Again, I want to affirm that I really believe that you care deeply for others and I
don’t think you meant to be hurtful or offensive by your comments that followed my
questions. But I did and do still feel offended and hurt by your comments about how what
a person is wearing has to do with rape; that if a woman is dressed like a hooker that it
looks inviting to some people. It hurt because in that moment you didn’t feel like a safe,
supportive professor I could talk to if I needed to. You felt like another person that would
disappoint me, another person who decided to stand on the easier side of victim blaming.
There is a picture of a girl that I saw recently – she is holding a sign that says “I need
Feminism because my university teaches ‘How to avoid getting raped’ instead of ‘don’t
rape’ at freshman orientation.”
Regardless of anyone’s feelings about feminism, her point is that many people
understand, teach, and talk about rape as if the responsibility lies in the hands of the
survivors of rape rather than those who perpetrate it. It is a horrifying thing to
acknowledge that another human being could violate someone else; it is an evil we don’t
like to think about; but blaming the girl whose skirt is too tight – that ‘provoked’ her rapist
doesn’t help change things. It actually helps continue the status quo. It might be easier to
rationalize it that way – that the victim must have don’t something to cause the situation…
no one does something like that with out some kind of provocation, right? On the contrary,
our continued support of the idea that the victim had anything to do with another person
assaulting them gives an excuse for those who have assaulted others. It gives shame and
blame to the wrong person – to a survivor like me.
I am a survivor, maybe like some other young men or women in the room that day.
The difference is, I don’t know where they are at in their healing process or understanding
of what has happened to them. For some, I don’t know if they ever will experience it, but
chances are there are at least a handful of people in that room who have been assaulted, or
will be within their lifetime. They also most definitely know at least one person who has
been sexually assaulted or will be in their lifetime. And in the end, the message they
received that day was that in some way, shape or form, it could be their fault, or the
person’s they know who has been assaulted.
This may not have been what you wanted to communicate at all, or maybe it was.
Either way, that message is one that should never be spoken. It is a message that can
destroy a person. It is a message that can prevent a victim from becoming a survivor. It
can encourage destructive and violating behaviors from a perpetrator.
The night I was raped, something was taken from me. I was filled with shame,
confusion, hurt, anger, overwhelming anxiety… And it took me a long time to work through
that, and I was lucky – I had awareness and knowledge already about sexual assault as well
as the wonderful guidance of a great therapist and support network that allowed me to
move more fully into being a survivor. I have forgiven the man who raped me, and I
understand that the situation between him and I is a much bigger issue than just the
horrible choice he, and he alone, made that night.
The issue is so much bigger because it stems from messages we all get through out
our lives about what it means to be female or male, what it means to be sexual, what
boundaries are, and what consent really is (if we are even taught anything about it at all).
These messages can be helpful, truthful, and healthy. They can also be destructive, painful,
If a message is being relayed that what a woman wears can ‘entice’ a man to rape,
how will little boys or even teenage and young adult men come to understand rape and
sexuality? How will women or young girls? What does that teach about the body and who
it belongs to?
Is my body still mine, even if I am walking down the street naked? Is it still my body
when I am naked in bed with my husband? Do I still have the right to control what happens
to my body regardless of who I am with or what I am wearing? The answer to all of these
questions is yes. No matter how long you have been with someone, you still reserve the
right to say “no”, to control who and how someone touches your body. So even if someone
is yes, dressed like a “hooker”, her body is still hers, and no one, no matter how attracted to
her they may be, or what they may want to do, has the right or excuse to touch that woman
without her permission and informed consent.
I have seen the affects of some of the misguiding lessons about rape in the boys I
have worked with in residential programs. The pain they go through when they fully
realize what they have done to another human being. When they realize they have been
taught these lies that helped lead them to make the choices they did, to hurt the people
they did. The responsibility lies with those individuals, yes, but I also believe that others
have participated in that horrible perpetration of violence when they do not speak out the
truth about rape and assault; one that does not ever blame the survivor for the horror they
That day in class I felt retraumatized. I felt invalidated again. I felt abandoned. I felt
that a leadership figure had just turned his back on me, my experience and struggle, turned
his back on anyone who has ever been or ever will be assaulted. I sat there burning in my
seat, wanting to say something, but feeling so utterly alone without the support of my
professor. I raised my hand not to challenge you or make you feel attacked, I simply felt I
had the responsibility to speak out. I would be playing a part in the spread of rape myths if
I had sat there silently.
It has been difficult to come to class since then. Every time I walk into the classroom
I feel my anxiety rise, I am on my guard, and I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe. I
don’t feel like I have an ally in the person who is supposed to be teaching all of those
students in the classroom how to be healthy, loving, productive citizens of the world. I
don’t feel open and ready to divulge my experiences to the class. I feel closed. I pray before
I go to class because I am so worried I might just burst out in tears, or hear something else
that will break my heart.
I care for those other students in the class, or anyone else you may encounter in
your life. I decided to write because I care that they are given a safer space than I was this
quarter. I want them to feel embraced and supported and understood. I don’t want them
to feel rejected, or shamed. I don’t want them to doubt themselves or take steps backward
in their process of healing. I don’t others to see you as anyone other than a caring person.
So I write because I am asking you, please, as a woman who has experienced rape; as a
woman with as many as 3 out of 4 friends (both male and female) who have been sexually
assaulted in some way in their lives; as a woman who worked with survivors and
perpetrators: please, please work to gain deeper awareness of sexual assault.
You may have some knowledge, you may even have a lot of knowledge, but I am
asking you to consider the consequences of your words. I am asking you to please honor
me and ever other survivor by being conscious of the nuances and repercussions of the
language you use, the phrases you say, and the lessons you teach.
*Professor’s name was eliminated by choice of the author.