On Sexual Assault and Safe Spaces

The summer before my junior year, I was sexually assaulted in my own home.

The night that it happened, I was so drunk that I had passed out. When I woke up, he was on top of me; his fingers inside me. I was too drunk to move or speak. I don’t know how long it lasted. I don’t know how it started. When I woke up the next morning, I felt hungover and heavy, disgusting and disgusted. More than anything, I felt unsafe. My body was not my own—it felt foreign and contaminated. I no longer belonged only to myself. Someone had violated me and I had been wholly unable to stop him. This, I realized, was what real fear felt like. My body was not safe from violence, my space was not safe from invasion, I was not safe from assault. My sense of autonomy had evaporated. All that was left was the permanent etch of his touch on my skin.

In the past few months, there have been countless conversations and articles about “safe spaces.” In particular, this campus has seen the rise of a striking and ugly anti-safe-space argument: that safe spaces encourage “coddling,” that they restrict free speech, that they condone censorship and pandering. Those who need safe spaces are labeled as whiny, childish, and weak.

This argument enrages me. Those of us who seek out safe spaces do not do so because we need coddling, or because we are weak. We seek out safe spaces because we feel unsafe. Have those who criticize these spaces ever truly felt unsafe? Do they know what it means to feel unsafe at night? To feel unsafe in a classroom or in a bedroom or at a party? Do they know what it means to feel unsafe at Harvard?

After that night in August, I needed, more than anything, to feel safe. I no longer felt safe in my own home or my own bed; even my body had become an unsafe space—alien and dirty. For months, I tried to erase that night. I didn’t talk about it. I tried to smother it so thoroughly that it would disappear. In the early months of my fall semester, I didn’t consider myself a victim of sexual assault. I didn’t allow myself to admit it. Admitting it would make it real.

Instead, I buried it. I swallowed it whole and held it inside. It sat within me like a heavy and massive piece of darkness. I slept less, I ate less. I even became scared to talk—I feared that if I opened my mouth, I would cry, or the heaviness inside me would slip out. And then people would know. The longer I struggled to silence it, the heavier it got.

My assailant was one of my closest friends. For a while, after that night, I still spent time with him. His best friends were my best friends. If I wanted to see them, I had to see him too. With each day, it became more difficult to be around him. Whenever he and I were together, stuck in the same room, I could feel the force of it, of what had happened between us. I could feel that silent, suffocating pressure as we sat with our friends, pretending like nothing had happened. Maybe I was the only one pretending.

My friends didn’t know, and I was too scared to tell them. If I told them, our friend group would rupture. They’d have to choose between us. And if I told them, then they too would have to grapple with this darkness. They would have to bear the weight with me. I thought I had to bear it alone.

What had once been safe spaces—the spaces I’d built with my closest friends—had become inhospitable. They had become unsafe spaces—spaces in which I felt afraid and angry, in which I was constantly reminded of what happened that night. And when we danced and drank together as a group, I always worried, would it happen again?

I could no longer bear to be around him, so I cut him out of my life. And I began to tell people—first, my partner and then a few of my friends. Each time I told someone, I felt a little lighter. It was easier to share the weight with others than to bear it on my own. And I left those unsafe spaces behind. Those spaces were dark and stifling. I needed safe spaces.

In the past two years, I’ve found them. I’ve found new friends and new communities of activists. And I’ve created new spaces with my old friends—without him.

I applied to work at the Women’s Center and I became a peer educator for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response. Both spaces taught me how to understand what had happened to me. They taught me that it was not my fault. It was assault. I did not consent. The people in these spaces have helped me heal—they have all told me, again and again, “I believe you. I hear you. I love you. I’m here for you.” These are spaces of utter compassion and empathy.

Last semester, I shared my story at a rally for survivors in the Yard. That week, I received dozens of notes from friends, peers, and strangers, with messages reading, “me too,” or, “something similar happened to me.” It was only then that I realized the scope of this problem at Harvard—sexual violence is ubiquitous on our campus. It was devastating to learn that so many friends had had similar experiences, but our sharing has allowed us to come together. As one friend wrote, “I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who understand. There is strength in numbers.”

These are my safe spaces, my places of sanctuary: the physical spaces of the Women’s Center and OSAPR, but also the community of survivors at Harvard and beyond. I feel safe in the spaces I’ve created with my friends: with the old friends who believe me and listen to me, with the new friends who validate me, and with the families I’ve found at Harvard—communities of people who are unafraid to love, who understand the radical power of kindness and empathy.

For people who have faced violence, oppression, or exclusion on this campus, safe spaces offer light and shelter. Perhaps more importantly, these spaces make us feel safe on a campus that can, at times, feel exceptionally unsafe.

Let’s stop talking about the final clubs. Let’s stop talking about spaces that exclude, about spaces that have failed to be accessible and inclusive. Instead, let’s talk about the spaces that include, about the spaces that are fully accessible to people of all identities. Instead of focusing on the spaces that fail, let’s devote ourselves to celebrating the spaces that succeed. Let’s work to embrace the spaces that welcome us—all of us—with compassion, love, and care.

For those of you who scoff at safe spaces, I urge you to think beyond your own experience. I urge you to imagine feeling unsafe on this campus. I urge you to think critically about how you can make this campus a safer space for all of us who share it.

As a survivor of sexual assault, I want spaces where my "no" is heard and respected. I want spaces where my body is free from violence, where my ability to consent is not taken from me. I should not have to ask for them. Safe spaces do not coddle me; they empower me. And sometimes, they make me feel invincible.


Megan G. Jones ’16 is a History & Literature concentrator living in Mather House.

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