Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of sexual assault and mental health. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised, please scroll to the bottom of the article to find a list of helpful resources.

"On the night in June 2018, when I was assaulted, I went up to a friend in shock to say that a girl had just pushed me over into a flower bed, and straddled, kissed and coerced me. He replies: "I think she's a good-looking girl...""

It’s the end of our last year of sixth form. My school, an old boys’ school of exactly the type that shouldn’t exist, is trying to organise a joint leavers’ pub quiz with a local girls’ school. The boys have been asked to get into teams and suggest girls with whom we’d be happy to team up. So, I send a message to my friend group’s Facebook chat: ‘apparently quiz teams have to be 4 from our school and 4 from the girls’ school, any ideas?’

One friend responds straight away with a single name, all lower case. The name he’s sent is the girl who sexually assaulted me a year ago. It’s a joke, apparently. When I go to uni and talk to new friends about this 'joke,' they’ll think it’s shocking. But right now, I’m used to this, very, very used to this. In fact, I’d become so accustomed to it that I’d overwritten what actually happened, normalising and trivialising my own assault.

The culture when I was at school was bad in a lot of ways: walk into the sixth form common room and you’d hear misogyny, casualised homophobia, racist stereotypes, antisemitism, transphobia, insane levels of classism, and biphobia galore. Not everyone was like that, not in any way: some of the boys I met there are loving and kind and will be my friends forever. But I’d say that most of the students in my year had those values entrenched. These overwhelming attitudes were so heteronormative that I didn’t even know the word heteronormative, with the whole gossip mill of the school revolving around hook-ups with girls at parties.

On the night in June 2018, when I was assaulted, I went up to a friend in shock to say that a girl had just pushed me over into a flower bed, and straddled, kissed and coerced me. He replies: “I think she’s a good-looking girl.” The way he said it made it almost seem as if I should be grateful, prompting me to begin to doubt whether I’m a victim. It’s also why someone I vaguely know later comes up to me, as I’m still lying on the grass, and says ‘I’ve been asked to ask you if you got with X.’ That’s how it’s going to be now: an assault framed by the teasing banter of casual pulls.

This continues for the rest of my time at school: in the only assembly where we’re told ‘boys can be harassed too,’ everyone I’m sitting with will turn to me and shout ‘wayyyyyy.’ When a friend who ends up at the same university bumps into her in a nightclub, he’ll text me ‘to lost loves.’ At every party when I see her, she’ll try and touch me, or fall on top of me, or be rude, and her friends — many of them genuinely lovely people — will compensate with ‘oh, she’s a nightmare when she’s drunk,’ as if that was ever, ever an excuse. When we’re together, we’ll be treated like an almost-couple, and the mix of fear and attraction I feel will never, ever be addressed.

"Those are impossibly difficult feelings to mix about someone who’s assaulted you, and the tension sucked my confidence for months and months."

Those are impossibly difficult feelings to mix about someone who’s assaulted you, and the tension sucked my confidence for months and months. I sublimated it, but I couldn’t avoid seeing her, or hearing people talk about her, or having her name put to me as a kind of joke that I was presumably supposed to laugh at. And so, as a defence mechanism, and an attempt to fit in, I went along with it.

I never talked to my family about it because I was confused about sexuality in pretty much every way, and ashamed of it in all the others. But some friends were genuinely alarmed when I said ‘oh god yeah I was assaulted lol.’ I laughed them off, thinking that they didn’t understand how funny it was — me! A boy! Assaulted! Now, I look back and I cannot thank them enough for being genuinely good people in the midst of a toxic culture.

What should have been a horrible experience — but one that, with sympathy, I would have been better able to move on from — turned into something that ended up defining my emotional life for months and years. Please, if anyone ever comes to you, just say the easiest, and most powerful thing there is to say: “I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk?”

"I normally love writing articles for this paper, but every single word of this one has hurt."

I normally love writing articles for this paper, but every single word of this one has hurt. Perhaps publishing it will cause a few little bombshells in my personal life. Perhaps the girl I’m talking about will read it, perhaps she’s reading these words right now. If she is, then I’d like her to know that I forgive her, but I beg her never to do anything like that to anyone again.

Perhaps the boys who made those jokes, or laughed at them, are reading this too. When I last saw them, some didn’t seem to have changed at all. Maybe they’ll realise what the culture they helped create did to me, and to everyone else who hid the truth of their lives to fit into a heterosexual matrix. And if my school reads it, then, for starters, I hope that they’ll introduce the idea that sexual assault is always a crime, and that their students, despite being men, can also be its victims.

But writing, and sharing, is something I need to do. These feelings that are making me shake as I type these words are the feelings that I’ve been bottling up, burying in irony and self-defacing jokes for two years. They’ve only just surfaced, and only now can I actually write: I was assaulted.


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Cambridge pushed me to overcome my worst experiences

Assault is assault. Harassment is harassment. It’s never a joke. It happened. And your fear, your anger, your ambivalence surrounding it are all just normal. The way your heart races and your chest seems to shake are okay. Your story is valid, but you are more than this. And you are allowed to be intimate without fear: you can love again.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources:

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