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Melissa Bruen, campus safety, and fighting back

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.)

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