Finding Support at SOAR

Trigger Warning: This article contains non-graphic discussion of sexual assault.

The author of this article is a member of Survivors of Assault and Rape (SOAR), a student-facilitated support group. The group is open to students of all genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds. Everything discussed in the group is completely confidential. 

The clearest memory I have from my first week at Haverford is when a member of my Customs group told me she had been raped. Sexual assault was something I had previously only thought about in abstract terms, and now someone who would become one of my closest friends was sharing her experience with me. I refused to acknowledge speaking with her triggered my own panic, pretending that I was carefully listening even though I sometimes had no idea what she said because I was struggling to breathe. I felt like a horrible friend. I knew that Haverford had a support group for survivors of assault and rape (SOAR) from posters around campus. My friend eventually decided to join, and I was glad that she had people who could understand, listen to, and support her because I felt so inadequate.

But this was suddenly something I couldn’t ignore. I heard too many stories about friends getting grabbed at parties, casual jokes about never going to certain apartments, and accounts of being aggressively pursued even after the person had told another student to stop. Most of my freshman hall agreed that a girl who decided not to have oral sex with a guy on our hall after she initially consented was a bitch. Another member of my customs group who was groped at a party was told that it wasn’t a big deal and it would be best to ignore it. These messages came from the same people who passionately debated the honor code and who became leaders on campus.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t want to believe that rape, sexual assault, and harassment could happen at a school where “trust, concern, and respect” are community standards. Recent statistics about how 1 in 5 women are assaulted at college seemed like they must refer to other places—big state schools with fraternities and no honor code. I wanted to believe that. I don’t anymore.

I joined SOAR my sophomore year after having finally acknowledged that ignoring my past was no longer possible. I didn’t think it was necessarily the right place for me; I didn’t think my experiences “counted” as sexual assault. I felt like an imposter, that I was lying, and that I was being disrespectful to other students who were “real” survivors.  I didn’t know how to talk about why I was there, and I thought everyone would doubt the validity of my presence. I felt that I was intruding on a close group of students who understood each other and didn’t need me to distract from their very real problems.

All of the things I believed my first meeting of SOAR are things I’ve heard from numerous other members who debated whether or not they belonged in the group. I didn’t magically feel comfortable when I arrived, still had panic attacks when I got home after meetings, and it took a long time before I told anyone outside of the group that I was in SOAR. But it was also the first place where people not only understood my experience but also how easy it is to dismiss that sexual assault is a real problem and that it happens at Haverford.

No matter how hard it was going my first meeting and confronting the fact that this is something that I, and so many other students struggle with, being in SOAR has undoubtedly been one of the best parts of my experience in college. In a school that loves to use the words safe space, it is the one place—sometimes the only place—at Haverford that I have truly felt safe and supported. This is anonymous for many reasons, but no part of that is shame about being in SOAR or being a survivor. I wanted to share this for students who feel alone with their struggles or that SOAR isn’t for the place for them. I wished someone would have told me before I joined that I didn’t need to feel like I belonged and that no one’s experience is more important than another’s. Even when I struggle with calling myself a survivor, SOAR has undoubtedly been a place that has helped me survive.

If you have a question, want to go to a meeting, or just want to have a confidential conversation with another student about your own experience, feel free to e-mail survivorsupporthc@gmail.com.

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