CW: This post contains descriptions of sexual assault and domestic violence
I was complaining to a friend about my Friday night. I told him that a guy I knew invited me over to watch a movie, then forced his lips against mine, grabbed my body, and reached between my legs.
My friend said: “Of course you had a bad weekend. That guy sexually assaulted you.”
I protested. It couldn’t be sexual assault, because stuff like this happens all the time. Because I didn’t say “no” until the very end.
I knew from my marriage to an abuser that “no” sometimes carries painful consequences, like yelling, name-calling, and violence. I knew that saying “no” had cost other women their lives. I knew that saying “no” would change the tone of our encounter, but I didn’t know how he would respond.
Social systems teach men and women that female bodies are available for public scrutiny and public consumption. Women are criticized when they age and again when they invest in procedures that disguise aging. Women are mocked for appearing too fat, but also for appearing too thin. Women are objectified and sexualized to sell products, but women who actually have sex are “slutty” or “easy”.
Women are too available, but not available enough. Women are catcalled, harassed, and told to “smile” when they walk down the street, but a woman who rejects unwelcome attention “can’t take a compliment”. Stringent rape and assault laws around the world prevent women from reporting crimes because doing so subjects them to violence by the government and their own families.
It’s a contest that no one can win. What right did I have to choose what happened to a body that didn’t really belong to me?
So I didn’t say “no.” I said “I’m so tired” and “I just want to watch the movie.” I said all those things that weren’t outright rejection, but implied that I wasn’t amenable to being touched.
Instead, he pulled my face toward his and I resisted as gently as I could so it wouldn’t be obvious that I was rejecting him. He wrapped his arms around me, and I was afraid to move in case I offended him. He reached between my thighs, and I pulled him away. When he reached again, I just crossed my legs more tightly. I didn’t expect him to respect my boundaries unless I made it impossible for him to touch me.
Sexual assault happens when someone is forced or coerced to participate in sexual behavior. Legal definitions vary widely, but what they all have in common is a lack of consent. The only true consent is a “yes” without coercion. Not saying “no” does not mean that someone has consented.
If I say “yes” because someone is threatening to hurt me otherwise, then I’m not really consenting. If I say “yes” because my partner is known to call me names and break things if I don’t, then I’m not really consenting. If I stay silent while someone touches me because I’m afraid of the repercussions for speaking up, then I’m not really consenting.
Finally, when he leaned over and whispered “I just really want to make out with you,” I said “no.” He told me he couldn’t be on the couch with me anymore, and I left.
A lot of people are reaching out to me after this post. I am so grateful for the wonderful beings I’m surrounded by.
Things like this happen so many times and in so many different ways that one more drop in the bucket hasn’t made much of a difference.
And it’s not just me, but I’m lucky. I can walk away from an encounter like this confident that I won’t be punished if someone finds out. My friends and family won’t blame me for the bad things that happen. Sexual violence isn’t nearly as difficult for me to talk about as it could be, because there are so many resources available to me. That’s not true for everyone, or even most people.
I’m also part of a privileged demographic. Women of color experience sexual violence in greater numbers than women like me. Poor women experience sexual violence in greater numbers than women like me. And that doesn’t begin to address things like corrective rape, marital rape, sex trafficking, cyber assault, FGM, and the likelihood that most rapes and assaults go unreported.
I’m one of many, but my experience speaks to my privilege.