Olivia Benson Believes Me

This anonymous story is an excerpt from We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out, a collection edited by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino that came out April 12. Content warning: This essay includes descriptions of sexual assault. 

I had never heard of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit until freshman year of college, at the University of Maryland. My roommate loved the show, so one night I decided to join her. The first episode we watched focused on college sexual assault, portraying victims who, like us, were students who had just arrived on campus. The story line didn’t just unsettle me—it struck a nerve. I felt intensely connected to the characters, especially Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson. I ended up watching every episode, even though I couldn’t explain why SVU impacted me so profoundly. There was something deep at play. And as I watched, I slowly began to realize the connection.

It had started when I was fifteen, in high school. I had a crush on a boy who presented me with this concept of “friends with benefits.” I took that to mean he liked me, but all he wanted was the benefits. Soon, I started having problems with anxiety.

Then, two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a guy named David gave me a ride home from a party where my crush had just ditched me for some random girl. I had known David for years, and he and my crush were friends. My crowd didn’t drink or smoke, so I was sober. I was under the impression that my “friends with benefits” thing was secret. But David knew and, looking back, it’s easy to tell he knew I was vulnerable because I was upset. He ended up forcing me to do what he wanted, which was to pleasure him.

I don’t even remember exactly how it ended. I remember him laughing. I was in shock. Something felt wrong, but I assumed I was overreacting, and I believed that because we didn’t have intercourse, I wasn’t entitled to my feelings. I told three  people what had happened, and one of them—my best guy friend at the time—responded that he  expected more from me. He said he held me to a higher standard and I had disappointed him. I convinced myself that David’s actions were okay and I needed to get over it.

we believe you book

After the thing happened with David, I turned to boys, telling myself, “I’m gonna use them. I can’t be used because I’m the one calling all the shots.” I was hooking up with a lot of guys—not intercourse, but every thing else. I was convinced that I wasn’t the girl that people wanted to date.

Once I began college, I told myself I wanted a fresh start. But during my second semester, I regressed. I was having a bad week, anxiety-wise, and I turned to what I knew: coping via boys. I texted this kid, Ben, who was in my class and invited myself over to his apartment. I remember asking him how drunk he was and he said, “Four out of ten.” I was maybe tipsy, but I was in control. All of a sudden he started taking my clothes off—we hadn’t even kissed. He pulled me on top of him and started pushing me down. He kept pushing. I resisted. He’s a big guy, muscular. I’m five foot one, 115 pounds.  He forced me to perform oral sex and other acts. I dissociated, leaving my body behind while my mind went elsewhere. I knew what had happened was wrong. I left his room crying, and I hardly ever cry. But, like before, I didn’t deem it an assault. I believed it was my fault: I knew my state of mind that night, but I went to his room anyway. I told my mom. Her response? “You should never go to a guy’s room alone.”

        Read this next: Why Don’t College Students Report Sexual Assault? Because Often Nothing Is Done.
        Read this next: Nine Writers Share Lessons From Law & Order.

I kept watching SVU, and the characters’ struggles reminded me of my experiences. I deeply sympathized with them, yet I felt conflicted. I still didn’t feel entitled to my emotions. However, as I made my way through the series, it became clear that what I had gone through wasn’t okay… and that terrified me. I had never considered that I was assaulted, but every thing made sense. I began to understand how my high school experience had affected me, tainting my understandings and expectations of relationships.

Finally I told my psychiatrist, and she called it rape. When I admitted that to myself, I flipped out. I was a mess. And then I had another incident, and this was the worst of all. Afterward I thought, “What is it with me? This doesn’t happen three times. This is absurd.”

I had flashbacks and anxiety and I went from never drinking to drinking a lot. It was  really rough and that forced me to have compassion for myself: “I can’t keep doing this.”

A month later, there was publicity about a sexual assault case involving some football players. I followed it intensely. Watching that trial, I started to feel. I felt passionate about making a difference. And one day I just decided to call the district attorney’s office and see if they had any internship opportunities. Now I’m a victim witness intern. It’s really cool. I’m trying to raise awareness and to advocate. I can make a difference in people’s lives. My goal is to work on criminal sexual assault cases. I’m still very hard on myself, but definitely on the upswing.

I’ve come so far since my freshman year, when I started binge-watching Law & Order: SVU. It was one specific episode, “True Believers,” that really flipped a switch for me. After a grueling trial and subsequent “not guilty” verdict, a young survivor lashes out at Olivia Benson. As the girl turns to leave, Benson grabs her shoulders, looks her in the eye, and exclaims, “Sending him to prison isn’t gonna heal you. Healing begins when someone bears witness. I saw you. I believe you.”

When I watched this scene, I broke down. In one line, Olivia Benson shattered the self-blame and uncertainty I had endured for years. In that moment, I could finally show myself compassion. It was like Olivia Benson was speaking directly to me, and for the first time I didn’t feel alone.

Olivia Benson is much more than a TV character—she’s a support system and role model. I can count on her.

        Read this next: Why Don’t College Students Report Sexual Assault? Because Often Nothing Is Done.
        Read this next: Nine Writers Share Lessons From Law & Order.

Excerpted from We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino. All rights reserved.

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