What no one tells you about healing after sexual assault, and what actually helped me.

By Mia Doe,* ERA student survivor client
*Name altered at the client’s request to protect her identity.

After sexual assault, there’s no playbook, no guide, no rules. Trust me, I asked. But there isn’t a one size fits all solution.

For me, the night after the assault, I was getting a forensic exam and the next morning, I was beginning my final year of my undergraduate education I as if nothing happened. What choice did I have? Life keeps going, and you have to somehow pick up whatever’s left of yourself, paint a smile on your face, and find a way to move forward, all the while carrying an internal weight no one should ever have to carry. And no matter how many times it’s repeated, there truly does not seem to be any light at the end of this tunnel.

Eventually, I was in a place to ask myself: what if some justice came out of this? But the thing is, if you asked me what justice looks like, I couldn’t tell you. In a judicial sense of justice, if you asked me for an amount of time in prison or a sum of money, I couldn’t give you a number. Even today, with my Title IX case concluded, I don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m not sure I ever will.

But the one thing I committed to when I began the Title IX process was that I was going to follow through with everything and trust my gut. For me, this involved appealing a mutual no-contact order (NCO) — essentially the school version of a two-way restraining order — that was issued against the Respondent, but also against me, even though the university’s sexual misconduct investigation found the Respondent responsible for the assault not once, but twice. Was I ever going to contact the Respondent? Of course not; I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him, and I made that clear when I requested to not see him or be seen by him during the hearing. He was a stranger to me the night that it happened, and I preferred to keep it that way. But I still didn’t know why the no-contact order had to go both ways; it felt like I was being punished for reporting the assault.

I was transitioning from an undergraduate to a graduate student status at this time. I knew I was still going to be under the university’s jurisdiction for at least another 5 years. So, for the foreseeable future, this case and any potential for student misconduct ramifications would be hanging over my head, even though it was proven through the Title IX process that I was the victim in this situation, and, I didn’t do anything wrong. The school’s insistence on upholding the mutual NCO sanction against me — even after my Title IX case concluded — was shocking.

Until that decision, I never questioned whether or not they took my case seriously, nor did I ever have reason to doubt that they cared about me and were willing to provide me with any and all available accommodations to make it possible for me to continue my education as normal. But once they upheld the mutual NCO at the conclusion of my case, it was clear the university was just going through the motions of implementing tired policies, without considering the factual evidence or the reason for upholding this sanction against me.

I hesitated to follow through with an appeal on the mutual no-contact order, because the already long process would again be extended. I was closing in on an ongoing year of this case. I couldn’t remember the last time I had consistently slept throughout the night. I also wasn’t too optimistic that my appeal would work. Ultimately, I did appeal the sanctioning, and this ended up being the least painful part of the entire process.

Katie from Equal Rights Advocates, who ended up being a huge support for me throughout my Title IX case, put together an amazing appeal letter that hit every legal point. The university decided to overturn the no-contact order against me while maintaining the Respondent’s indefinite dismissal from the university-wide system.

Hooray, right? What I’ve had to learn the hard way is that the conclusion of my Title IX case did not bring me the closure I was desperately seeking. It was a finish line that I had been eyeing since the process started. I naively thought if I just made it to the date of the hearing, it would all be over and poof, I’d never think about it again. Legally, the absolute best-case scenario happened for me, even though I had been preparing for the worst. But still I felt no sense of victory. I might have won my safety and peace of mind on campus, and I am so incredibly grateful for that, but I personally did not win. I did not get an overwhelming sense of joy and suddenly start looking at the world through new eyes. In fact, the opposite happened, because at the end of the day, I lost a part of me that I’ll never get back, and I miss her — a lot. Unfortunately, a tangible or quantifiable retribution won’t bring her back, erase the memories, or make what happened to me okay.

But I know what has helped me: admitting that I wasn’t okay. Admitting that I needed help. And, most importantly, admitting that it wasn’t my fault.

I hope someday this will be a distant memory that I’ll think of only once a year on the anniversary. But I can say this: Today, when I think about it, that internal weight that I carry doesn’t feel quite as heavy as it once did. I know I have a long way to go, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come. Even though I’ll never get back the girl I used to be, I think I could learn to love the one I’m becoming; she’s definitely better off having fought for the safety and justice she deserves.

I didn’t have control in this situation, but I do have control in how I choose to respond to it and how I move forward. If there’s one piece of advice I can offer other survivors, it’s to try not to let something like this define you, because you are so much more than any of your scars, seen or unseen.

Learn more about Equal Rights Advocates’ free legal services available to student survivors of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender-based discrimination.

Equal Rights Advocates is a 501(c)3 national nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls.

We are civil rights champions, fighting since 1974 to expand and protect the opportunities of all women and girls.

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