The Impossible, Crucial Task of Teaching About Rape as a Survivor

Emily Van Duyne on Navigating Stories that Institutions Ignore

In 2018, I was a rape survivor teaching about rape on a campus I knew for certain had a rape crisis. The feminist theory I taught had just crashed to the ground in my living room.

My students and I had long studied trauma-informed writing together, like Seo-Young Chu’s “A Refuge for Jae-In Doe: Fugues In The Key of English Major,” in which Chu describes what it was like to be stalked and raped by her dissertation adviser at Stanford University. Chu’s experience is beyond the language the world gives us to talk about rape—because, as it turns out, the world gives us almost none.

In a world where gender and race are often equivalent to the power we wield, rape—a crime about power—is typically discussed in terms of desire. We ask who wanted what, and when, and who deserves what they got, or took. It may sound insane to write that there are people in the world who saw Seo-Young Chu’s assault as a form of exchange: she, a queer woman of color, wanted a powerful white man to advise her doctoral degree. He wanted something else. Or, it may sound perfectly normal, because too often, this is how we talk about rape. Our justice system reflects it—RAINN.org estimates that 975 of every 1000 perpetrators walk free each year in the United States. Seo-Young Chu, despite asking repeatedly, could not even get Stanford University to apologize to her.

So Chu turned to the sonnet to describe her experience of being first stalked, then transformed from a human woman into an object. Like others before her—Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”—she transforms, in the course of the sonnet, from a human into a literary device, a blazon: a body stripped of its parts, to be cataloged as a series of rare and beautiful objects: Do my eyes deceive me? You are no woman, but a slender new moon, your lips a swath of rubies which, should I dare to kiss them, might cut too deep for comfort.

Stanford University is a household name, but Stockton University, my workplace, is not. Stockton is a mid-size public university in the middle of the woods of southern New Jersey, not far from the shoreline of Atlantic City, where I grew up. In fact, Stockton has its roots in Atlantic City—the first-ever entering class, in 1969, took classes and lived on the World-Famous Atlantic City Boardwalk, specifically in the Mayflower Hotel, while construction of the main campus was completed. Thus, the old joke, for that historic first group of entering freshmen: when they moved to the main campus in the woods, they said, We came over on the Mayflower. I, a white woman, thought this clever for a long time, with a pathetically dim grasp of its colonialist implications. Even in nowheresville south Jersey, the men had to conquer something: a strip of highway, a pine forest, a swamp.

For decades, Stockton was a college—Stockton State College—and then, later, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, as the university adopted the name of one of the five people from New Jersey to sign the Declaration of Independence. Richard Stockton, a slave owner and a turncoat, was imprisoned by the British in 1777. After 13 weeks, he signed an oath of loyalty to King George III to secure his release. In 2014, we became Stockton University (no Richard, an attempt to begin distancing our institution from its namesake). In 2017, as Black Lives Matter protestors pulled down Confederate statues around the country, the university decided to remove the bust of Richard Stockton from the library, and some faculty began an email conversation about a university name change. There was talk of forming a working group to address this problem, but it never got off the ground. As of this writing, the conversation has stopped.

The first lines of Seo-Young Chu’s essay concern the issue of apologies. It’s the winter of 2016. Chu is alone in her apartment in Queens, where she now works as an associate professor of English Literature. The phone rings. It’s Stanford University. Chu describes hearing a woman’s voice say:

“I’m calling from Stanford to ask about your experience while you were here.”

(blank space)

The blank space above: a representation of my immediate response to the caller’s words.

I almost can’t believe that this is happening. Stanford is reaching out to me. Will Stanford apologize at last? That is all I have ever wanted: an apology.

All I have ever wanted. This is, coincidentally, the title of a short poem I wrote in the last semester of my MFA. It was a condensed lyric: All I have ever wanted was to be good/at it all, it began, and ended,

So when the devil came
calling at my first little house, I let him
in with a wink
and a double-cheeked kiss, I just wanted
to please him so bad.

I let him, I wrote, and let the line fall off a cliff. The poem was about rape. It was the first time I ever wrote about it, in any form. It’s riddled with Chu’s blank spaces: big white blocks on the page after I cut a line to its quick. Antiquated colloquialisms. No one ever “comes calling” in south Jersey, where I grew up, or Sonoma, California, where someone raped me, but poetics, as I understood them, were about transformation, and anyway, I could not yet write down words like he raped me without a keen sense that I would vomit.

In writing about rape, I have found that language failed me.

Chu describes her own battle with rape’s effects on her speech and body. Besides the blank spaces of trauma, there is the cruel logic of patriarchal rape: “I have a libido; therefore I could not have been raped.” Later, she describes her tendency to self-harm after she feels sexual pleasure: “The alternative to battering my flesh: letting the intrusive ghost of my rapist happily watch me surrender to my libido.”

Chu assumes that the caller from Stanford is calling to arrange the university’s apology to her; why else, she wonders, would they bother? After her initial disorientation, “The story tumbles out.” This is something that Kate Manne discusses in her work on when to disclose (or not disclose) our own harassment and assault in an educational setting—People spill, Manne writes. They spill over. Note that her language echoes that of a criminal confessing a crime. In point of fact, he was the devil, my little poem tells us, but I let him in with a wink and a smile. Who is at fault? The rapist or the woman who dared to desire anyone at all, to want one single thing? Whatever the case, Stanford is not, was not, calling Chu to apologize, but to ask for an alumni donation. The caller is an undergraduate. “Something,” Chu writes, “is happening to my eyes… The phone I hold is shaking.” Chu is time traveling to the Northern California of 2000. But she doesn’t hang up: “‘No, I’m the one who’s sorry,’ I manage to say, and I mean it.”

*

I live in the borderlands of rape. I knew my rapist; I had invited him into my home that night, with other friends, for drinks. I knew he had raped me. I knew it. I knew it in theory: I said no, I was impaired, I think he drugged me. The list goes on.

I am a self-identified feminist. But in the borderlands, I am a woman between two countries, neither truly mine. There is an invisible line drawn between these two countries, which are also my two selves: one a radical feminist, the other a raped woman. No one can see the line. Like the history of my mother, and her mother, and hers—the endless back staircase of women who surrendered their names, those names that weren’t even theirs to surrender, who became a twinset of selves—I cross the invisible line and I am nothing but a naked body in the California desert night, stripped of even my name. All I had ever wanted was to be good, perfect actually, at everything—straight As and back handsprings and, above all, beautiful, but the only mirror I had that I trusted was the desire of men. And so, the devil came to my little house on West Fourth Street and I said, Come in. And whose fault is that?

*

Anyone with a liberal arts degree is steeped in the tradition of the Socratic method, a form of teaching based on a question-and-answer dialogue intended to stimulate critical thought and discover our ingrained biases. I think of myself as a cynic, so I was surprised to discover that one of my own much-cherished biases was a steadfast belief in Stockton University’s so-called commitment to critical dialogue, especially around difficult issues of race and racism, sexism, and sexual assault. After all, these kinds of conversations are supposed to be inherent to the project of the university.

Because Stockton was small and new, with modern airport-like buildings rather than ivy-covered columns, I believed it was not like Stanford; that, faced with a crisis, it would do better. That is why, in the summer of 2018, when Stockton was sued by a long string of students that said the university had been negligent in handling their sexual assault cases, I expected better than we, the community, ever got.

Two of the nine cases involved a single suspect, a 2015 graduate of the university who was indicted by a grand jury and pled guilty to charges that carried a possible sentence of six years. In court proceedings, he said that he “had sex” with one of his victims solely “to humiliate and degrade her.” He posted images of one victim’s unconscious, naked body on social media with the caption, “Fuck this cuddling shit, bitches sleep on the floor.” In her victim impact statement, one accuser said, “You and I both know you raped me. You just didn’t post it on Snapchat.” She also told the court that after the rape, she wanted to die. Driving home through the pine barrens of southern New Jersey, she prayed a deer would leap in front of her car and kill her.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind—in one of the first ever sonnets in English, Sir Thomas Wyatt characterized Anne Boleyn as a deer he could no longer hunt, now that the king had laid claim to her. She was “… wild for to hold, though I seem tame.” Hence the title of Seo-Young Chu’s piece, “A Refuge for Jae-In Doe.” A deer in proverbial headlights; a Korean-ization of the Anglo Jane, used to protect the identity of raped victims, and the name of the wife who succeeded Anne Boleyn after her husband had her head removed by dint of a French sword, rather than the traditional ax: cleaner hands. A mercy.

During sentencing, Judge Bernard E. DeLury, Jr. cited the “problem” with social media usage, which was, he said, “a bedlam… among the greater harms of modernity.” He gave the defendant a sentence of probation. Seven other anonymous women also sued Stockton that summer. My workplace did not acknowledge any responsibility on their part for the assaults that had taken place there, even as court documents pointed to a larger climate that allowed for the degradation of women—the fraternity to which the suspect belonged held regular “pussy parties.” I knew that the young women’s stories, in the news and on campus, would be discredited as quickly as their words were printed, and they were. A scan of the comments sections in the online reporting from the time proves as much—Why are they going to parties and drinking, why did they wait so long, why now, why, why, why… No one bothered asking, Why did the men rape these women? Why was the problem ignored for as long as it was? Theoretically, I knew why the world, encountering rape, pins the blame on the victim, not the perpetrator—it was what I was paid to teach. That was part of what frustrated me so much, in the summer and fall of 2018: Stockton employed a good number of feminist academics with expertise in this area but hadn’t bothered to ask us what we thought about any of the cases. In words that, in 2022, bleed with irony, I often said in campus meetings of the time, Look, if we had a flu pandemic on campus, we’d consult an epidemiologist, right? 

*

According to Chanel Miller, artist, anti-rape activist, and author of Know My Name, a memoir about, among other things, being sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on Stanford’s campus in 2014, universities should see any victim willing to speak out as a valuable source of information—they have knowledge of where these parties are, of who is serving the drinks. The victim, says Miller, has just alerted you to a major problem on your campus—why not listen to them? Why go directly to brand identity and protection?

A canary in a coal mine sings beautifully, but dies to alert a danger to precious resources, valued men. Rape victims are often silent for years, until, as Kate Manne says, they spill. They rarely sing. Their voices betray those valued men, that most precious resource. Doe: a deer, a female deer—/Often chased by sonneteers of old./Caught, and killed, and bathed in fear,/turned to human blazons to be sold, writes Seo-Young Chu in a poem she calls, “A Little Song And A Receipt.”

Why don’t they apologize?! Even if just to the community, for putting us through this? I asked a close friend and colleague that summer as, day after day, more devastating details of the lawsuits were revealed, and student after student, mostly rape survivors, contacted me in dismay. She looked at me like I had two heads. They will never apologize, Emily. That would acknowledge that this happened at all.

*

I don’t sing, but I do write. In writing about rape, though, I have found that language failed me. There was a single word, or there was a phrase—sexual assault—but the one worked as an emetic and the other didn’t work at all. A friend that I called the morning after the rape told me later, You kept saying,“I was attacked. I was attacked.” This is also true, but consider, Reader, the vague, smooth nature of the attack—first on my drink, then my body: young, soft, and in and out of consciousness so there wasn’t much of a fight. If people want facts, I do have them: dates, times, places. What I wore. What he wore. What he said and when he left. But what about the event itself? There, I fall apart. The language crawls into a hole and eats dirt.

Language, with its ability to expand and encompass multiple stories, multiple truths, can also restrict. It can cover up.

Writing about trauma does nothing if not present countless black holes. I mean to shed light on them, but the gravity rips me in two. This both is and is not my story: in 2018, I wanted the university to understand that women were not just initials or doe-eyed pseudonyms. My students were telling me their stories, carrying the weight of what they read on top of their own traumas. They were furious. But when they tried to speak out at campus meetings, they were shamed. A code of silence quickly became the norm: It was only possible to speak about rape or assault if we could remain “civil.” But how does one say, with civility: I walked into the room and he was on top of my best friend, raping her. I screamed at him to stop, and he threw me out of the room and locked the door.

*

It was seven years after my rape when, reading up for a course I was planning, I came upon an essay in CUNY’s Feminist Press archives about “herrschaft,” or Max Weber’s theory of “legitimate rule”—how people in power convince those beneath them that there they belong and there they shall stay. It was one of the few times in my life that my jaw literally hung open, speechless. I was looking for information about Second Wave activism. Instead, I discovered that my rapist shared his last name with Weber’s theory about power: who stomps on who and who gets stomped.

(blank space)

Then, it is March, in Sonoma, California, in 2005. I tell my first friend there that I have been raped. We stand in her tiny art studio, surrounded by her paintings. She says, shocked, Who? It’s the big moment. I know if I tell her his name, there is no going back; the town is small and parochial and everyone knows everyone else. Choking, I say his name out loud. She says she doesn’t know him well; she knows his younger brother better. She says, laughing grimly, At least you weren’t raped by his younger brother. His younger brother is a town joke, a misogynist pun: Fill-up-her-shaft.

Get it?

Back in 2012, I get past the initial shock of seeing his name attached to feminist theory, and the coincidence unlocks something in me. It makes me greedy. I begin to write and I feel actual glee: where once there was the blank space of rape, now there is a metaphor. I have wrested back some small control over some large thing—language. The metaphor sheds light on the dark of that night in a way hard facts never will.

But, of course, this works two ways—hard facts also suck the emotional truth from reality. And language, with its ability to expand and encompass multiple stories, multiple truths, can also restrict. It can cover up. It can tell a single story and silence the rest. Or it can just lie.

*

In April 2021, Chanel Miller came to Stockton as part of an event for Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage month. The event was pitched to Stockton students, staff, and faculty as a forum to learn about healing a community after sexual assault—and yet, at no point was there an explicit acknowledgment that there had ever been a single sexual assault, much less a full-blown crisis of them, at Stockton. Reading the email announcing Miller’s speech, my fingers tingled. I felt a familiar dread, then an even more familiar anger.

For five minutes I considered writing to her speaking agent to convey the message that she would be speaking at a school with a sexual assault crisis, wanting to protect her from speaking at a place so nonchalant about this thing she cared about so deeply. But then I felt stupid. No shit, I imagined Miller saying. Every school in America has a sexual assault crisis. I recoiled, not wanting to put words in the mouth of a writer I admired so much; I recoiled, knowing how badly it went for me, the last time I spoke up about this crisis.

When she spoke, Miller addressed the anger that comes with trying to survive rape and navigating the justice system’s botching of sexual assault. “I had achieved levels of anger I didn’t even know were possible,” she said. Emotions, Miller told the audience, carry a lot of information, but this information is largely worthless in the legal apparatus that addresses sexual assault, where, as she said, “Anything that’s not a hard fact is discounted.”

Speaking to Stockton, Miller was as gracious and brilliant as I expected her to be. “It requires an entire community to turn a victim into a survivor,” she told her audience, and I wondered what happened to the nine young women who filed those suits, who we only ever knew as initials, as voices of victim impact statements with sentences as bald as, I wanted to die. What happened to the students who never found the words to say out loud what happened to them, to those who, having watched how the community responded to the 2018 lawsuits, were discouraged from saying a word?

How can a victim survive when I’m sorry—the least of it, the smallest thing—is another silent country, its border slammed shut?

Emily Van Duyne
Emily Van Duyne
Emily Van Duyne's poems, reviews, and essays are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Harvard Review, and Entropy; Loving Sylvia Plath is under contract with W.W. Norton & Co. She is represented by Beth Vesel of the Beth Vesel Literary Agency. Tweet at her @emilyvanduyne.





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