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Yale-NUS survivor of sexual assault highlights the community’s flawed approach to rape

This article contains references and depictions of sexual violence which may be triggering. 

In 2018, a student of Yale-National University of Singapore (Yale-NUS) wrote a heart-wrenching article on The Octant about a rapist’s guilt. Specifically, the author Sya, talked about her own horrific experience of being raped by a friend and the dealing with the aftermath of it.

In her article, she described waking up one morning in August 2016 not knowing where she was or how she got there. Still, she got up and got on with her day, ignoring the bleeding and replying to worried texts from asking where she had disappeared to the night before.

She wrote, “I pretended that nothing was wrong for the next few days but every time I saw him around campus, and every time he smiled at me or talked to me as though nothing had happened, I felt more and more like I was imploding. I have not felt safe on this campus since I got here.”

A community that fails survivors

She went on to talk about how a community is reluctant to accept that someone they know could be a rapist, even when the victim themselves give first-hand account of what happened. She highlights how we as a society struggle to realise that a person can be both ‘nice’ and still do heinous things.

“We have created this binary, where either someone is a rapist and therefore a monster, or they are not and the survivor is a liar. This is unproductive and harmful,” she wrote.

Specifically referring to the Yale-NUS community, she said “Even when there seems to be an understanding that goes beyond this binary, at Yale-NUS, people still hesitate to acknowledge the fact that rape in the way we understand it — extremely violating and deeply wrong — can be perpetrated by a member of our own community.”

In her case, Sya talked about how she had to deal with people telling her that while they believe her account of events, they also believe her rapist when he said he did not rape her. They tell her that they know rape is wrong but this is different, that their friend is a victim too and that she merely forgot that she had consented.

“How can you believe that I was raped while also believing that he did not rape anyone?”

Sya described feeling isolated and in disbelief, almost dropping out of college in the face of such trauma.

Holding rapists accountable

She emphasised the need for accountability, the need to acknowledge what the rapist has done and the hurt they have caused. On this point, she says alienation – a consequence that society is happy to place on any criminal, especially a rapist – is not helpful because it doesn’t directly address what happened. A rapist needs to be held accountable and we can only do that if we acknowledge what happened.

Sya described having to deal with people she knows telling her that they see how remorseful her rapist is and how much that one moment has affected his life. They mention his declining mental health. And while she acknowledges that his feelings of guilt should not be erased, she cautions, “our empathy for rapists needs to end where it causes our empathy for survivors to lessen.”

Sya points out that for all the remorse that he rapist has shown, he has not once even acknowledged what he did. He does not say what he is apologising for and his focus is always on his own emotions and guilt – not a moment’s consideration is given to the hurt he has cause or how his actions have forever changed his victim’s life.

“In all of his regret and all of his apologies, I never seem to matter or even exist — I am neither in the room nor in the apology,” she said.

Shockingly, Sya speaks about how the man who raped her, while never admitting to her directly what he did, did instead tell a mutual friend that he has used a razor to violate her. In fact, he has blatantly left that detail out when he has confronted her a few month before that to seek an apology.

Wondering why he felt the need to leave out this sordid detail, she said “I have now realized that to him, how I would feel about it was less important than the friendship he thought he had lost. Even when he told our mutual friend what he did, it was immediately followed by detailed explanations of his suffering. What he did to me didn’t seem to matter, but how he felt about it did.”

Again, Sya notes how his feelings are put before her and how those feelings are used to end conversations around rape rather than beginning more fruitful ones about responsibility, accountability and healing.

She adds, “He does not understand that his feelings of guilt do not negate the need for external consequences, and our community reinforces this lack of understanding constantly.”

What to do with a rapist’s guilt

On the subject of a rapist’s guilt, Sya said that it should be directed to make them understand the gravity of what they’ve done and hold them accountable for it. Having compassion for a rapist does not mean shielding them from consequences, says Sya.

Aptly, she adds that for a person to be forgiven, they must first believe that they are to blame. She also stresses that her suffering is not compensation for hers, because it’s not about whose life has been made worse. It’s about the decisions he made. And this is something that both rapists and the community at large needs to understand.

She adds, “I will not let this community forgive him on my behalf.”

“Rapists feel guilt because they are human. I believe with my whole heart that every human has so much potential for goodness. But my belief that humans have the potential to be good must be matched with a willingness to hold them to a higher standard when they fail to be good.”

On how a community can help change this current mindset, Sya notes that we need to move past denial and accept in policy and in everyday conversations that this person has done something wrong. The process of forgiveness can only begin when the perpetrator owns up to their actions.