What we Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault

CONTENT NOTE: This article contains the discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.

Bronte Cook  

The #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ movements have been a central focus of the media over the last few months, giving a voice to the countless women who until now have remained silent, or have been ignored, about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of men. This constant coverage has at times been difficult, and after some thought, I am finally ready to add my input; because my input is worthwhile, because I am angry and want to share my experience, and because it is cathartic.

To anyone else who has found this constant media coverage difficult to deal with: it seems almost selfish that I am adding to it. But I hope that in writing this I can contribute something valuable to the narrative. I write this not because I want sympathy but because I want everybody to be aware of the effect their offhand conversations can have- there is a concerning attitude towards consent that lies behind them.

During the first term of my final year of university, I was sexually assaulted in my university room by a fellow student. I knew him, but not well, and had returned back to college with him following a night out. I will not go into detail about what happened that night – I don’t want to unnecessarily trigger traumatic memories for anybody reading this, and I don’t want my account scrutinised and dissected in the way they often are in the media. I hope that those reading this will respect my lived experience and take my word for it. Whilst I consented to sex originally, I then withdrew this consent, and he did not stop.

Coming to terms with what occurred that evening has been a long, difficult, and continuous process. Doing so at the same time as near constant media coverage focusing on sexual assault and harassment has been both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in the sense that I have been provided with a sense of solidarity and understanding that I would never have had otherwise. I have had the comforting knowledge that others know what I am talking about, can sympathise, and will believe me. However, it has been a curse, because social media has acted as a frequent reminder of that evening. And, more so, because although everybody seems to be talking about the issue, not everybody is doing so with tact, sensitivity and understanding. This has led to many upsetting and frustrating conversations when talking about reports in the media, or that had been heard about fellow students. I will deal with four of the most upsetting quotes from these conversations that I have, unfortunately, heard far too often.

‘Why didn’t she just leave?’

I have spent many hours asking myself the same question. Why did I not just leave? I was technically free to the whole time, in fact, he was in my room. I could have asked him to leave. It has taken me over a year to formulate reasons of any coherence. So here goes:

I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to make him feel as though he was in the wrong. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to believe this was happening to me. I didn’t leave because I didn’t quite believe this was happening to me. I didn’t leave because I was in shock. I didn’t leave because I was confused. I didn’t leave because I felt helpless. I didn’t leave because I felt that, since I had consented to sex in the first place, I didn’t want to disappoint. I didn’t leave because I was scared of his reaction if I tried. I didn’t leave because when I said I wanted to, I was told I shouldn’t. I didn’t leave because when I repeated myself, so did he. I didn’t leave because when someone knocked on the door to check where I was, he put his hand over my mouth. I didn’t leave because when my nose started bleeding, he didn’t stop.

This list could go on.

But ultimately, I didn’t leave because it was made very clear that what was happening was not mine to exercise autonomy over. I was not having sex that evening, he was.

When we ask the question ‘why did she not leave?’ we put the blame, either intentionally or implicitly, on the victim or survivor. We make it their responsibility to control the situation. When I am told by (usually, male) peers ‘I would have just left’, my response is ‘good’. I really mean this too; I hope that if anybody is ever put in that situation, they are in a position that they feel they can leave. I hope it is easy to jump up and say ‘no’ and head for the door. However, I also ask that they respect that it is not always that simple.

Why didn’t she report it at the time?

I can only try and use my experiences to suggest some reasons. I did not report what happened that evening.

I didn’t want to believe it had happened.

At the time, I didn’t think it felt ‘violent’ enough to report.

I didn’t want to deal with having my account scrutinised.

I didn’t trust the welfare infrastructure around me to deal sensitively with the matter.

I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t report it because I didn’t think that him being punished would actually make me feel any better. I didn’t report it because it took me a long time to admit to myself what it was that had happened to me. I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to admit to him that he had made me feel how he did.

There are all manner of reasons why somebody might choose not to report what has happened to them, ranging from shame and a sense of being in the wrong, to not feeling like what has happened was severe enough, or not wanting to ‘make a fuss’. Personally, it took a number of months before I stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt. I argued with friends who referred to what had happened as sexual assault because I was not ready to accept it, instead falling back on ‘he was really dodgy with consent’, aware, with a horrible and constant feeling of violation, that this meant the same thing. There is no ‘correct’ way to deal with trauma; the fact that somebody did not report an incident should not discredit them.

She has ruined his career/reputation

Has she? Or has he?

Women do not bear the burden of protecting men from taking responsibility for their own actions. Women are taught to be submissive, taught not to question men, not to embarrass men, and not to complain. We are socialized to accommodate men. If I had a pound for every time I was told ‘don’t rise to it’, or ‘he’s just trying to annoy you’ as I was growing up, my overdraft would be much less of a concern right now. It was not his action, whoever he in this circumstance happened to be, but my reaction that was a problem. As far as I am aware, a man’s career should not be considered more important than a woman’s bodily autonomy.

But he’s so nice/friendly/’woke’/’on board with consent’

As well as being misguided and upsetting, this phrase provides insight into a concerning and dangerous attitude towards consent. These are all terms I’ve heard used to describe alleged abusers, either in relation to the man who assaulted me, peers, or women in the media.

It is very difficult to hear somebody who has violated you and made you feel so uncomfortable described as ‘nice’ or ‘friendly’. If we maintain this idea that the average ‘nice’ guy is not capable of acting in this way, we allow men to distance themselves from such behaviour. Men need to be open to challenging their own behaviour, and that of their friends, if we are to move forward. This is not limited to clear-cut cases of assault, but is a call to examine behaviour that is commonplace, often seen as acceptable, but also incredibly questionable. One thing I have noticed about the media coverage over the weeks is that if something is not clearly illegal, people have been quick to condemn the accusation being made public, as though if somebody is made to feel uncomfortable and violated they should keep it to themselves until it borders on the criminal. There is no logic to this at all. Something does not have to be illegal for us to question it and consider whether it is positive, consensual practice. Was it okay to put their hand back on that girl’s thigh after she removed it? When she hesitated and said ‘I don’t know about this’, should he have persisted? If she is nonresponsive and does not seem enthusiastic about the sexual act taking place, should he not have stopped and asked her if she was sure she wanted to continue?

Persistence is too often celebrated, and no is taken to mean ‘keep trying’. Most women will have experienced a man in a club that keeps reappearing throughout the night and snaking his hand around their waist, dancing too close behind them, or repeatedly offering them a drink despite being told no multiple times. It is sad that often ‘I have a boyfriend’ is the only way to get rid of these people. ‘I have a girlfriend’ does not have the same power, I have discovered. Apparently, it is only other men’s relationships they are concerned about infringing upon. If anything, saying ‘I have a girlfriend’ only serves to escalate the sexualisation and flirting. Whilst it may sound like a small inconvenience, being aware that somebody’s attention is on you for the evening, or batting away unwanted touches, can completely ruin an evening, and make somebody feel incredibly anxious and on edge.

I have been told in the last few weeks that it is unpleasant and scary for many men to think that what they have previously been told is acceptable in sexual interactions might now be ‘called’ assault or harassment. Whilst I accept this might be concerning, I think the bigger concern must be that some men have not been aware of how their behaviour was being experienced before. It has always been unpleasant and scary for many women, daily, that so many sexual interactions involve coercion, persistence, and a sense of obligation. If we are taking steps, even small ones, towards changing this and moving towards sexual relationships in which true, enthusiastic and mutual consent is the norm, we should celebrate these steps.

This is not just a case of rooting out the bad apples; we are navigating a bad orchard. By this, I do not mean that every instance of sexual relations between a man and a woman is coercive, negative, or unwanted. I have had healthy, positive and consensual sex with men where I have felt I have been listened to and respected. What I mean, instead, is that the way in which we think about sexual interaction and consent needs to be re-examined. Consent to all manner of sexual interactions must be enthusiastic and continuous; an act taking place for both parties, not just the man. A thin, reluctant consent drawn out from persistence should never be thought of as sufficient.

My 17-year-old sister said to me recently that she thinks every woman has had sex when they didn’t want to. Not necessarily when they didn’t consent, but when they didn’t want to, whether this be through a feeling of obligation, coercion, or force. I am saddened both that this is telling about her own experiences, and that I am inclined to agree with her. If not all women, then most. And if not most, then far, far too many.

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