‘I Was Assaulted At University – And I Thought It Was My Fault’

As part of our #BREAKFREE from shame week, Elizabeth Renfrey opens up about experiencing sexual assault at university, and how she came to realise it wasn't her fault...

‘I’ve always had a happy go lucky attitude towards pulling on a night out. Back at university I would dress up in my most fabulous going out clothes, blow dry my hair and put on a slick of Mac Brave as if it was a game, dancing round my room listening to Blondie’s ‘I’m Gonna Get You’ as I prepared for a night out on the town. I’d walk into the club with my friends and then we’d split and head to the bar, meeting up in the toilets later to giggle about which sports exec bought us a round of jaegerbombs. Sometimes I’d end up kissing the rugby president in the corner of the dance floor, other times I wouldn’t, all that mattered was that I had a good night.

On the night of the Student Union’s school disco party, I went about getting ready like any other night. I danced in the SU to cheesy early noughties tunes and drank far too much Lambrini. Towards the end of the night I was a teary drunk, the kind of tears that come from your best friend being kicked out the SU and the guy you fancy never turning up. Worse for wear, I waited outside the SU for someone to walk back with. There were 300 people in my hall block, so when another student mentioned I was walking back the same way I followed, assuming that the reason I didn’t recognise his face was because he lived in one of the further away flats.

It was a short walk back to my block and I’m not quite sure at which point I realised something was wrong. If it was when he put his arm on my back, or when he laughed when I said I felt sick. All I know is that I ended being lead off the path back to my block and pushed against the wall of the laundry room. I was wearing my favourite leather skirt, one with a zip all the way down the front and I cried as he ripped it open and tried to put his hands in my knickers. Drunk as I was, my faithful spiked Jeffrey Campbell shoes came to my rescue, as a sharp kick and my escalating sobs caused a group of passers by to chase him off. The rest of the night is a blur, a whirlwind of friends coming to sit in my room as I rocked back and forth with the light on until early in the morning when my mum drove up to university to console me.

That night was petrifying enough, with the thought that a stranger so easily took advantage of me as I walked back from a night out. But what’s scarier about that night is the shame I felt for weeks afterwards. It was overwhelming. The shame of not recalling the face of my attacker. The shame that I can’t remember how I ended up against the wall of the laundry room. The shame that I was drunk enough to get into the situation in the first place. I honestly felt that I was to blame.

It took a long time for me to get over what had happened, and even longer for me to have the say to myself that it wasn’t my fault. Counselling, antidepressants and great friends assured me helped me to break free from the shame. I know now that rape isn’t the fault of the victim, that alcohol and a short skirt didn’t equal an invitation to touch me. I know that a yes is a yes and anything else is a no. If I’d been wearing a tracksuit, or lingerie, if I’d been stone cold sober or unable to walk in a straight line, I wouldn’t be anymore at fault one way or another. Sexual assault is the fault of the attacker and I know that neither I nor anyone else who has been assaulted needs feel guilty about their attack.

We need to stop being ashamed, because that’s what the assaulters want: To suppress us. I’m proud that I can now look back and feel no guilt, only anger at what happened to me, and I encourage everyone else who has been in similar situation to hold their head high and #BreakFree from the shame.’

Find out more about Marie Claire’s #BREAKFREE campaign here.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter here.

Reading now

Popular Life stories