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I Still Feel Unsafe Every Day

I am never asking to be harassed, no matter what I’m wearing, where I am, or what I’m doing. But it’s easy to blame myself if it happens.

I don't know Emily Doe, the survivor at the center of last summer’s infamous Stanford rape case. I wasn't in the courtroom where she delivered a powerful open letter to the assailant. It’s impossible for me to do or say anything that would bring her justice given the horror, trauma, and horrendous behavior involved. But here's what I can say: Emily Doe is brave as hell. And I don't know if I can or will be that brave should I ever face such violence.

Yup, I said that. I said that because the odds are stacked against me and other college-age women, and as a new student, I am terrified about what the future may hold. I'm scared because I sat through my high school senior year health class and shook while my health teacher taught us that girls need to be abstinent to avoid sexual assault. She told us that to prevent assault, we shouldn't drink anything that wasn't closed first, or leave a drink unattended. We should not let friends order or hold our drinks, because even close friends may try to drug us, she said.

This teacher followed a mandatory health curriculum that required her to teach a class of teenage boys and girls that if a girl is sexually assaulted, it's probably because she wasn't being careful enough, or her prior sexual relationships set a precedent for an assault. Though no one in my class seemed to be paying attention, I assume each word slowly sank into all the teenage brains in that darkened room. I know they sank into mine.

As much as I try to remind myself that I am never asking for any form of harassment no matter what I'm wearing, where I am, or what I'm doing, it's easy to slip into self-blaming. It's so easy to get catcalled on the street near a construction site and immediately think, Why did I wear these shorts? or Why didn't I just walk around the block to avoid them? So easy to question why I didn't move to the other side of the street when I saw the men, because I already knew they were going to comment on my legs or my shorts or my smile. The concern for my safety haunts me for the rest of the day.

In moments like these, I feel powerless. I'm terrified to speak up: What if they lash out at my rejection? What if they decide that today they won't tolerate a response? So I walk faster, tug down my shorts, put in my headphones, and pretend I don't hear their calls. I hope they don't follow me like one man did a few weeks ago, calling after me for three blocks because he thought he deserved my attention and I wasn't giving him any. I can’t stand the fact that I had to find another man to walk beside, because I knew that another man's presence was the only thing that would get this catcaller to stop following me.

I can't stand the fact that I didn't speak up when that twentysomething frat boy at Coachella reached behind me while I was walking and tugged down my shorts. I don't know whether he wanted to pull my shorts off, or if he just didn't like how short they were and thought they should be longer. I don't know why he thought he had any right to reach out to adjust my clothing and touch my ass in broad daylight. He laughed with his friends: I'm sure that, later, they forgot it happened and had a great day. The rest of my day was spent anxiously checking my surroundings to make sure that no one else was going to try to adjust my shorts.

I didn't say anything to that guy, and I didn't say anything about the incident to anyone else. Because what would that do? Was I supposed to go up to the cop who was standing 20 feet away and say “some guy grabbed my shorts and pulled at them, but I don't know who he is or where he went, and I have no way of identifying him because I was too shocked when I turned around to get a good look?” No, I couldn't. I knew I wouldn't be taken seriously, so I didn't bother.

I can't stand the fact that I didn't speak up when a group of guys decided that they had the right to grab my ass while I was walking through the crowd at a party. I felt like I couldn't say anything, so I just turned and looked at them, shook my head, and walked away. I spent the rest of the night standing in the corner, worried about what other people were thinking of me and wondering if I shouldn’t have worn the outfit I did. One of my guy friends asked me what was wrong, noticing my change in mood, and I told him about the whole situation. I told him that I felt uncomfortable even walking through the crowd after that, because I didn't know where these guys went and I didn't know who else thought they had the right to grab me like that.

His response? “That's what happens when you go out. It's life.”

I’m sickened by the fact that he’s right: This is life, this is the accepted norm. I’m sickened by the fact that I felt like I couldn’t say anything to anyone, because I didn’t know what effect my words would have. Even my friend saw this behavior as an unfortunate consequence of going out. If one of my own friends couldn’t see the problem with the situation and wasn’t worried about my safety, why would anyone else care?

Emily Doe’s continued advocacy for sexual-assault survivors and her insistence that the culture of sexual assault can be fixed, however, gives me hope. She was not only brave enough to speak to her attacker and publicly share the trauma that she experienced, but she continues to discuss the experience and insist that we can fix this broken culture over time. Emily Doe’s writing makes survivors — those who have spoken about their experiences and those who haven’t — realize that they aren’t alone in this battle.

And yet, we still need change — for Emily Doe, for all sexual-assault survivors who have stood up, for all those who cannot, and for all those in the future. We still need a justice system that prioritizes survivors, a society in which the discussion about assault, harassment, and rape is no longer taboo, and support systems for the emotional and psychological distress that results from these situations. How can we achieve this? I have no clue. But I say we start by standing with the survivors of assault and holding attackers responsible for their actions. Change has to start somewhere, and it should start with us.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673), or visit RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

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