Editor’s note: The following story discusses sexual assault.
“If you’re reading this I hope you know how much pain you continue to cause me,” an anonymous survivor’s story reads. “My life will never be normal again because of you.”
Written on their iPhone’s notes app, this story is one of many others like it: survivors recounting and reclaiming their experiences—some anonymous, some not—to inspire, inform and heal.
The Twitter page @SurvivorsUf offers an outlet for survivors of sexual violence. The goal was to give survivors a platform to share their stories without fear of being judged, hurt or socially blacklisted, according to the owners of the account. It received more than 50 submitted stories in two months.
“We just thought that there were a lot of UF stories that needed to be heard,” said one of the account’s owners.
The owners of the account said they wished to remain anonymous as they carry an affiliation with the university. Their own stories of sexual violence at UF led them to create the account.
Sexual assault is especially prevalent on college campuses, with one in five undergraduate women experiencing a form of sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only 20 percent of female students report their assault to law enforcement. Many do not out of fear of retaliation.
Meghan Ballis is one of these survivors. The 24-year-old speech language pathologist spent her freshman year at UF — the school she said she had wanted to attend her whole life. Her first year at the university would end up being her last.
In an interview with The Alligator, Ballis recalled the incident that began with a Phi Delta Theta party in October of 2013. She said she remembers a fraternity brother taking her to a house away from the party. After a night of drinking, Ballis remembers fleeing to the bathroom, feeling sick and fearing for her safety. She hid from the fraternity member.
“I remember sitting on the floor trying to keep the door closed or locking it or something,” Ballis said. “I knew I was really sick at that point and it wasn't cool anymore.”
Following those moments alone in the bathroom, Ballis said her memory fades in and out. She remembers catching glimpses of her assault throughout the night after being moved to the attacker’s bedroom.
In response to trauma, survivors often subconsciously repress memories as part of the brain’s defense mechanism. The National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center found that almost one-third of rape victims develop post traumatic stress disorder following their attack.
“I threw up in the bed constantly, so it wasn't like there was a question of whether I was okay or not,” Ballis said. “And I vividly remember saying ‘no’ and trying to physically move his hands away.”
She awoke the next morning not knowing where she was.
She quietly climbed out of her assailant's bed so as not to wake him. The floor was sticky. When she looked in the mirror, she said she saw painful hickies covering her chest and vomit in her hair: everything just felt so gross, she said.
“I just wanted to go home.”
Ballis didn’t report the assault to the police. She walked back to her fourth-floor dorm at Rawlings Hall, where she sat on the communal shower floor in pain. She transferred to USF after her assault.
UF conducted a campus-wide sexual assault and misconduct survey in 2019. The survey found that 30.1 percent of undergraduate women and 7.7 percent of undergraduate men at UF experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent.”
This is nearly a 10 percent increase from the last survey done in 2015.
Caroline Pope, a 22-year-old UF sociology senior, is another survivor. Like Ballis, she shared her story on @UFSurvivors in hopes of inspiring long-term change.
Pope’s attack took place in 2017 at Zeta Beta Tau’s off-campus house, a fraternity whose members she said she considered “close family” at the time. Her attackers were people who knew her, she said. They assaulted her while she was drunk.
This is the reality for a majority of rape survivors: The U.S. Department of Justice reported that 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers.
After publicly identifying herself as the girl in the story originally posted anonymously on @SurvivorsUf, Pope was put in contact with ZBT’s current president, Ethan Curtis. Upon hearing her story, Curtis told Pope that the fraternity is now in contact with the Interfraternity Council’s (IFC) national headquarters regarding the incident.
“As for the conversation we had, my God, it was incredible,” Pope said. “I wasn't sure if they were going to hold to the promise of being here for me and supporting me throughout all this. I was afraid it was going to get swept under the rug again. That's why so many survivors are afraid to come forward.”
Curtis told The Alligator that ZBT held an interactive webinar with most of the fraternity’s members and Brandace Stone, health promotion specialist for fraternities and sororities at GatorWell.
The webinar took place on July 16 and discussed how to avoid being a bystander. In addition to the webinar, Curtis told The Alligator that ZBT plans to enroll each of its members in the Green Dot training program, an international and university-wide effort to train bystanders on how and when to intervene in situations like stalking or domestic violence, once the university offers its clearance.
“For me, it's part of my healing process to create systemic change, because I don't want this to happen to any other girls,” Pope said. “It can happen in any Greek organization, and it can happen anywhere on campus.”
After sharing her story on Twitter, Pope said she continues to be met with overwhelming support on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Although she says being a survivor means a lifetime of healing, Pope feels stronger every day. That strength, she said, comes from using her experience to help others.
“It's heartbreaking to know you're not alone, but it kind of makes you feel a little better,” Pope said. “It makes you feel like you’re not crazy.”
As stories continue to circulate and people continue to come forward, the community sustains its push for change in the form of offering survivor support, transparent reporting and effective education on consent to keep everyone safe.
The UF survivors page is currently working on a list of demands they will submit to UF’s administration in order to improve campus culture. The owners of the account also said they hope to partner with Green Dot.
“We want to recognize the fact that rape and sexual assault are rampant acts of power-based violence on campus,” one of the owners said. “Our goal is for UF to acknowledge this and take accountability.”