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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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'Are you okay?'

Content Warning: This essay contains mention of sexual assault. 

Let’s rip the band-aid off right now.

I was sexually assaulted this past October. I’d like to share my experience in order to spread awareness for survivors of sexual assault — specifically male survivors. 

I’ve always been open about my mental health and my struggles with depression, but this is not just another part of that. I have no interest in pity. I want men to understand that they can be victims too, but more importantly that surviving sexual assault isn’t something to be ashamed of. 

Of course, women experience sexual assault and similar crimes at a much higher rate, and as such it’s talked about much more. While I am no expert in the field, I aim to share my experience as a cisgender white man.

Sexual assault has nothing to do with who you are, how strong or masculine you are or aren’t, how many people you have or haven’t slept with. It can happen to anyone. And when it does, even in the whirlwind of emotions that follows it, there is nothing to be ashamed of. 

I still remember when Terry Crews came out about being sexually assaulted during the #MeToo movement and the jokes at his expense. How could he get assaulted? He’s ripped. He could easily beat up literally ANYONE giving him a hard time. But that means nothing. All that was there in that moment was the fear of losing his career if he didn’t comply. And if you think you’d have done anything differently, you’ve missed the whole point.

Let me put it this way: would you shame someone for getting T-boned in an intersection when they had the right of way? Would you be ashamed if a biker rolled through a red light and smashed into you in the crosswalk? It’s the same damn thing. The same. Damn. Thing.

Before we start, I’d like to make it clear I have no interest in exposing the identity of my assaulter at this point. Please consider that I never want to hear this person’s name again to the point where I swipe left any time I see her first name on dating apps. 

I’ll save most of the details. What’s important is that October night, we were in my room. I was too intoxicated to consent to sex. I repeatedly pushed her away from me. It did nothing. I remember thinking, “God dammit, if f—ing her is what’s gonna get her off me then I’ll just do it.” 

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That is not consent. That is not clear and enthusiastic. It’s debatable as to whether it’s even a “yes.” And at this point, it doesn’t matter. She left shortly after. I don’t remember much of the rest of the night. I probably smoked some weed and went to bed as usual.  

What I do remember is telling a few of my friends about what happened that night and the next day and getting the same response: “Are you okay?”

Am I okay? Yeah, I was fine, why wouldn’t I be? I’ve had bad hookups before. I’ve kissed people I’ve regretted. Shit happens in college. I publicly kept that same attitude for a day or two; more “haha, what a weird night” than “I am a victim of a crime.” Y’know? 

Privately, I understood what had happened the next morning. I woke up with knots in my stomach. I made no effort to contact her. When she eventually reached out to me, I told her she made me uncomfortable — and she responded with all the right things. “I’m sorry, I was drunk. I shouldn’t have done that. If you don’t want to see me again I get it.”

To tell the truth, it meant absolutely nothing to me. The damage was done.

Something I’d like to make clear is that this is a person I trusted. This wasn’t some one-night stand that I’d met an hour beforehand. It was someone who, until that night, I got along with really well. It’s my understanding that this is very normal; most studies you’ll come across say that between 85% and 90% of victims know their attacker.

I think it took me about two weeks after the incident until I even said the words out loud, “I was sexually assaulted.” I said it to one of my close friends. Her response was, “Yeah, what she did to you wasn’t right.” I didn’t realize it before that, but the whole time, I’d been blaming myself. I’m the one that invited her over. I should’ve known that would happen. If I didn’t want that to happen, I could’ve just had a fine night to myself, right?

Of course not. I went back and read the texts from that night. It was all manipulative; “If you don’t invite me over you hate me.” “Why are you mad at me?” — That kind of stuff. 

A few days after talking with my first friend, my roommates were throwing a party. A few of my close friends were gonna be there. At some point in the party, we got away from the main floor to catch up. I explained the whole situation — (a few beers deep) — and ended the story nonchalantly assuring them that it was ok; it was whatever.

To which one of them said the words I’d been waiting for: “Joe, it doesn’t have to be okay.”

I’ll never forget that. It was the first time I heard that. I was so used to discounting my own feelings about this whole thing; I always told myself so many people had experiences so much worse than mine. I should just be grateful it wasn’t worse.

We ended up having a pretty good night. After some very tight hugs, I went home. I have really amazing friends.

After opening up to my friends, I finally decided to talk to my therapist about it — another person I’m grateful for. She asked me two questions. The first: “Are you okay?” The same question I’d heard a few times. The second, I hadn’t heard yet: “Do you want to report it?”

I never considered getting the police involved. I still think it was the right decision to avoid that. I don’t really, how you say, trust police officers. Especially the Madison Police Department/University of Wisconsin Police Department when it comes to matters of sex-related crimes. Could I trust them to listen to me? Would they believe that I, a six-foot (okay, 5’11”), 200-pound college senior, got taken advantage of by someone half my size or just laugh me out of the room? 

Regardless, it was the first time that question was even floated to me as an option. Two-plus weeks after everything took place. And frankly, that’s the part that still eats at me. Should I have reported it? Would things be better? I think the sensible answer is no. 

Is that how I wanted to spend my last semester of college? Asking my parents to pay thousands for a lawyer, sitting in a courtroom forced to relive one of the worst nights of my life while the person whose fault it is sat in the same room? I went to the same party as her once since then and could hardly speak to anyone until she left. I couldn’t do that every day. Justice would be nice, but it just wasn’t worth it. 

I now understood the depth of what happened to me. I talked to my most trusted friends and my therapist. I handled everything exactly how I wanted to with the resources I had. So, what’s left? Some sort of grand finale, a deep realization that will allow me to transcend this point of my life and leave it behind forever?

No. That doesn’t exist. It never will. It’s a weight I’ll carry with me every day for the rest of my life. It’s something that’s permanently altered the way I look at relationships, at hookups, at myself. Being a sexual assault survivor is part of who I am now. It was not my choice. It’s never anybody’s own choice. All I can ask for is to ensure that it’s not a weight I have to handle alone. Thanks to my friends, family, therapist and even you just for reading this, it isn’t. And I’m forever grateful for that.

Joe Rickles is a senior studying journalism. He was the Daily Cardinal Sports Editor from 2020-2021. Send all comments to  

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