Content warning for sexual assault, substance use, and trauma.
My name is Nathan Strauss, and I’m a survivor of sexual assault.
First, my story in my own voice. The transcription of the audio is below in “The Past,” while I did not record audio for “The Future.”
On a cold December night, a month before the rape, we bounced from house to dorm to frat, buoyed by the cinnamon liquor I had brought, tucked firmly in my backpack to avoid alerting the Amtrak security staff. Unaware of what was to come, I went back for more and then more again, until I spun my way down a dilapidated wooden staircase and busted my cheek open on the concrete. I felt no pain nor retained any memories, not of the fall or of the ambulance. The memories begin in a pale white room at Yale New Haven Hospital. I’m lying shirtless, in my vomit-stained khakis, connected to an EKG machine. My phone is dead, and I have no idea where I am. The reality of the situation seeps into the room when the nurse opens the door; after being discharged, I somehow find my way back to my friend’s antiquated building halfway across the city and immediately pass out on his futon. Later, my mom picks me up with my sister in tow. The gash on my cheek, no longer bleeding, is prevalent. I don’t tell my parents what happened until later that night when I’ve been dropped back at my former campus. Head still aching, I’m full of shame that does not dissipate when the 800 dollar ambulance bill arrives.
Have you ever been sent a sign, some cosmic signal from the universe, that you are in the right place? That fall, I searched for such a symbol; I joined a fraternity, lost my virginity in a one-night stand, drank and smoked and then drank again. Perhaps it was making up for lost time, or more precisely lost experiences. I graduated high school having consumed a grand total of three drinks and with a grand total of two friends, and with an imagined void of experiences. I plunged headlong into a toxic world, full of 3AM wakeups, being locked in a basement, forced to eat bowls of off-brand Cap’n Crunch with vodka instead of milk, expected to skip class and take punishments in the name of ritualistic brotherhood. Blacking out and waking up in a New Haven Hospital was practically par for the course I had set myself on. Of course, the worst was yet to come. In retrospect, the scar on my cheek should have been the opposite of a signal from above. Perhaps it was a warning, a shot across the bow, foreshadowing later scars.
47 days and 17 hours after waking up in a hospital bed I would be raped, although I would not realize it for another 36 hours. I would be found under the heavy influence of alcohol in a concrete basement, untethered enough to be dragged halfway across Waltham into the bed of a woman who had stalked me for a week. I would file a Title IX report and request to be moved from my bedroom, which was just two floors above my assailant’s room, yet I would be moved into a ground-floor room one building away with a direct sightline into her window. I would show up at the Rape Crisis and Councelling center, which had no male advocates, only to be turned away, as “my presence as a male” made other survivors uncomfortable. I would attend my Title IX police interview, and upon arrival I would be given a wink and a nod by the desk sergeant, saying to me “well, someone had some fun.” I would reach out to a therapist, who told me on my first meeting that “a lot of guys would be lucky to get that kind of action.” I would be excluded and later dropped from my fraternity, as they looked to curtail the risks incumbent upon having a serious sexual assault begin in their basement. I would take a year off of school, working out at sea for months before going to substance abuse counselling and and talk therapy and EMDR and anything else under the sun to shake the shame of being part of the one in 33 men who experience sexual trauma.
To this day, some of the guilt remains. I was raped by a first-generation woman of color, who was not punished by the school despite being found guilty in the Title IX proceedings. I already knew I was going to transfer, and she too wound up transferring to a different Boston-area school after her friend group testified on my behalf. I often wonder about how to contextualize my experience, as a white, male survivor, and I think about how it fits into an intersectional framework. As much as I have tried to believe that my privilege affected my experience, my identity as survivor supersedes any supposed ease that I should have felt in my healing process. Logically, I did not have to worry about being attacked by my assailant, yet why did I refuse to enter the on-campus dining hall for three months for fear of seeing her? Why, when I came across her on a dating app 18 months later, did my body freeze up? Why did I feel guilty for wanting my assailant to face discipline? In retrospect, I can reason with myself and understand that being a male survivor’s placement within the dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed is unclear, or at the very least unnerving. My male privilege might have existed to everyone else, yet I did not feel it in the moments when I was turned away from counselling.
I think about it now and then. In a sense, I died and was reborn that night in New Haven 1,400 days ago. I was set off on my path, powerless to stop what was coming, doomed to undergo a Phoenician transformation and be reduced to ash. Some days I think I’m ready to spread my wings; sometimes I feel the flames beating at my legs, threatening to tear the finished product back to rubble. Yet the vast majority of days are a happy medium, where I am content with who and where I am, yet always with that subconscious yearning for a past which never happened. I’m not sure who knows my new self and who clings to the old, like my parents who have overseen the whole process or ghosts from the past who resurface on social media and in bad dreams. Through taking agency over my present, I have rationalized the trauma of my past. If you had to go through your worst moment again, wouldn’t you?
Now that I’ve shared what happened to me, I want to discuss the various systems that exist for survivors, starting at the very beginning. One of the reasons that my process was so challenging for me is that I was never really aware of resources for male sexual assault. It took time and people talking to me for me to even realize what I had experienced was an assault. The first step in my healing process was to understand what I went through is valid. If better systems of education were in place, I would have been able to recognize what I underwent a lot earlier, and I wouldn’t have had the internalized guilt if I had known that male survivors do exist on campuses across the country.
The numbers around sexual assault on college campus show that a horrifyingly large percentage of women will face sexual violence in their lives. One in six women will experience sexual violence, as will one in 33 men. Men are five times more likely to be assaulted when they are college-aged, and more than one in four women will statistically face sexual violence when they are between the ages of 18-24 (all statistics per RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). I don’t want my process as a man to ignore or obfuscate those numbers, because the epidemic of assault is overwhelmingly an issue of heteropatriarchal violence.
Part of what made my experience so frustrating is the general lack of awareness and education around male survivors. I mentioned above and in the audio piece that a therapist told me that “most guys would have been lucky to get that kind of action,” and how the Rape Crisis Counselling Center did not have a male advocate (and turned me away). Those experiences were leading factors in making my recovery process more difficult, let alone my day-to-day experience on campus at that time. A reform I would like to see is male-oriented education – that is, a curriculum that specifically explains that men can be survivors as well. This extends not just to individuals, but also to professionals; under no circumstances should a police officer poke fun at my case, or should a therapist say something like my former one did.
(And briefly, a retrospective on the police: I did not pursue criminal action, although I did think about it. From the attitude of the Brandeis police officers to the Town of Amherst police who protected Theta Chi at the recent protest, policing is antithetical to finding healing and justice. Police are by and large not trauma-informed, while rape cases rarely make it to trial and the subsequent brutality within a courtroom that survivors are subjected to makes that path incredibly arduous and unsustainable. I’ll leave this article for further reading.)
The other overarching part of my process that I found the most painful was that of Title IX. Filing a Title IX report is the official way to pursue a case through school channels, but as an avenue for healing it falls short. When I filed my report, I first had to write in excruciating detail about my experience, providing names of perpetrators and witnesses. Then, I met with the Title IX coordinator, who explained my options – either a formal investigation, which takes upwards of six months and can last for years due to an appeals process, or an informal process which mitigates the potential discipline but moves faster – but not before offering me a “reconciliatory meeting,” in which I would sit down with my assaulter face to face in lieu of a formal Title IX investigation.
(Can you imagine facing the person who oh-so-recently stripped you of your agency and violated you in the most personal of ways? Does the idea of burdening the survivor with instigating a conversation with the assaulter seem like it would be beneficial for…the survivor?)
After electing the informal path, I again had to give two verbal retellings of the entire night, which forced me to relive it all over again. I was instructed to be as specific as possible, yet because my rape and many others occurred while being under the influence, there were parts that were missing through no fault of my own. The waiting period between my multiple statements and the eventual result of the investigation was incredibly painful, with no communication from the school. They did find in my favor, but their ruling merely said that I would get priority housing and that I could select my classes before my assaulter to ensure that we would be separated. At that point, I knew I was going to take time off – I was immensely broken, and truly struggling – but the lack of more protective or disciplinary measures was astounding. Understanding that students who pursue the “due process” format subject themselves to retraumatization, to people poking holes in their story while a side effect of trauma can be memory loss, to an investigative process that is impersonal and bleak, is crucial to any discussion about campus reforms.
And finally, the part that makes this topical, is the relationship between Greek Life and sexual violence. I was a member of a fraternity, and when I look back at that period of my life I feel incredibly shameful. The pledging process took a physical and mental toll on me, to the point where I nearly took my own life, and yet this myth of brotherhood sustained me for months. When I look back upon my experience, I see another form of trauma in the pledging process: being forced to drink to excess, to sleep on grimy concrete basement floors, to act as underlings for elder brothers or face the threat of punishment, et cetera. This was happening at BRANDEIS, mind you – not exactly the example of fraternity life that first comes to mind. Our group chat regularly featured racial and ethnic slurs, descriptions of girls who we wanted to invite to parties “because they were easy,” and so-called objectives that treated women like conquests. At least three brothers who were in the fraternity when I was a member were known to be sexual assaulters. Two of the higher up brothers actively persuaded me to drop the fraternity, seeking to protect themselves from any liability.
Having been a part of that environment, however bleak and traumatic, has given me a different perspective on how Greek Life should be handled. When I see the recent protests of Theta Chi, I feel incredibly hopeful that some forms of meaningful change will be edificed, but incredibly sorrowful that the same system which hurt me continues to hurt thousands of people, primarily women, every year – and even more horrified that this system is generally tolerated by my university. It is not limited to Theta Chi or to my former fraternity, but to a social system which has tolerated breeding grounds for sexual violence for years. Four years ago, it was PIKE that were disciplined. A Theta Chi party resulted in a person’s ear being bitten off within the last decade. Alpha Chi Omega, a sorority, famously locked their pledges in cages in the basement of a fraternity house in the early 2010s. Theta Chi themselves somehow avoided expulsion despite hosting parties during the pre-vaccination school year. Across the continent, from Phi Psi at Kansas to FIJI at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the University of Western Ontario, where over 40 women were drugged at a fraternity two weekends ago and a man murdered, incidents of death, rape, and violence are continually allowed to occur as nothing more than an externality of the social scene.
While I am so pleased to see the outpouring of support from student organizations and individuals, I would urge people to be cognizant of who is speaking up…and who is not. When organizations headed by fraternity members put out statements, or when groups tied to companies which have objectively promoted cultures of rape and harassment (say, Barstool) put out statements, it becomes harder to take at face value. Small progress is better than no progress, but the epidemic of sexual violence does not start nor end with Greek Life.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I can’t pretend that there is some magical panacea that will protect future harm. I just want to see a future in which the process for survivors is substantially different from what I went through, a future where fraternities are held accountable by their universities for the actions of their constituents, a future where male survivors have access to the resources they need, and a future where we do not have to live in fear of trauma being inflicted upon us for every night spent going out. I want a future where university spokespeople will consult with survivors for how to provide empathetic messaging, rather than the abrupt, property-damage-focused email which UMass students recently received.
So keep protesting, keep making your voices heard and standing up for the survivors in our community. I promise, your efforts are so heavily appreciated. My DMs are always open–more than anything, I want to be a resource for people like me–and I promise, things will get better.
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC): https://barcc.org/
UMass Center for Women & Community: https://www.umass.edu/cwc/