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Melissa Bruen, campus safety, and fighting back

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

Trigger warning: This post quotes extensively from a story by Melissa Bruen in the University of Connecticut Daily Campus, in which she gives a first-hand account of her sexual assault, and briefly from a number of disgusting victim-blaming comments made in response to her story.

Here’s a story that both inspires and infuriates me. It inspires me because of Melissa Bruen’s courage. It infuriates me because of what happened to her. And what happened to her again after she fought back. And what happened to her again after she wrote about what had happened to her and how she fought back. This is what happened to Melissa Bruen as she tried to get home on the Hunting Lodge Road Trail.

Students are always told not to walk alone, especially at night, and that it is safer to travel in groups. This is a lesson I will not forget. I have always felt safe walking alone around UConn at night. Having worked for The Daily Campus for four years made this a necessity. So Friday with so many people, and police, around, I didn’t think twice about heading back to campus alone from Celeron.

I called a friend at around 1 a.m. and asked her to pick me up at the end of the path by Northwest. I had three beers and two screwdrivers. It was while I was on the phone, sitting on the ground with my back against a telephone pole in order to hear her, that I was picked up by my shoulders, pinned up against the pole and dry humped by a stranger. At first I thought it was one of my friends’ attempt at humor, until I heard the man moaning.

I hung up the phone, and shoved the man off me. I am 5’5″. He was around 5’11”.

My, aren’t we feisty tonight, he said.

I was assaulted when I was very young – I wasn’t about to let it happen again. When he came toward me, I grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him down to the ground. I held onto his shoulders and climbed on top to straddle him. He started thrashing side to side, but I was able to hit him with a closed fist, full force, in the face.

A small crowd had gathered, mostly men. Now they seemed shocked. I was supposed to have been a victim, and I was breaking out of the mold. I hit him in the stomach, while clenching my legs around him to prevent another man from pushing me off. In all, it took three men to pull me off my assailant.

He got up and ran off, yelling at me, as if I were the would-be rapist.

You just assaulted me, I yelled in my own defense — first to him and then, to anyone who would listen, He just assaulted me.

Since the police were shutting down the parties at Celeron, there were thousands of people on the path.

Another man, around 6’1″, approached me and said, You think that was assault? and he pulled down my tube top, and grabbed my breasts. More men started to cheer. It didn’t matter to the drunken mob that my breasts were being shown or fondled against my will. They were happy to see a topless girl all the same. I punched him in the face, and someone shoved me into a throng of others. I was surrounded, but I kept swinging and hitting until I was able to break free of the circle they had formed.

I started running barefoot toward Celeron, but ended up throwing myself on the ground, crying and screaming hysterically. I saw a friend in the crowd, and all I could do was scream his name over and over. I could see the ambulance and police checkpoint in the distance.

. . .

When I went to UConn Police Saturday, I learned that at least one other woman was jumped by two men on the Celeron Path that night. I can’t help asking myself what would have happened if I hadn’t fought back.

I was raised to fight back, so I made sure to get a few good swings in. My bruises will fade, and I will move on. But if you ever see someone being assaulted, do the right thing.

— Melissa Bruen, The Daily Campus (2008-05-02): My Spring Weekend Nightmare

Here is what happened when she published this story in her campus newspaper.

At this writing, Melissa Bruen's article on the sexual assault she suffered during the U Conn Spring Weekend has received close to fifty comments on the Daily Campus website. (Free registration required.)

Of those comments, more than a dozen are flames. Some are critical of Bruen's journalistic integrity. Others suggest that she invented the story of the assault. Several commenters insult Bruen's appearance, or the clothes she wore in the photograph that accompanied the article.

It should be stressed that Bruen is characterized in third-party reporting as having been bruised in the attack. She describes the attack as having taken place in front of a large number of witnesses, and herself as having run from her attackers barefoot and screaming. She reported the assault to campus police while she was still on the scene.

And yet she is accused by commenters of having made up the incident as a cry for fame. Her account is described as having troubling loose ends. One commenter who appears to believe her story refers to the assaults as minor shenanigans.

And then there are the insults. One commenter calls her a fat ho, another a stupid BITCH. The shirt she wears in the photograph is described as being in very poor taste, and her facial expression as rediculous (sic).

Most of the comments to the article are supportive, and many challenge the critics with cogent arguments. But the fact that Bruen was attacked so harshly serves as a reminder of the abuse that women who speak publicly about sexual violence face, and underscores Bruen's courage in coming forward.

— studentactivism.net (2008-05-05): U Conn Editor Attacked for Writing Assault Story

Melissa Bruen was assaulted by a man and she fought the hell back. For daring to fighting back she was assaulted again while she was surrounded by a cheering mob of men. She fought back again and escaped and wrote about it. For writing about it she was smeared, slandered and insulted, over her actions, her dress, her honesty, and her physical appearance. I doubt that any one person involved in any of these events had any particular plans for, or cared about, or had ever thought about, supporting or reinforcing or expressing some big social order in the relationships between men and women. But those of you who have any questions about the Myrmidon theory — the view that men who commit random violence against women unintentionally serve as shock troops for the undesigned, but very real and powerful and coercive, social order of patriarchy — ought to think about it in light of an event like this. What this kind of male physical attack, and this kind of victim-blaming response to her report on the attack, does to a woman’s perceived freedom of action when it is done to her, or when she sees it happening to another woman. What kind of function the mold Melissa Bruen broke out of when she fought back serves. And how countless acts like this, repeated over and over on every campus, in every town, shape the social and personal space within which women and men move, at a time when they are first settling on what kind of adults they will be and what kind of lives they will lead.

(Via Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?! 2008-05-07, via feministe 2008-05-11.)

See also:

17 replies to Melissa Bruen, campus safety, and fighting back Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Natasha

    Shocking story, Charles. And thank you for providing such a strong feminist voice in the left-libertarian blogosphere.

    What really irks me is that I know there’s somebody out there saying this woman needed to “lighten up” and let these men have their fun.

    That’s patriarchy for you though.

  2. Belinsky

    Quite shocking. It’s hard to imagine a group of men standing by not just apathetically but actually cheering on the assailant. Just goes to show you how deep patriarchy runs.

  3. Discussed at girlythoughts.wordpress.com

    Self defense and victim-blaming « Girly Thoughts:

    […] @ 10:51 pm I first saw the Melissa Bruen story on Feministing, but Rad Geek just put up a good post about it and I decided to mention it in light of victim-blaming.  Both these sources already did […]

  4. Aster

    “Quite shocking. It’s hard to imagine a group of men standing by not just apathetically but actually cheering on the assailant. Just goes to show you how deep patriarchy runs.”

    Is it?

    When I was in elementary school (in Fairfax County, Virginia), a fairly common form of playground entertainment was for the boys to form a big circle and collectively taunt, jeer, and physically assault the more unpopular individuals. This was done as a cultural test of masculinity, with the most hypermasculine boys threatening social exclusion to anyone who didn’t participate in the abuse. In other words, bring food or be food yourself.

    This is, of course, training for gang-rape and gay bashing (and war and masculine competition for dominance, which I think was more directly the causal issue).

    I don’t find this scene difficult to imagine. I think people (patriarchal men and many ‘good’ women) just pretend that such things don’t exist, or ‘background’ them, or take them for granted with a shrug that nothing can be done. If there’s ignorance, it’s often the kind of privileged, deliberate ignorance which really doesn’t want to know.

  5. Jeremy

    So, what do we do? Obviously, this is not a matter of “awareness”: people understand what is going on, they just refuse to see it as wrong. It reminds me of Derrick Jensen’s view of hierarchy: violence from those above to those below is invisible, while violence from those below to those above is unthinkable. We live by these patterns and dutifully ignore the ugly side.

    I think what Melissa did was the best thing she could possibly do, and she did more to further the cause of dignity than anybody could have done: start hitting back. She didn’t need to be supported emotionally; she needed to be supported tactically. I don’t advocate violence, but it’s better than just taking it (incidentally, Ghandi said the same thing, more or less – it’s better to act with violence than to use non-violence as an excuse for submission).

    We can’t possibly change a world based on violence until we’re willing – at least willing – to throw a few punches.

  6. Rad Geek

    So, what do we do?

    Don’t ask me. Find a local anti-rape group (there’s one within reach of any town in the United States: rape crisis centers, women’s resource centers, radical feminist groups, etc.) and ask them what they are doing, and what they need help with. I guarantee that they will have something you can do — volunteer, help staff a table, help hang flyers, participate in a male peer education group, if nothing else give money to their ongoing operations, etc. etc. etc.

    I agree with you that bystanders, especially men, ought to be encouraged to give what you call tactical support to women who are being threatened with sexual aggression. That’s one of the things that male peer education groups stress. (They usually use skits to start discussions that focus on three things: first, understanding sexual consent in your own actions; second, the connection between misogynist humor, locker-room talk, etc. and rape myths; third, intervening with other men. Although in the last case the emphasis is usually on standing in the middle rather than throwing punches. But that would have been enough to aid Melissa Bruen in getting away, to return to the example.)

    As for emotional support, I wouldn’t knock it if I were you. Obviously emotional support for survivors is not all that’s needed, but it is something that’s needed. (Melissa, for example, reported that she had trouble sleeping and that she feels emotionally and physically exhausted. As anyone would in her position. I hope that she has friends who are helping her through this.) Compassion and solidarity include a lot more than the sort of stuff we tend to call emotional support in this atomizing, psychotherapeutic culture that we live in, and it’s vital not to forget that, but given the real, immediate needs of real people who are hurting from something like this, it’s vital not to focus so much on the more that you forget or marginalize the basic stuff, either.

  7. Jeremy

    To be honest, I’m not sure activist institutions – anti-rape groups – know what they’re doing, either. Just because they have an answer – hell, just because they’re women, or even rape victims – doesn’t mean they necessarily have the right answer, or even a right answer.

    I don’t think that just because you call your group anti-rape, you necessarily have a good plan or that doing what group leaders say actually helps. In fact, I think a lot of the activist left demonstrably has no idea what the fuck they’re doing (skits? And we’re supposed to take their agenda seriously?). Is it wrong to think that maybe I can help in my capacity as an individual, and not as another servo mechanism of another institution that is only interested in anti-rape activism as a means to perpetuating itself?

    (I realize that’s a very general charge, and it’s more rhetorical than literal. I also don’t mean to be needlessly argumentative. It’s just that I appreciate the freshness you’re bringing to this issue and I wonder if, while we’re questioning some premises of our society, whether we can’t question others, just for good measure.)

    Compassion and solidarity include a lot more than the sort of stuff we tend to call emotional support in this atomizing, psychotherapeutic culture that we live in, and it’s vital not to forget that, but given the real, immediate needs of real people who are hurting from something like this, it’s vital not to focus so much on the more that you forget or marginalize the basic stuff, either.

    That’s true. I didn’t mean to downplay the emotional support side, but… at a certain point, action needs to be taken or we’re just licking each others’ wounds. Too often, that’s what I see these activists groups doing: convincing women to adopt the victim mentality, and then assault the world with their list of grievances. The pattern is well understood.

    There is genuine hurt, obviously. It needs to be tended, and people who tend it are offering help. But there’s a reason the healing is needed: because we can’t effectively fight when we’re hurt. If the goal is just to make victims into whole people again who can live in the current system, aren’t we just perpetuating the established dynamics?

    The problem with these activist institutions is that they cannot sustain themselves without a steady supply of victim customers. That’s why their fundraising letters spend pages telling me how much I need them. They don’t want me to be able to fight on my own, not really, because like you suggested at the beginning of your response, they are the ones with answers – regardless of the track record of their activities.

    If I sound fed up with the activist left, it’s because I am. This society will not undergo a voluntary change to abolish hierarchy and systemic violence. It is on that premise that all of the interest groups are based, and it’s a false premise. It’s a premise that keeps them in business; still false, though, if what we care about are actual changes in people’s lives.

  8. quasibill

    While not wanting to downplay the obvious gender issues involved in the case, I want to point out that the activities of the relatively anonymous bystanders is more indicative of a growing culture of “thuggishness” among young males than it is of patriarchy per se. For example, the first thing I thought about while reading this was the recent Youtube/Penn State assault case, where a crowd of Penn State fans jeers a fan from a visiting team, ultimately with beer bottles, etc. being thrown violently at the “foreigners” (all publicized via Youtube video), all while the surrounding crowd cheers and continue to taunt.

    Large, rowdy, inebriated groups of young men (and women!) have justifiably received scorn as mobs that operate according to groupthink in the past. The problem is that currently, we encourage such mobs as a matter of policy these days. Heck, one the most potent symbols of such mobs was the “Izod mafia” that shut down the recount in Florida in 2000. I think this process is a pre-cursor or perhaps a stand-in for the 2 minute hate.

  9. Rad Geek


    I largely agree with you. But I would like to add that (1) the fact that in this case the violence (and the cheering of the mob) was specifically sexualized has something very specifically to do with patriarchy; and (2) the fact that, in the other cases of not-particularly-sexualized mob thuggishness, the violence and the cheering-on are mainly practiced by young males also has a not-exactly-accidental connection with patriarchy.

    I certainly agree that mob thuggishness is a very digusting, dangerous, and common phenomenon whenever any socially vulnerable person or group is being attacked. Patriarchy is what structured the vulnerability and the form of the attack in this case, but in other cases other people may be made vulnerable by different social dynamics and may be attacked in different ways.

  10. A Man

    One problem with the article when you refer to “man” and “men” these are not “men.” A lot of words come to mind but “Men” is not one them. In fact they are a long way from being anything close to what one would call a man.

    A sad product of this society.

  11. Joan Boost

    I don’t like any of this – not violence, not sexual abuse – but I’m also not always sure what really happened. I. Obviously, there ws a man approaching Melissa, holding her (that is harrassment, maybe assault of a minor kind, not unusualin an alcohl environment). II. Melissa was stronger than him and subdued him on the ground – without having been sexually assaulted III. She hit the man repeatedly – so she was violent, in a way he had not been. IV. Obviously, the group that stood around the, did not believe He was the attacker – clearly, Melissa was the violent one in their view. I guess, they were quite drunk, amused – and then: V. Here begins the real trouble. If it is true what she reported (and bruises would confirm that, as the original “attacker” had obviously not caused any) – that is, indeed, sexual assault – and indicates a culture of alcohol abuse rather than sexual abuse. Conclusion: The “original attacker” only committed a mild but not unusual misbehaviour- which Melissa GROSSLY OVERINTERPRETED and used as EXCUSE FOR HER OUTBURST OF VIOLENCE. She could have pushed him and gone away. Instead, she attacked him in misguided feminist revenge. It ws this situation of violence which incited a drunken mob to join in. I do not give that mob any excuse – but the whole problem was avoidable – just by walking away after the first encounter. Feeling that one MUST BE STRONG can render a person weak and lead to unnecessary consequences. Melissa has too much of an everywher at all times VICTIM IDEOLOGY in her mind. That’s why she turned violent. But also what invited the mob. Dr. Joan Boost

  12. Laura J.

    Joan Boost,

    I don’t see anything particularly ambiguous about her account that the man was forcibly restraining her and dry humping her, which I would interpret as constituting sexual assault whether or not he ended up bruising her in any way. Unless someone else has given an account of the event that contradicts her statements, I see no reason to assume that she was blowing the event out of proportion and should not legitimately have been concerned about her own safety around a man that was sufficiently out of his senses as to physically haul her up against him and start making sexual motions against her body.

  13. Laura J.

    I should add to my previous comment that she wouldn’t necessarily have had any certainty of getting away without subduing her attacker first. It may well have been the case that he might’ve been too drunk to chase after her effectively, but it could just as easily have been that he could’ve done much worse to her if she didn’t take him down while she had the advantage.

  14. Rad Geek

    Well, yeah, Laura, but, see, she’s a rape survivor. Which means that her suffering and attacks on her body and the threat of an attack which she headed off by defending herself against someone forcefully invading her space, all matter far, far less than exploiting her as an opportunity to dismiss one assault, directly blame her for the second assault, and then talk some shit about feminists and anti-rape activists and quickly change the subject to booze.

    I mean, hell, she’s just one woman. No reason to show common decency or humanity, let alone — ha, ha — compassion or solidarity.

  15. Stella Omega

    Googling “dr joan boost” may be illuminating.

  16. Laura J.

    Stella Omega,

    That does indeed clarify what sort of paradigm Dr. Joan Boost is operating within.

· June 2008 ·

  1. James Landrith

    As a rape survivor (17 years) as well as a secondary survivor (15 years), I applaud Melissa for fighting back hard and then publicizing the attacks.

    Dr. Boost should be ashamed for participating in victim blaming.

    I am thoroughly disgusted…

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