Why I stayed silent 🤐

My 18-year-old self (September 2001)

I turned 18 the week I started my freshman year of college. Just three weeks later I found myself at an off-campus frat-hosted house party with roughly 30 other students and recent grads.

That night I was drugged and sexually assaulted by a 22-year-old frat guy.

One of his friends heard me repeatedly say no and watched as the guy forced his dick into my mouth anyway.

I imagine if either of them were asked today about that night they would say, “It never happened.”

There were only three of us in the room — one guy would have to admit to assaulting me (unlikely) or the other guy would have to admit to being a complicit witness (unlikely).

I could name a handful of people who were at the party that night, including my friend pictured above, but I’m not sure any of them would remember it now or back me up because it was 17 years ago and it was a normal, unremarkable evening. For them.

I can’t say if it was on a weekday or weekend. It was before I used Google calendar and before social media had saturated our lives so I don’t have any corroborating digital or physical evidence of the party.

I should be a believable witness — after all, I’m an educated CEO of a venture-backed startup, and I have a lifetime of friends, family members, colleagues and investors who could speak to my credibility and character.

In the months and years afterward I told a very small number of people “a guy assaulted me my freshman year of college” but I’ve never shared the full, grotesque details of that night with anyone — until now.

It hurts to know that despite all of my accomplishments — some of you will doubt me.

You’ll try to find flaws in my story.

You’ll question my motive.

You’ll consider whether I will profit in some way by coming forward. You’ll feel justified in digging into and judging my sexual history. My medical history. My use of alcohol and drugs. My family. My friends. My work.

I have no reason to lie, and nothing to gain by sharing my story… except to prove this one point: so many of us who are sexually assaulted go decades before speaking up.

I’ve watched countless news cycles tear apart sexual assault victims.

Pundits, senators and now even the president feel totally fine publicly mocking women who come forward. (Just look through coverage of #MeToo and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of her experience with Brett Kavanaugh.)

I’ve spent 17 years in silence because I’ve always felt the price I’d pay wasn’t worth it.

I learned that I was facing an uphill battle the very next day when I tried reporting the assault to a campus police officer.

“Sounds like a he said, she said situation,” the cop told me.

“You’re only 18 and you were drinking, ya know. Maybe it was a misunderstanding,” he said.

That’s when I realized how the world really works — I’d get more grief than relief for talking about my sexual assault. To protect myself from more harm I decided to shut my mouth and pretend it never happened.

The lessons we learn about race, gender, sexuality and status often happen in moments of vulnerability where our humanity is stripped away — reminding us of us our place and worth in society.

It’s no surprise to me that most survivors say nothing at all. We know better.

We see athletes, musicians, actors, businessmen, and politicians (Republican and Democrat) get passes when they assault women.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But he was just a teenager.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But he was drunk and we all make mistakes.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But he’s so talented, handsome, and charming.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But he’s got a good family.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But he’s rich and powerful and went to a prestigious school.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But it was so long ago. Now he’s married and has children.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But his life shouldn’t be destroyed over that.

So often silence is understood to be the easier, safer option. I know because that’s how I’ve felt my entire adult life.

As a society we constantly send out the memo that we, collectively, don’t give a shit about sexual assault.

Trauma, shame and fear are big mountains to climb alone. 🏔

The night I was assaulted

I chose a university that was 2,000 miles away from home because I wanted to get away. I wanted to be on my own.

The problem with that choice was immediately clear when I started school: I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t have a support system.

My dad was battling cancer back home and I felt guilty for leaving — but, like a lot of young adults, I was desperate to prove myself and build a life on my own terms.

I had never considered joining the Greek system before college, but I became intrigued when I saw a table full of sorority girls handing out flyers explaining the process of recruitment and pledging.

Maybe a sorority would be an easy way to suddenly be part of a community?

I went to a bunch of Rush events and ended up getting an invite to join my favorite sorority on Bid Day.

Party with my sorority celebrating the new pledges (September 2001)

For a couple of weeks I felt excited and relieved.

I had a friendly, outgoing “big sister” and I felt connected to the other freshmen pledges. Things were looking up. College seemed like it’d be fun.

Just a few weeks later we had our first unofficial event with our “brother” fraternity. That’s the night it happened.

My sorority sisters pouring shots into each other’s mouth

Although I hated the taste of alcohol I drank that night because I wanted to fit in. I had a couple shots of vodka and some punch.

A couple of hours into the party I was feeling drunk, so I got another red cup and poured myself some Diet Coke.

I commented to my friends that I had a slight headache and a guy I didn’t know offered to give me Tylenol. I politely declined and didn’t take it. I thought to myself, “Duh. I’m smarter than to take a pill from some dude I just met.”

I milled around the party — the pledges I came with were flirting with some guys but I was awkwardly standing around, not talking to anyone in particular. Instead I was mostly people watching, one of my favorite activities.

I continued drinking my Diet Coke for another hour or so, and felt more sober over time.

It was getting later and the introvert in me was feeling ready to go so I started prepping to find a ride with someone back to campus.

That’s when, out of nowhere, I was struck by an intense wave of nausea.

The world started moving in slow motion — like a time lapse, except with frame loss.

I suddenly found myself outside and unable to stand.

I’d been drinking out of the same cup but hadn’t kept a particularly close watch on it — setting it down as needed to chat or go to the bathroom.

Later I deduced that someone must’ve slipped GHB in my drink.

Once outside I was overcome by dizziness. I felt far away — as though I was in a dream.

I fell down and a bunch of dirt got on my pants and shirt.

I remember feeling embarrassed and trying to wipe it off.

I didn’t understand how I could be so incapacitated. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered.

Two guys from the party who were standing nearby helped me up. They told a few of my “sisters” that I was pretty messed up and they were going to take me home.

My friends thanked them.

I willingly got in the car and accepted their help. I joked about how weird I felt and told them I just needed sleep — I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer.

They didn’t drive me home. They drove me to the other side of the apartment complex — one of the guys lived there. They walked / carried me up the stairs because I kept slipping in and out of consciousness.

Inside the two guys sat me down on the couch and started to unzip their pants.

I woke back up.

I thought I’d somehow led them on so I tried to be cool and play it off. “Hey, thanks for the ride… I’m not really into doing anything though… I’m really tired… maybe some other time? I just want to go home.”

One of the guys said, “Open wide!” and laughed as he slapped his dick against my face.

I felt scared and helpless.

And so very tired.

I didn’t want to, but I froze and just did what he told me to.

I opened my mouth. He stuck his dick in it.

The other guy mostly stood there and watched — but after a few minutes he decided to leave. He could see that I wasn’t making it very easy or pleasurable for the guy since I was so lethargic and disinterested.

As he left he said something like, “She’s really fucked up, dude” and then headed toward the door.

Later I learned he went back to the party and told a few people where I was and that I should go get picked up.

Nobody came for me.

Eventually the guy whose apartment I was in took me to his bed.

“I’m a virgin,” I told him. “I don’t want to have sex tonight,” I repeated.

I know he fingered me but I can’t be sure if we had intercourse because I just wasn’t lucid for all of it.

I have so many lost frames from that night.

At one point I woke up and he was on top of me with a condom on his dick.

I was naked from the waist down.

Again I told him, “No. You don’t need a condom. I don’t want to have sex right now.”

I squirmed out from under him. All I remember is him climbing back on top of me — then that’s when everything went dark.

I don’t know what happened next in that bed. I can’t be sure if that’s when I technically lost my virginity or not.

The memory is gone. I blacked out.

This is the part of the story that haunted me for many years.

The next morning I woke up with a serious hangover. We were cuddled up in his bed and I felt incredibly confused.

I immediately crawled out of bed — finding my clothes scattered on the floor. Now I was totally naked but I couldn’t remember my top or bra coming off.

He woke up as I started putting my clothes back on.

“Good morning,” he said with his big and welcoming smile. “I’ll make us pancakes.”

I didn’t know what to say.

Inside I wanted to scream for help and run away as the night started coming back to me. But instead, I sat down. I stayed.

We chatted a little while he cooked and then I ate breakfast with the man who’d just spent the night sexually assaulting me.

For years I beat myself up for calmly eating with him that morning — but now I understand people do weird shit to survive traumatic situations.

After we ate he offered to drive me home — I thanked him for the food and accepted the ride.

The cognitive dissonance was intense.

“Somehow this is all my fault,” I kept thinking.

“He’s handsome. He’s being so kind. We have mutual friends. I must have wanted that to happen or else I would’ve been able to prevent it,” I told myself.

But I knew I didn’t.

I clearly remembered saying no over and over.

I remembered feeling scared and helpless.

“But then why did I just have breakfast with him? Why the fuck am I in his car?”

I couldn’t make sense of my behavior or reality.

He pulled up to my campus apartment and leaned over to give me a hug and a kiss, then he said he’d like to hang out again sometime.

I ran inside.

My roommates were gone and I was alone.

I took a hot bath and felt so numb I couldn’t cry.

Then I called a girl in my sorority — she hadn’t been at the party but I told her “I think I was raped” and asked her what I should do. She said I should call the campus police, so I did.

When talking to the dispatcher I requested they send a woman to talk to me — about 20 minutes later a man knocked on the door.

I felt incredibly scared to let him in — but I fought through my instinct to slam the door in his face. We sat at my dining table and for 10 minutes I calmly told him what had happened.

He said since it had occurred off-campus I’d need to go to the city police. I could also go to the hospital and pay to get a rape kit done.

“But it’ll be your word against his. These kinds of cases are usually pretty messy. You’re only 18 and really shouldn’t have been drinking anyways,” he told me in a chastising tone.

I worried I wouldn’t be believed or maybe I’d end up getting in trouble for underage drinking so by the time the campus cop left I’d decided the best option was to just let it go.

The small number of people I told over the years include my partners, my therapist, my best friends and a handful of other women.

Usually after I said, “a guy assaulted me in college,” I would immediately follow it up with something like, “But it wasn’t as bad of an experience as so many other women have. It could’ve been much worse. I don’t even remember all of it. I think it’s better that way.”

I always made sure to emphasize that despite “the incident” I am totally fine.

With hindsight it’s easy for me to see I was not, in fact, fine.

For years afterward I suffered from disordered eating and very low self-esteem.

I second-guessed my own intuition and wondered if I was broken — somehow inherently unlovable. If not, then why had I been so easily discarded by numerous people?

I can’t say with any certainty what percentage of those struggles came from the assault or from the lack of belonging I felt as a child, but I know the two years following that night were very dark and I’d been in a happy, optimistic headspace beforehand.

Causation or correlation?

All I know is I can feel that night changed me. It left me feeling less sure of myself and less sure of others.

I fell into a deep depression and couldn’t concentrate.

I ended up dropping out of school the second semester because I just couldn’t hack it anymore.

I felt ashamed and didn’t want to reveal why I withdrew from my classes so I kept the ruse up the rest of the year — pretending to my friends and family (and roommates) that I was still in school.

Lying made me feel worse but I told myself it was better than having to talk about that night over and over.

I told myself I was stronger than others — I wouldn’t let what happened define me.

I imagined that if I didn’t make a big deal out of it then it wouldn’t be a big deal.

But I was wrong.

I didn’t understand the insidiousness of trauma, shame and fear.

There are so many reasons girls and women do not tell or report a crime when they are sexually harassed or assaulted.

You may think, “If I were raped or assaulted I’d go file a police report. I’d get the person locked up immediately.” But I can guarantee it’s more emotionally and practically complicated than it seems.

Most of you don’t know that your sister or mother or grandmother or friend was harassed, assaulted, raped and/or molested.

We stay silent for various reasons. Often times for years. Sometimes forever.

Me at Joshua Tree (September 2018; photo by Robert Cowherd)


I’ve shared a lot of stories about myself over the years — but none more personal or complicated than this one. I’ve tried writing this down at least a dozen times, but I just couldn’t figure out how to get it out.

Posting this is another step in my own healing process — I hope it helps others to see they aren’t alone and makes a few more folks understand why it’s so difficult to come forward.

I have no plans to look up or dox the man who assaulted me. And I don’t need anyone’s pity.

I wish I’d reached out sooner than I did for emotional help, but eventually I did. (I’m proud of that.)

After therapy and time I got to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. (I’m also proud of that.)

My joy and optimism about life didn’t end after I was sexually assaulted. I am stronger, wiser and more empathetic to others’ pain and suffering as a direct result of what I went through. (I’m very proud of that.)

“Just as a city has a certain structure before a major earthquake, so too do we have certain fundamental beliefs about our lives and the world.

Trauma shatters those assumptions.

But out of the rubble comes an opportunity to rebuild.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, cities aim to erect buildings and infrastructure that are stronger and more resilient than what now lies in ruins.

Similarly, those who are able to rebuild psychologically, spiritually, and otherwise after a crisis are better equipped to deal with future adversity, and they ultimately lead more meaningful lives.” — Richard Tedeschi & Lawrence Calhoun

I would prefer that night never happened, but it did.

As a way of healing and coping I’ve tried to make meaning from it and see it in the wider context of struggle that all people experience.

I am not alone.

Adversity will always persist in some form.

Most of us have some kind of trauma to deal with — the memory of an alcoholic parent, the pain of being abandoned, the sting of being bullied, the helplessness of poverty or war, the deep embarrassment of failure, or the suffering caused by cancer, mental illness, anxiety, depression, or death.

The stories we tell ourselves about the events in our lives matter so I am choosing to end this story by telling you this: I survived. I changed. I grew.

At Facebook’s F8 in 2018

Despite, but very likely because, of the struggles I’ve faced I am resilient af.

It took me an extra semester to graduate college but I did it. Then I went on and got my Master’s degree.

I’ve had a fantastically fun and interesting career.

I have a beautiful family and a loving partner.

I live in the city of my dreams, surrounded by a badass community that inspires and challenges me.

I feel a sense of belonging, wonder and purpose.

If you made it this far — thank you for reading. It means a lot to be heard after being silent for so long.

👉 Please give a 👏 if you’d like others to read it. Follow me on Twitter to stay in touch.




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Esther Crawford

Esther Crawford


Product at Twitter. Life story: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Optimist. Technologist. Wearer of many hats.