Standing front and center on the stage of the Marshall Student Center Amphitheater at the University of South Florida she felt a sense of calm, knowing she had the attention and support of those in her midst.
Many, including the women who had written poignant messages on T-shirts that hung from a clothesline around the event, could relate to the story she was there to tell.
They, too, have survived sexual assaults.
She chose the moment as hers to tell about her own personal experience and as she expressed “take back the night” during the university’s 7th Candlelight Vigil and Speak Out Against Sexual Violence on April 16.
Presented by the Network, Improve, Transform, Empower, an on-campus organization with the support of the USF Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, the young woman was among the hundreds who had gathered to listen to the testimony of keynote speaker Michelle Hughes Miller, an associate USF professor in Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, a rape survivor of 30 years.
Her presentation was followed by a short, silent march on the grounds of the student center.
“I was 19 and naïve,” she said. “I met a guy online and then went out on a date with him.”
They went to the beach where she said he kept trying to kiss her and when she told him to take her home he complied. But it was there things went from bad to worse when he pushed her to the floor and forced himself upon her.
It was three long months before she mustered the courage to tell her best friend about her sexual assault.
“But I’m here now and I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” she said.
Eileen, another sexual assault victim, spoke out about a former boyfriend whom at first was a “beautiful, charming and outgoing guy.”
But as time went on, she said, he questioned her every move and became more and more possessive.
“For a year and a half he raped me not once but every day,” she recalled in a quivering voice.
“But I am a survivor and I am here tonight,” she said.
For another young woman her moment at the microphone was the first time she had spoken about her personal sexual violence encounter.
“I went to my boyfriend’s (home) and he started feeding me drinks. Then he lured me back to his room where he tied me up and raped me for three and a half hours,” she said, noting that when he finally released the chains he made her walk home.
In terrible pain she went to a hospital where she was treated for a broken nose, fractured ribs and multiple bruises consuming a good portion of her body. Rather than explaining what happened, she told hospital authorities she’d fallen off her horse.
“It’s been three and a half years since that horrible night and today I am free,” she shouted out.
A USF coed brutally raped by a man who is now in jail, said she was happy to be there as a woman who is no longer afraid because of the support she’s since received from other N.I.T.E. members.
“I am happy I was not killed and I am here because we can change the way things are,” she said, at times fighting back tears.
Waiting in the wings alongside the speakers was La Vie, a golden retriever with his handler/owner Scott Baggett, founder of Courteous Canines. The dog’s role was to encourage and welcome hugs and pats from the anxiety-filled women before they spoke.
Those who told of their ordeals also took comfort in witnessing multiple men in the audience who collectively stood and promised to end sexual and relationship violence.
“Take note of that sign over there saying one in four women in this college will be raped,” said Ryan Newton, assistant director of the USF office of orientation. “We’ve long been part of the problem but now we can be part of the solution.”
A candlelight vigil closed the evening.