“Colleges have a brand and they put a lot of money into building their brand — and the last thing they want is a rape conviction on their campus,” Aspen Matis, author of the memoir Girl in the Woods, tells Yahoo Health.
Matis, a rape survivor, writes in her book about being raped her second night of college while a freshman at Colorado College and her journey, both physical (she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail) and mental, to healing that followed.
Aspen Matis (Photo: Courtesy of Aspen Matis)
Matis is also donating 5 percent of all proceeds from her book to RAINN, the Rape, Assault, Incest and Abuse National Network. As Matis details in her book, it was her call to RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline that was the crucial first step in recovering from her assault — and realizing that her life didn’t need to end because of it.
After Matis’ rapist had been found innocent by Colorado College’s Title IX adjudication process, Mantis found herself quickly losing hope — and losing her sense of herself. That’s when she called RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline.
“After reactions had surprised and shaken me from people I had trusted, I decided to call a professional who would be able to help,” she shares. “The woman I spoke to the very first time was so fantastic and incredible — and she told me it was not my fault. She told me that no one causes rape but rapists, which seems obvious now but didn’t seem obvious at all to me then. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I was asking myself again and again and again, What could I have done different? And then she told me that rapists cause rape. It’s not because of something you did wrong.”
It was a turning point for Matis: “It was everything I needed to hear and hadn’t been told before. It was the beginning of seeing that the rape wouldn’t be the end of my life.”
The National Sexual Assault Hotline has helped more than 2 million people since 1994. It is confidential, anonymous, and available 24/7. The telephone hotline connects callers with a local resource center and the online hotline, also confidential and anonymous, allows an individual to be in a secure one-on-one chat with a RAINN staff member.
“One of the most frequent things we hear on the hotline is, You’re the first person I’ve told,” explains Katherine Hull Fliflet, the Vice President of Communications for RAINN, to Yahoo Health.
RAINN recently launched a new campaign on college campuses nationwide, #TalkToRAINN, providing coffee sleeves with the National Sexual Assault Hotline number and website printed on them to help inform students of this critical resource available to them as an additional resource outside those any given school may provide for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
This support is critical to the long-term mental and physical health of a survivor.
“We know that the interactions, and reaction, of the first person a survivor tells can have a tremendous impact on their decision to move forward and continue to seek support,” Hull Fliflet says.
In addition to the trauma of her actual rape, Matis also had to reckon with the trauma of learning that her college was not invested in her mental health or desire to see justice served against her rapist.
“The thing to know that I didn’t know [then] is that colleges have an inherent conflict of interest. Their reputation is more important to them than you are. These [internal Title IX] systems are built to fail; they are built to conceal the truth.”
And having waited two weeks to report her rape, Matis had missed the opportunity to have a rape kit done and have the necessary physical evidence collected to not only identify her rapist but prove, despite her rapist’s protestations otherwise, that sexual intercourse had occurred between the two of them.
“In retrospect, I wish I had gone to the police and had a rape kit done, gone to the hospital and had a rape kit done. But I know that’s a horribly traumatic experience, too, to have someone interrogate you….I have heard so many stories about police acting without compassion. It’s so easy to react without compassion to something you’ve never experienced.”
Matis notes that one of the other most shocking aspects of her rape was learning how common campus rape is. “At the time, it totally blew my mind that a college in 2006 would even need a rape response coordinator,” she says of her experience of first meeting with that staff member at Colorado College. “It just blew my mind. It was so absurd. I thought rape was extremely rare – so how could it be so common that it warrants this job existing?”
But campus rape is horrifyingly common – it is estimated that 1 in every 4 or 5 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college.
With the encouragement of her school’s rape response counselor, Matis elected to seek adjudication through the school’s disciplinary system. She describes the rape response counselor telling her, “We’ll get a conviction and we’ll get him expelled.” And when she heard that, “I thought that was the truth. That was my expectation. And obviously, that’s not what happened. They found our testimony inconclusive.”
The school asked both Matis and the accused to submit written testimony of their encounter. While Matis described a rape, the accused said they never even had sex. And since there was no physical evidence, the school ruled the evidence inconclusive. Matis’ rapist was allowed to stay on campus — and, in fact, was later moved into her own dorm.
“I have to hope it was an accident,” she says of being forced to live in the same building as the man who had raped her, “But even if it was an accident it’s a sign of such incompetence and lack of empathy and care.”
As Matis’s fear for her own safety escalated, she reflects that she “couldn’t understand how they couldn’t care. I couldn’t understand how this was typical. I couldn’t understand that rape could be common. I was sure it must be this rare thing because it’s such a terrible thing. But the reason it is common on college campuses is a culture that exists there that glorifies a lack of empathy. We live in a culture where it’s uncool to care. It’s uncool to care about the effects of your actions on a person. And it’s only enabled by an administration that would rather protect their brand than treat those perpetrating violent crimes.”
And while Matis knows that her months-long hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is a popular talking point among others regarding her story, she emphasizes that it wasn’t the hike itself that should be garnering attention.
“It wasn’t the walk — it was telling my story. The walk wasn’t the solution. It was time with myself to learn what I needed to do to learn to love myself, to learn to think freely and unapologetically. The walk wasn’t a destination but merely time with myself. The thing that changed me and my perception of the rape was telling my story.”
Which is why Matis hopes that others will find the confidence and courage to come forward and do exactly the same.
In fact, she explains, it was talking about the details of her rape that had made her feel the most guilty — like asking her rapist to stay overnight after he had raped her — that ultimately liberated her.
“I was sure it had to be so specific to me,” she shares, noting that after her initial essay about her rape was published in the New York Times, “Woman after woman after woman said, I also asked my rapist to stay. I also wanted to hang out with him afterwards. I tutored him in chemistry. I wrote him poetry. I thought it was the most shameful, secret thing — and it’s actually an incredibly common and most emotional reaction.”
And so Matis hopes that other survivors of campus rape — and all sexual assault — will, in fact, #TalkToRAINN.
“Call RAINN and get the reaction that this is the truth: That no one causes rape but rapists. With that knowledge and understanding, then tell your story. There is escape in the total understanding that rape is his shame – not yours. It’s not your shame because people are asking the wrong questions. It’s not your fault. Tell your story and tell every detail that shames you. Every detail that you think is only specific to you never is. You will help countless people. And you will prove that you are not this horrible, disgusting anomaly who ruined everything but the victim of a horrible crime.”
Matis also asks fellow survivors to know that, for her, “A rape was not the end of my life, but the beginning of something bigger. Take this trauma and find your own way to turn it into something beautiful….anything that transforms it until light outshines the horror of the event. So that you feel good about what you are going. Whatever form that takes, that’s your responsibility for yourself and to yourself. This gives you the opportunity to do good in the world.”
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