Ponnada: Sexual assault too common

BY SRI PONNADA | MAY 06, 2013 5:00 AM

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Sexual assault can happen anywhere, anytime.

UI senior Caitlin Palar was sexually assaulted right here, on this campus, in her own residence hall.

But she didn’t report the assault; she really didn’t admit that she had been assaulted and kept her story secret until last week.

I met Palar on April 30 at Take Back the Night, an annual march and rally organized by the Women’s Resource & Action Center that has been taking place in Iowa City since the 1970s at the end of every April.

This year, dozens of women and some men gathered on the Pentacrest to support survivors of sexual violence who shared their experiences — including Palar, who told her story for the first time.

Last January, Palar was with a group of people in a guy’s room. Her room was right across the hall. Eventually, she was alone with him.

“Somewhere in the conversation we discovered that we both were proud owners of onesie pajamas, so I went across the hall to my room to put mine on, and when I came back he was wearing his, too,” she said.

Palar’s onesie had an Eeyore print.

“He then started asking me if I wanted to have sex with him,” she said. “I told him, ‘No, I just broke up with somebody,’ and that I didn’t feel like it. He kept trying to convince me, saying things like, ‘I think we’d be really sexy together, and we live right across the hall from each other, so if we have fun we can keep doing it.’ ”

She kept saying no, but he asked her a couple more times. The answer was still “No.” Obviously, “no” means “no.”

“He then asked if I would kiss him and I said yes that was fine. I felt comfortable enough with him that we could kiss. While we’re kissing, he started to unbutton my onesie. I pushed his hand away and re-buttoned it, and he just unbuttoned it again and tried to take off my bra. I stopped him and said, ‘I told you it was OK to kiss me, but I didn’t say it was OK to do anything else.’ ”

Palar said that he insisted on going further.

Even though she lived right across the hall and noted that she could have easily gotten away, she said was intimidated and scared that he would become violent if she continued to resist.

“I started to feel that maybe it’s easier to go along with it and let it happen than try to fight it,” she said, “It’s like a little boy asking over and over and over again if I will give him a cookie. And finally I’m like “Fine. Have your cookie — it’s not that big of a deal.””

He nearly persuaded Palar that it wasn’t a big deal — it was. For months, she continued to feel guilt and regret. She blamed herself for what had happened.

“It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago before Take Back the Night that I read on the University of Iowa’s sexual-misconduct policy that explains what he did to me was technically sexual coercion — it was rape — and I could have gotten him in deep s*** for doing that to me,” Palar said.

She is not alone.

Nearly 1-in-5 women have been raped in their lifetimes, according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 1.3 million were raped in the year preceding the survey. Between 2009 and 2010, however, fewer than half of all rapes and sexual assaults were reported.

The numbers are frightening, but it’s comforting to know that some people in Iowa City have taken a stand to fight back, to lower the number of victims, and to raise awareness.

Palar said she debated whether to share her story. But after seeing an article about a male University of Arizona student who protested a campus event promoting sexual-assault awareness by holding up a sign that read “You deserve rape” and “If you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped” — she was enraged.

Palar decided to answer these claims her own way; at the protest she wore the onesie she had reluctantly taken off last year and held a sign that read, “This is what I was wearing when I was sexually assaulted.”

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