In light of the recent sexual assault, many of my male friends confided in me. “I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a woman on campus right now,” they said. Let me begin the dialogue. It can sometimes feel vulnerable, disempowering and unfair. 

Growing up as a girl, there are a lot of things you’re told not to do—don’t get too drunk at a party, don’t walk alone at night, don’t engage with strangers. But, as a grown woman, I’ve come to not like being told what to do or not do.

I’ve been catcalled, followed home by a drunken man in a foreign country and coached by a sexual predator. In all of these situations, I was the one who had to adjust my habits. To be a woman often means making small changes to take extra precaution—approach your house or car with your keys already out, have your cab driver drop you off a block before your house, always keep your doors locked. But, regardless of precaution, things still happen.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. Two months before arriving at Bowdoin the boyfriend of my close friend sexually assaulted me. In response, my close friend told me that I was playing the victim; so, I bottled that night up, wrapped it in a blanket of guilt and pushed it deep into the subconscious depths of my brain.

The only verbalization of that night would surface during drunken moments my freshman and sophomore years. With a little liquid courage, I would sometimes mention a vague time when a boy hurt me, only to shrug it off upon further questioning. That was, until the end of my sophomore fall: a drunken hookup went terribly awry, reminiscent of my experience a year and a half previous—it took me right back. After coming to my senses, I called a friend and told her everything, and luckily that friend had the sense to connect me with Bowdoin’s resources.

I naively thought that just sharing my secret would be the end, like I would just shake the memory away and be done with it. Instead, I started my sophomore spring finally dealing with my remnant feelings of anger, guilt, confusion and sadness. Digging into my past was emotionally draining, until I realized, as I began to piece myself back together, that I had the power to heal myself.

To heal, I invested in a new pair of running shoes. I hit the open road, opting to run to clear my mind when journaling or discussions with well-intentioned resources became too overwhelming. Running is how I reflect; it gives me space away from Bowdoin to process my thoughts. Running empowers me to have control over my body because no one can tell me how to run. I choose to take each step forward, listening to how my body feels. I can go fast or slow, and best of all, I choose when to start or stop.

But, in response to the recent sexual assault on campus, a friend told me, “Running alone isn’t safe anymore.” My blood boiled. Running is how I empower myself—but now it was suddenly added to the list of things I shouldn’t do as a woman.

Just the other day I went for a run alone and stopped briefly to walk. A man driving by stopped and rolled down his window. A knot grew in my stomach: no one knows that I’m on a run, my phone just died and I’m two miles from campus. 

“Hey, are you okay?” he asked. “I noticed that you were walking.” To which I replied, “Yes, thanks sir,” and he said, “Good, just checking.” As he drove away, I let out a sigh of relief—feeling safe again. His intentions were good, but I felt frustrated: would he have stopped if I’d been a man? 

This moment highlights the complexities of what men on campus can do to help women. While men can be supportive to women by providing security, the idea that a woman needs to depend on a man to feel safe can feel disempowering. Maneuvering the world as an empowered woman — being independent, while still appreciating and accepting the support of men — is complex.

I share my story, a vulnerable part of my personal narration, to bring awareness to the realities of being a woman and to advocate for men to support women without disempowering them. It shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of a woman to make adjustments to feel safe in society; it should be the role of society to create spaces that are safe for every single person regardless of gender.

Audrey Phillips is a member of the class of 2016.