For my senior project, I started The Clapback: An Investigation of the Sexual Assault and Rape Climate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I came up with the idea for this project in spring quarter of my third year, which is when I submitted my research proposal to the Institutional Review Board. I received approval to begin the study in ​September 2018. Since September, I have interviewed 61 survivors of sexual violence who are Cal Poly students or alumni. The interview questions I asked are: 1) Can you describe the incident(s) of sexual violence that you went through? 2) How do/did you navigate Cal Poly culture as a survivor? 3) How does the experience of sexual violence impact your daily life? 4) Where do/did you find support and healing? 5) Do you have any closing thoughts? I recorded survivors’ responses and transcribed them word for word. Part of the methodology of this study was allowing survivors to edit and review the transcriptions prior to publication in order to provide them maximum agency over how their experiences get presented in this study. 

In asking participants these questions, I have heard disheartening responses detailing the judgment, fear of coming forward, violation, trauma, and injustice that survivors confront on a regular basis. I named this project The Clapback because I want these survivors’ voices to be a slap in the face to anyone who has brushed us under the rug or invalidated our experiences. The symbol for The Clapback is the red handprint. In 1995, Safer started the Red Hands Project in which they painted red handprints on areas of campus where sexual assaults had taken place. By 2005, 23 red handprints covered sidewalks mainly near residence halls. Parents who toured the campus with prospective students noticed the prevalence of these handprints, asked about the significance behind them, and expressed fears of their children not being safe while attending this university. In response to growing concern from parents and prospective students, administration painted over these red handprints in 2005. The moment administration decided to remove these red hands, they simultaneously decided to invalidate these 23 survivors’ experiences. I utilized the red handprint as the symbol for The Clapback to honor those 23 survivors who were silenced by Cal Poly’s administration. I created The Clapback to foster a space in which survivors can come forward, speak to another survivor (myself), and feel validation and support in sharing their experiences. I will do everything in my power to make sure that these 61 survivors who came forward to participate in this investigation are not silenced by this university. I refuse to back down in standing up for my rights and the rights of other survivors. The Clapback, along with these 61 survivors’ stories, are here to stay.

I was inspired to start this project because I am a survivor of rape. I was raped during my second year at Cal Poly. I met my perpetrator (I will refer to him as X when necessary) through a mutual friend and developed a casual relationship with him. We hung out for about three months prior to the incident. One night, he texted me asking if I would come over while I was at a party. I told him I would head over whenever I was ready to leave. I showed up at his apartment and he welcomed me inside. We were both intoxicated. He sat down on the couch and motioned for me to sit next to him. When I sat down, his hand kept creeping onto my leg. He repeatedly mentioned how cold I was. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll warm you up.” We went up to his bedroom and I agreed to have sex with him. I did not enjoy the type of sex he wanted to have because it was rough and painful, but I stayed silent. After he finished, he went to the bathroom and I got up from the bed. I immediately panicked as I noticed a circle of blood on the sheets where I had been laying. I realized that the sex was way too rough for me. I tucked the bloody part of the sheet into the wall in the hopes that he would not notice. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for not standing up for myself when I was in pain during the intercourse. But mostly, I felt scared that he would be angry with me for getting blood on his sheet. My fear of him that night should have been a red flag, but I tried to play it off like everything was fine. I went downstairs and found him talking to his roommate. We all decided to walk to 7-11 to get snacks. We returned to their apartment and his roommate put on a movie for all of us to watch, but his roommate ended up going to bed. My perpetrator came over to the couch I was laying on and started kissing me. He asked me if I would go up to his room again and I agreed, but I did not want to have sex again because I feared bleeding more on his sheets.

The moment we got inside his bedroom, the mood changed. I noticed him lock the door. I wondered why he would do that since the person he shared the room with was out for the night. He turned his music up to an abnormally high volume. I started to fear that no one would hear me if I needed help. He ordered me to take all of my clothes off. I laughed out of nervousness. He ordered me again as he put on a condom. It was clear he had an agenda. I was too afraid to argue so I removed everything except my underwear. When he saw I still had my underwear on, he immediately pulled them off. He got onto the bed and penetrated me. As he started thrusting, he asked me if I would get one of my friends to have a threesome with us. I turned his proposition down and said none of my friends would be interested. He thrusted harder. He asked again. I said “no.” He thrusted harder. He asked again. I said, “None of my friends will be down and I am not interested.” He could not have gone any deeper as he continued to propose this unwelcomed question. I was in so much pain I finally lied to him and agreed that I would arrange a threesome in the future. He felt satisfied by that and finished.

He immediately got up to grab another condom. I said “no.” He said, “C’mon, it’s no big deal.” I said, “No, I’m really sore.” He said, “I’ll be gentle. I swear.” I said, “No, I really don’t want to.” He said, “I’ll make you feel good. Don’t worry.” I said, “No, you’re going to tear something.” He said, “No, I’ll go slow.” I kept saying “no,” but he would not stop pressuring me. There’s only so many times I could say “no” before giving up. He put on the condom and penetrated me again. He broke all the promises he made to me. He did not make me “feel good.” He hurt me even more than he already had. He was not “gentle.” He thrusted hard and fast. I turned my head to the side so I did not have to see his face. I wanted it to be over as fast as possible. I cannot remember how long the rape lasted. All I remember was my head bumping against the wall and wondering if I was becoming a victim of sexual assault. That thought repeated over and over, but I pushed it to the back of my mind and tried to think of ways to escape. I wanted to push him off of me, but I feared getting into a physical fight with him and making the rape more violent than it already was. I wanted to get out of the room, but I knew the door was locked and that would delay me. I wanted to yell at him, but nothing would come out. My body and mind disconnected completely. I was frozen. Finally, he finished and I still could not move. I felt paralyzed with shock. I knew I needed to leave, but I could not even get up from the bed. He laid next to me and said, “Since you don’t want to fuck me, I’m not going to do any of that cuddling shit with you.” He left the room and went to the bathroom.

Once he exited the room, I was able to get up. I looked at the sheet and saw more spots of blood. I tucked the stains away again, got dressed, and called an Uber. He walked me downstairs and said, “I’m glad you’re taking an Uber. That’s safer than walking home,” as if he cared about my safety. I walked outside of his apartment and immediately started crying. It was almost four o’clock in the morning when I got back to my apartment. I got inside and completely broke down. I stared at myself in the mirror crying, knowing that something really bad had just happened, but also not wanting to admit that to myself. I did not want to address the fact that the person I had been sleeping with for three months just raped me. That was the hardest realization to come to terms with.

It took me over six months to label what he did to me as rape. When I finally felt strong enough to address the incident, I told one of his roommates, who was my best friend at the time. Over the course of a few months, his responses included: A) “Well I told X what happened and he said you should’ve gone to the police or gotten over it. I agreed with him.” B) “Our other roommate said that since you guys had been having sex for a while, you no longer had the right to turn him down.” C) “If I were to ever be raped, I would try to forgive my rapist.” D) “X needs help with his English homework so he really was screwing over the wrong girl since you’re an English major.” He is no longer my best friend because of the invalidating responses listed above.

These responses are invalidating because A) He should not agree with my perpetrator saying I should have gone to the police or gotten over it. If I had reported the incident, I most likely would have obtained no justice because I was intoxicated that night and had no evidence. Furthermore, do not tell me when I should be over it. It’s been two and a half years and not a day goes by when I do not think about what happened that night. B) Even though my perpetrator and I had a casual relationship for three months prior to the incident, I always should have the right to say “no.” That comment should never have been brought up to me. C) He most likely will never be raped because he is a white, straight, cisgender adult man who comes from a privileged family. Therefore, do not tell me what you would do in the rare, hypothetical situation of you getting raped. You do not know how it feels or how you would react until it happens to you. D) Do not minimize my perpetrator raping me to him “screwing over the wrong girl.” He did not just screw me over. He took my body from me and made me feel as though I could no longer find a home within myself for over a year.

Going into my third year, I knew I needed to get help. I finally told my mother and felt a weight lift off my chest. One of the hardest parts of being a survivor was the pressure of hiding that part of my identity from one of the people who I am closest to. During a conversation we had on the phone, she suspected that a man had violated me and without her suspicion, I do not know how much longer I would have waited to tell her. Once I told her, I sought out therapy and Cal Poly’s counseling services referred me to a group for survivors of sexual violence. The women I met in this group motivated me to start this project. I am fortunate in that my perpetrator goes to Cuesta College, but some of the survivors in group therapy did not have this privilege. Every week, I heard these women detail their fear of running into their perpetrators on campus and the injustices they experienced in reporting to Title IX. I knew I had to take a stand. At the last group therapy session, I announced that I wanted to start this project and welcomed all the women to be a part of it. They all participated and voiced their experiences with sexual violence in The Clapback. Without these women, I would never have found the sense of validation and support that I so desperately needed at that time. They are the reason I was able to rise up as an advocate rather than solely remaining a victim. I thank all of the women mentioned above for the love, guidance, and strength they have given me throughout the process of conducting this investigation.

Even though doing this research could be quite triggering at times, I could not fathom the idea of slowing down or giving up. The 61 survivors who participated in this project are the reason that I keep going. They have shown me what it truly means to be resilient and strong. Being a survivor means we have gone from hell and back to get to where we are today. We survive our bodies being taken from us in ways that we can never truly get back. Yet, we are still here, standing strong, and ready to have our voices heard. Now, it is time for you to listen.