In Search of a Survivor Identity: The Importance of Space

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Trigger Warning: This article deals with issues of sexual abuse. 

I spent one night last weekend off campus, a night that I was really looking forward to because I was so excited to get out of the bubble. My friend and I went off to a club. I stood next to the bouncer on purpose, even though he seemed more interested in socializing than in watching over the patrons. Men kept grabbing us, we’d say no and they’d curse at us for not doing what they wanted us to do, and after 40 minutes I was so sick of this that when a guy came over for the 8th time to harass my friend, I got in his face, told him to go away, and pushed him lightly away. He pushed me back, and started cursing at me … and the bouncer was right there. I told the manager and he offered to pay me back, but does paying someone back really count as a remittance? There is no price on our bodies.

But this is not just another story about how rape culture permeates everyone’s life. This is a story about space invasion, and feeling like you have no control.

Everyone needs their personal space. But for a survivor, this need for space is a little more complex.

This experience out of the bubble reminded me of invasions of personal space that I have felt here. When you are assaulted or abused, someone is intentionally coming into your emotional and physical space, whether that physical space is the four walls around you, or your body. At Swarthmore, my room is my safe space.

But sometimes, there are unwanted visitors. Sometimes I have a pre-game that I didn’t want to have in my room, and my friend will invite someone who makes me uncomfortable and who I don’t want in my space. I’m not always consenting to having random people in my room who aren’t respecting me or my space. I feel this in the same way as I don’t necessarily consent to a person using my body the way they want to use it. Those people leave things broken or messed up, just as I have been broken by the people who have assaulted me. I feel like I’m no longer in control of my own space.

Has anyone ever had this conversation? “Daddy get out of my room” “No it’s my house” “But I don’t feel comfortable with you being in here” as he continues to feel you up over your pants and under your shirt in your 10 year old body and is kissing your neck. So yeah, my space means a lot to me.

I have yelled at friends for inviting random people into my room. I’m sure those randos are freaked out or insulted, but it’s not them. It’s the idea that my space, like my body, can be invaded. My room is supposed to be a place over which I have some degree of control, my haven that I can use the way I want to use it. The real world is where people get assaulted, where anyone can come near me; I don’t expect the same degree of control. My room is not the real world. Not everyone should be able to come near me or in my proximity. I should be able to be safe and protected. When shit happens in my room, I feel removed.

Worse yet, my friends get angry at me. They don’t understand this complexity and they don’t know why I freak out even if I tell them why it upsets me. I don’t mean to make anyone upset, but they don’t understand this invasion. They just think I’m overreacting and argue with me about this overreaction. I don’t understand – it’s my space, my life, why are you arguing with me about my safe space? Why should I have to legitimize my discomfort? Why am I not allowed to have my own space? So friends, don’t argue with a survivor about their body and what they’re (not) comfortable with. Just support them and don’t continue to ask “why” questions. And don’t yell.

But what happens when it’s just two of you in your room? Maybe I bring someone back after a party or I’m just hanging out with “a friend” and watching a movie and they try to do things that I don’t want them to do. The space becomes ruined. I feel the need to change it and move things around or get rid of things so that it’s no longer the same. I have ripped things apart, touched unlit lighters thinking how I must be crazy to try to burn something. But you lose a part of yourself when someone is taking you away from that safety.

Recently, a guy came over to talk. We had been having sex for a while, and realizing that he didn’t want me as much as I wanted him, we decided to end it. No more sex. He fell asleep on my bed, and I am used to sharing beds with friends, and I naively figured we would still be friends. Needless to say, after telling him no, he kept playing with my boobs and butt while I tried to go to sleep. I also repeated that I didn’t want to have sex. He told me that he was still attracted to me and pulled my pants down anyway. With sleep as my main goal, I didn’t think – I just let it happen. I felt so removed. Maybe it would go somewhere and he’d be able to commit (he wouldn’t), or maybe if we had sex, I would at least get 5 hours of sleep (I would). So, as he said, I “actively participated.” But I felt so dirty. I felt so easy. I no longer felt safe in my own room and it was my fault (right?). My body wasn’t mine in that moment. It was closed up, emotionless. I didn’t care about it, I just wanted sleep. And this happened in my safe space; in that moment I lost control of one of the few things I should be in control of. As one friend asked later, “why didn’t you just kick him out?” I have no fucking idea, so/ but don’t ask me why.

I want to wish everyone a Happy belated Valentine’s Day. The most important person to love is yourself, so I will be loving and indulging myself. You deserve the best, and you deserve to feel safe.


  1. Thank you for saying this, I’ve been looking for so many of these same words.
    Can you email me at spacestoo@gmail.com? I’d really like to talk to you or have a sharples meal or something (not posting my swatmail here for obvious reasons)
    If not, I understand.
    Beautiful article.

  2. I also want to thank you. It’s so hard to explain sometimes that “yes” procured through bullying and coercion is not acceptable “I-got-your-consent-so-why-are-you-upset-and-crying” material. I also think that it’s hard to explain to people how, when I’ve been in this kind of situation the only thing I’m thinking about is how I can get out of the situation as quickly as possible- even if that means doing things I don’t want to. Also, one of my ways of dealing with not feeling safe is convincing myself that I want the sex (or other sexual behavior)- because since it’s going to happen whether I want it or not, it would be better to convince myself that I want it. Basically- thank you. People have to start to understand how nuanced these situations are- it’s not a matter of “just stand up for yourself and say “no” ” way more is involved. And I’m rambling now, because I haven’t really talked much about this before. Basically- I get it.

    • Dear Maria,

      I was thinking for a while about how I wanted to respond to your comment. First, thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate it. Second, you are not rambling. These situations are so hard to wrap your head around, and even when I write my column I feel like I’m just blabbing and no one would want to read what I am writing. Even now I haven’t completely put my finger exactly on my feelings. I also really appreciate that you feel like you could tell me part of your story, and I would love to listen if you want to meet for a meal sometime.


  3. Just wanted to give the DG editors a heads up, this article definitely should have a trigger warning. Thanks in advance!

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