The subject of this installment in the “Unmascing” series prefers to remain anonymous. Let’s call her Juniper Hill.
Content Warning: sexual assault.
Juniper’s current relationship started out like a lot of others at liberal arts schools. But she had a wrench thrown in when she discovered her boyfriend had sexually assaulted another person on campus. Juniper found herself faced not only with a reevaluation of her own position, but with the larger question of how we all, as college students, deal with members of our communities who commit sexual and interpersonal violence. Do we remove them for our safety, or do we begin the difficult and dicey process of bringing them back in? As someone who loves a perpetrator working to change, Juniper is living that process of reconciliation. This interview reflects her thoughts on the negotiation.
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After this interview was first published, we saw its glaring absences. This addendum is intended to acknowledge what the editors and interview subject went in knowing, but trusted readers to assume. Juniper created a picture of what happened at the meeting-point of her life and her partner’s, and it was a perspective we had not yet encountered. Juniper’s experiences and those of her boyfriend are just one permutation of the fallout from a heinous sexual assault. It should be noted that we did not speak with the survivor in this case. Juniper’s interview arose in part from this question: when institutions do not hold people accountable, what can we do?
Juniper spoke candidly with Boilerplate about the complexities in the aftermath of her partner’s offense and the way she found it seeping into her own life. Her interview exists in the context of a primary consideration for her: she believes that the first person to catalyze self-work should be the perpetrator, and never the survivor. Her words are part of a larger conversation that wonders if those of us who are able—who hold the power, privileges, and personal decisions to prepare us—might work to shape a more just community after sexual assault.
Juniper’s experience reflects what can happen when, systemically, there is nothing in place to remove a perpetrator from the circle of people they have harmed. Members of our community—Vassar students—inevitably step up when the perpetrator does not, and when the system fails to provide an answer. We hope that readers examine Juniper’s perspective with the intention of working towards a collective protocol, one that makes us feel as supported as we can. There is always more to say in this conversation. Many voices and identities remain unrepresented and unheard. This article is only an addition, and a narrow one, to the daunting task of talking about what happens next in building both a better college and a wider consensus against rape culture.
— The Editors
December 31, 2017
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Saskia Globig: I’m thinking you can introduce yourself with whatever information you want people to know.
Juniper Hill: Okay. Hi. I’m a Junior at Vassar. I use she/her/hers. And… that’s all you need.
SG: Great. So just to enter into this, if you want, can you describe your current relationship? Maybe how you met your boyfriend, maybe how long you’ve been together… what’s the situation?
JH: Yeah. Okay, so, I met my boyfriend two years ago, through a mutual friend, and we were hooking up for a while, he was kind of a fuck-boy, and… are we gonna get into real shit later, or should I start doing real shit now?
SG: You can do whatever.
JH: Okay. Well, basically, it was a very complicated beginning because he sexually assaulted someone, and I didn’t know about it and I heard it from someone else, and I stopped talking to him, and it was a big thing.
SG: You stopped talking to him?
JH: Yeah, for like a month. And then, we met up again and I talked to him about it. It was a really emotional few weeks, and we talked a lot about it, and I talked to a friend of the girl it happened to a lot about it, and basically felt kind of isolated by the girls in the situation, who were all basically saying if I didn’t cut off all ties with him, then I was like, a bad person. And I felt like it was a lot more nuanced than that. I’ve been sexually assaulted, and that experience has informed so much of my current worldview, but it still doesn’t feel right to see situations in black-and-white. So I kept talking to him. And then we were apart for the summer, and when we got back to school, we spent a lot of time together, started officially dating like a year ago, and now we’re still together—which is crazy!
SG: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about your interactions with the survivor’s friends, but sort of what that says about the culture at Vassar, that these girls were able to be so confident in their opinions and adamant about this thing that you had to do.
JH: I’ve thought a lot about that. So I guess first of all, I feel like at Vassar there’s a kind of… well, honestly nationally, especially with everything that’s happening right now, there’s a kind of “either/or” culture [around sexual assault perpetrators], where either you are completely isolated and have to step down from positions or lose all your contacts; or you’re totally accepted and no one says anything if you deny everything. A good example at Vassar is, there are a lot of rapists on sports teams who get caught; some shit goes down, and then they’re back to normal on the sports teams, whereas anybody else just has to step down from everything, loses all friends—is totally isolated.
There’s also a really big call-out culture at Vassar, where you post on Facebook about people—which is really good, I think, the big motivation to tell women who to be afraid of—but that also backfires, because then it just isolates men further.
I think part of the most important thing about male-entitlement is that men should be able to grow, and learn, and unlearn their toxicity. And I think if women just push them aside, they can’t do that.
So for me it just felt like if I stopped talking to him, he was just gonna be as angry as ever, and only talk to people who didn’t care that he had done that. And if all his friends stopped talking to him, he would only have friends who didn’t care, which is probably pretty shitty. So it just felt crazy to me that people at Vassar, who are all prison abolitionists and all incarceration isn’t the answer, are super down to just isolate [perpetrators] without any rehabilitation of abusers.
Of course the safety of survivors absolutely needs to come first, but I think that there can be a separate space for men to grow that doesn’t interfere with the healing of the survivor.
SG: So do you think that his male friends… were they not there for him, to do that work?
JH: They were at first, I think, and then slowly, it just felt… I think socially, it was just so black-and-white that a lot of them would see him kind of in secret, or they wouldn’t hang out with him in groups but they would go visit him sometimes, and then that slowly just kind of faded away. And it left him with only one male friend, who’s super shitty… I really don’t like him. And all the other ones who would’ve held him accountable just wouldn’t talk to him.
SG: And that’s sad.
SG: Have you ever thought about talking to those friends and saying, “You need to step up”?
JH: Yeah. I still kind of want to…. I think a big problem is it’s so shameful, there’s so much shame and stigma surrounding it, that it’s really hard to talk about it in any context, and so he was just unable to talk about it at all… But then as he talked about it with me more, he realized he could do that, so he talked about it with some people, and often was just met with, “Yeah, I wanna be there for you but it would hurt the woman [he assaulted]. And so, I’m not going to, because that’s not what she wants.” But [a lot of people also said,] “I wish that this isn’t how it had happened. I wish he hadn’t been totally isolated.”
SG: How do you feel about it now? Do you think that he’s changed at all?
JH: Um… yes and no. I think about it a lot now. I think that he’s changed an incredible amount in a lot of ways, and is way more likely to… I don’t know, if someone’s being misogynistic, he’ll point it out before I even notice it, and he’s super consent-y, and just tries really hard. But I also think that he feels frustrated that all of his work has kind of not accomplished anything.
SG: Literally? Or in the way people see him?
JH: In the way that people see him. So I think he thinks, “I’ve done all this work, and I know I’m a better person for it, and I know that you trust me to be. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that I have more male friends, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel super anxious about being here.”
SG: And other women still don’t trust him?
JH: Yeah. I don’t know which women, but I’m sure a lot don’t. He hasn’t spoken to the people closely involved, about it, and I think just feels frustrated that he’s, like, gone. I kind of feel that. I wish I could tell people, “Look, he’s done this work, I promise.” But at the same time, I get that that’s not what they need. And I think that no matter what, he has to take the fall. It’s okay.
SG: He did it.
JH: Yeah. And he, in a way, deserves… I don’t think it was handled in a way that was productive for him, but at the same time I don’t think that… Whatever happened after did happen, and that’s just how it is.
SG: Do you feel like you’re making some kind of statement by being with him? Just even accidentally, almost?
JH: Not really. In a way, yeah. I think the longer I’ve been with him, the more I’ve… it’s forced me to think about it in other ways, which I think is really good for me. And I think I’m now… really confident in how I feel about it, and I’m very sure. For a long time, I was thinking, “Am I doing something wrong?” And I feel like now, I really don’t think I am. But I also don’t like to justify it a lot. So I hesitate to make a statement because I don’t wanna have to explain to people why I think I’m doing the right thing. Because I feel like there’s a really clear line between being like, “Someone who did something wrong, and I recognize that and I’m not making excuses for that, but he’s changed,” versus “Oh, yeah, you win some, you lose some, he’s an abuser but I don’t care because I love him.” I don’t want it to come across like that. That’s not what that is, but some people might perceive it like that.
SG: Do you have any other thoughts about the discourse on campus?
JH: I just wish people on campus thought about the step after. There’s a big difference between revenge and justice. On college campuses, everybody’s learning about feminism, learning about male entitlement, and I think it’s really easy to get riled up about things and see the world in a very black-and-white type of way, like “this is wrong, this is right.” But I think it’s important to realize that emotions have a big role in it, and people should get their anger out, and men should feel shitty for doing bad things.
But at the same time, if there’s gonna be a cultural change, or generational change, with these boys raising better people when they’re parents, I think that there needs to be a more productive conversation. There’s the restorative justice model on a lot of campuses, and I don’t know if that would work here, but if there’s some way to find a middle ground so that if you’re a rapist, you’re not isolated and talking to people who don’t care, but you have productive conversations about how to be better, about how to hold your friends accountable…
I think there needs to be a stronger form of accountability that isn’t just shutting you off from people.
But that’s hard to implement. I think that only some people can do the work. I know that a lot of the people my boyfriend was close to were too triggered to do that work– as is the case in a lot of situations. Survivors should never be asked to do this work, and growth should never jeopardize the safety of survivors. But on the other hand, I was able to integrate my own experience with assault into my dialogue with him, which made it possible for me to look towards growth.
SG: Right. But I feel like it doesn’t really work when the people doing the work are the institution, whether it’s the administration, or education workshops, or trainings. It has to come out of the people it affects, I feel, but that’s why it’s so hard.
JH: I think you’re super right. And that’s an example of when it can come out of their male friends. Maybe time has to pass before they’re capable, but now, I don’t see why those friends couldn’t just step up for him. I also have noticed a huge difference in how he is when he has a lot of good friends. Last semester, it wasn’t terrible, but we got in a lot of fights, I felt really unappreciated and bad. I wasn’t really sure about him. And then this summer, he had a bunch of friends, and one really close friend who he was living really near, and it felt like he was a whole different person, how nice he was, and how respectful and sweet. And I think I don’t really realize it because I’m always surrounded by friends, but when you don’t talk to someone your own age, besides one person, for weeks at a time, you go really crazy.
SG: And everything you feel gets vented into that one person.
JH: Exactly. And that’s not fair to me, and also not fair to him to have to be so lonely.
SG: How is it now that he’s kind of away? How are you dealing with that?
JH: I think it’s been really good to have time on campus without him, to figure out what’s going on. And I also think having distance is really important to make sure that I’m doing things for the right reasons. It’s also inspired a really big intellectual interest in it for me. I might write my thesis about something to do with some of this. It’s just super interesting to me, and I think something that people should think about a lot more besides just scratching the surface.