How do you listen to sexual assault? (blog entry) I always blissfully thought of myself as a woman who had not experienced sexual assault in her life. Until one afternoon, I started having flashbacks of an event which had been so intensely humiliating that I had managed to completely repress the... read more
I always blissfully thought of myself as a woman who had not experienced sexual assault in her life. Until one afternoon, I started having flashbacks of an event which had been so intensely humiliating that I had managed to completely repress the memory for three years. A man had been sexual with my body without my consent, not through physical force, but by stealth and deception.Thu, June 5, 2008 - 2:22 AM permalink - 2 comments
Since then I’ve been painfully confronted with how coming out as a sexual assault survivor puts one at risk of being stigmatized as having poor judgment about personal safety, lacking assertive communication skills about sexual boundaries and being mentally unstable.
People apply credibility measures to sexual assault; the extent to which an assault is thought to be provoked and resisted. I partly envy women who were violently assaulted by a stranger jumping out of the bushes. There is no doubt as to who is responsible, and it is easy to give nothing but full support to the victim.
I foolishly trusted a person who later turned out to be untrustworthy, and paid dearly for it. Often, I was met with skepticism, judgment and a certain distancing, at a time when I was in desperate need of support. The assault itself was traumatic, but coming out with my story, was even worse.
Why I’m writing this
I hope to explain the confusion and the shame that often keeps a victim from talking about a non-violent sexual assault or, as in my case, to repress it completely. After reading this, I hope you may be better able to give support, in case one day a friend of yours tells you a similar story.
I hope to raise awareness about the reversed accountability; when we assign responsibility for sexual assault prevention to women, even though the transgressions are committed by men. Our current sexual morality doesn’t hold men accountable for the effects of their actions. Specifically, I want to show how the non-violent perpetrators, the guys who like to grope and fondle, use our moral code “no means no” to justify being sexual with a person’s body without their consent.
After partying all night at a Halloween party in San Rafael, I walked to my car, alone. A man, whom I had met earlier that night showed up beside me. At the party this man had been very friendly and respectful. I assumed he was walking to his car, but it turned out he walked with me to my car. It was a long walk with friendly chatter and I failed to notice that he never asked whether I wanted to be escorted to my car.
When we finally arrived at my car, he offered me a back-massage and said that he could do this while standing up. He presented himself as somewhat of a massage expert, who had even developed his own personal style which he called the “Harmonic Body Wave” massage technique. Feeling fully my post-party exhaustion, I accepted the offer and I received a wonderful back massage.
Suddenly, without any indication of what was about to happen, he pushed his finger in my vagina, and I found myself in the midst of a sexual situation. My Halloween costume that year was some top with hotpants. He entered me through the leg of my hotpants. It was easy for him to push aside the one inch of fabric separating my vagina from the outside world and before I knew it, I was penetrated.
He did not inquire in any way whether I wanted him to go from massaging me, to being sexual with me, let alone penetrate me. No unbuttoning of my belt, no pulling down of a zipper, no placing of his hand on my thighs and no indication he was going to approach my crotch. I never had a chance to say “Yes,” therefore I also never had a chance to say “No.”
Fear and humiliation
When I all of a sudden felt his finger in my vagina, I felt a huge explosive pang go off in my head. I was dazed and in shock. The explosion in my head was accompanied by a great sense of loss. I had lost autonomy over my most private part; somebody was bulldozering himself into that part of me that I have so many tender emotions about. I have experienced many different emotions about being penetrated, but never utter surprise and horrified shock. The shock and the sense of loss were immediately followed by me going into an instinctual coping mode.
My survival instinct told me that I needed to cut my losses and prevent worse from happening by getting out of the situation as fast and smoothly as possible. This man had just proven to be capable of completely taking me by surprise and taking liberties with my body without any interest for my feelings. I did not want to find out what might come next.
I instinctively decided to placate him and to pretend that “all was well.” I remember with pain back to the moment where I wondered whether enough time had passed to get off of his finger, in order to maintain the façade of being a willing participant. I felt I needed to hide my humiliation and fear and slip out of the situation as fast as possible and avoid any further dealings with him. After I thought it timely to extricate myself from his finger, I forced a smile and excused myself by saying that I was very tired and needed to go home. I apologetically declined his invitation to stay longer.
In my car, I felt relieved that I had been able to get out of the situation without further damage. I felt sad because I had lost something very dear to me: control over what happens to my vagina. I felt ashamed, and humiliated about having been such a fool to misjudge this man. Most of all I felt confused. Had I done something wrong? Was there something wrong with me?
Being aware of our code of conduct which says “no means no,” I deduced I must have miserably failed by somehow missing my window of opportunity to say ‘no,” and wondered whether I was totally inept to take care of myself. I remember thinking: I’ll have to chalk this up to experience.” I remember how much I resisted this being part of my experience. I drove home, slept and blocked the memory out of my mind.
My memories started to get triggered now and then when I started dating the perpetrator’s best friend. I desperately tried to keep the memories at bay, even going to the extent of defending the perpetrator when other women were put off by his sexual forwardness. Then one afternoon, I started having flashbacks and realized that I had a horrible experience with this guy who was now part of my social circle.
My boyfriend now found himself in the dilemma of either diminishing my experience or acknowledging his participation in a longstanding friendship with a sexual predator. I questioned whether my boyfriend had enabled his best friend’s predatory tendencies. At times, he criticized his friend’s sexual transgressions, but mostly condoned behavior he suspected was painful to women.
The perpetrator is a very handsome and gregarious man, whose male friends admire his ease of conquest with women. His modus operandi to get women to accept his massages is to offer, what he has coined, his “Harmonic Body Wave” massage technique. This is a great source of humor among some of his friends, however it may not have been so humorous to the women who trustingly agreed to be massaged and found them selves fondled instead or as in my case penetrated against their will. The chances are slim that his friends will ever ask him “but, did she indicate consent?’ ”
You may wonder how much malicious intent was present in the mind of the perpetrator. Does he consciously use stealth and deception to circumvent a woman from saying “no”? Is his offer to give a massage a ploy to be sexual with her body without her consent? or is he so delusional that he truly believes that when a woman consents to a massage, she also consents him to be sexual with her?
On another occasion, I overheard (one of the triggers to my memory) him boasting to my boyfriend that he had stuck his finger in a woman’s vagina on the dance floor. My boyfriend asked him what had preceded this event, and he answered with a rather nasty smirk: “he, as long as they don’t say no …”
Confronting the perpetrator
Once I fully remembered and was able to handle the shame of being a sexual assault victim, I confronted the perpetrator and let him know what the experience had been like for me. His response was “I don’t really remember.” He said he was sorry that I experienced my encounter with him as very negative, but added: “But I thought that everybody who goes to that party was promiscuous.”
I’m happy I finally gave the perpetrator much needed feedback. I believe that many women prefer to scurry away from the overly sexually aggressive male instead of bluntly asserting that a transgression took place. Two of my girlfriends who met the perpetrator were irritated by his disregard for their personal space, but both of them chose to avoid a public scene and did not provide him with accurate feedback.
Adding insult to injury/ Female fault vs. male irresponsibility
Fear of being blamed, doubted, trivialized, stigmatized and even ostracized silences most victims of this kind of crime. I cringed whenever I heard a sentence start with: “Well, I would have…,” or, “you should have…”
Speaking out about what happened that day meant facing my shame and humiliation and self-blame. It also meant finding myself on the defensive with people who told me I was somehow responsible for what happened to me that day.
The mythic image of the violent stranger jumping out of the bushes is oddly reassuring and very persistent in spite of contradicting statistics about sex crimes. The uncomfortable reality is that most perpetrators are known and trusted by the victim and that sexual assault doesn’t necessarily involve the threat of physical violence.
I noticed is that some kind of uneasiness and defensive thinking kicks in when people are confronted by a sexual assault victim. The conversations focused around determining where I had gone wrong. All my voluntary interactions with the perpetrator before the assault were suspect, had I not asked for it in some way? My skills to communicate my sexual boundaries were doubted. My reasons for speaking up about the assault were questioned.
For women, I now realize that blaming the victim is a way to feel safer. If only we avoid the risky behavior of the past victim, than we can continue to believe we can prevent this from happening to ourselves. For men, focusing on victim culpability reduces the attention to appropriate male sexual behavior.
I noticed how complacent we are of the seeming inevitability of women always having to be vigilant, because we tacitly accept that women are always preyed upon. Apparently it is easier to tell a woman to restrict her actions and movements in order to reduce risk, than to tell a man to judge his actions by the effect it has on others. Is masculinity at odds with mutuality in sex? If all individuals were held responsible for minimizing risks, then what restrictions could men implement to prevent non-consensual sex?
I was reprimanded for having placed myself in what turned out to be a vulnerable situation and was deftly told what I can and can not do in my “new agey” community in the bay area in the 21st century. I am now very clear on that it is thought to be a woman’s responsibility to limit her freedoms in order to reduce the risk of bumping into an overly sexually aggressive male. And it is the woman’s job to control the tendency of men to read consent when there is none. It is kind of like being hit by a drunk driver and then being blamed for it.
What is sexual assault?
It became very clear to me that most people define sexual assault as a violation of boundaries, and not as non-consensual sex. I was blamed for not having put up a boundary at some point, somehow. The perpetrator was not blamed for taking liberties with my body without my positive cooperation, or even my awareness.
Negotiating consensual sex is a very complicated dance. I like to call it a dance since most of the communication is often non-verbal. The short phrase “no means no” is an over simplification of the process. However, the short-phrase is useful to help us communicate our morals about the more elaborate negotiation process that precedes consensual sex.
Our current sexual morality puts the responsibility for ensuring consensual sex entirely on the woman, by giving her the power to veto. Our commonly held definition of a sex-crime is that a man violates a woman’s “No.” (Of course men too can be sex-crime victims.) The implication here is that as long as a woman has not put up her verbal defensive block, no transgressions have occurred.
“No means No” facilitates the guy who uses stealth and deceit to grope and fondle
Most of us see mutuality as necessary for sex, we want to be wanted. We want a meeting of the bodies and the minds. The sexual predator is content with merely using a woman’s body. I’ve read that most sexual predators resist the idea of seeing themselves as such. They will look for ways to validate their behavior and will often seek public approval for their private transgressions. Often they will give moral validation to their actions by their intent and not by how it affects others.
The predator, who uses stealth and deceit to circumvent the woman’s “no” walks away from his groping and fondling with his self-image of uprightness intact. The stealth and deceit predator uses our rule, “no means no” to sidestep the complicated dance of negotiating consensual sex. He inserts imaginary consent as long as a woman hasn’t verbally said “No.”
Just as men learn to degrade women from other men, they also learn to respect women from other men. A man who chooses the short-phrase “no means no” to represent his values about sex provides the green light for the stealth and deceit perpetrators to grope and fondle while leaving their self-image intact. The man who chooses “no means no” fails to protect his sisters and daughters from this kind of sexual predator.
A man who uses the short phrase “yes means yes” instills that consent is absolutely required in sex. He implies that to be sexual with a woman’s body without her consent is sexual assault. That man creates a safer world for women, instead of telling women how to restrict their actions and movements in order to reduce the risk of getting hurt by male sexuality. Just as it is important for women to be assertive about their sexual boundaries, it is important that men are held accountable for their sexual actions.
“Oh, but I thought I had her consent!”
How often do we hear a man say: “oh but I thought I had her consent.” Inability to control one’s own “imaginary wishful thinking” is not a valid excuse for injuring others. It is like giving a driver’s license to a blind guy. (I hope I’m safe assuming blind people aren’t supposed to drive). There is no difference between a man who cannot control his sexual urges and a man who cannot control his “insertions of imaginary consent.”
How are you going to respond the next time you hear a guy say “oh, but I thought I had her consent?” You can give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he is truly inept to accurately read women’s non-verbal communication. I hope you let him know he should be aware of this handicap and therefore only use verbal communication when he is negotiating for sex.
Becoming a survivor
What happened that day, and what I thought it said about me, was very disruptive to my self image. At first, I took responsibility for what happened, and I thought that my failure to prevent this from happening to me was a sign of my personal incompetence. Additionally, I believed that my reaction of, pretending to be a willing participant, was further proof of poor coping abilities.
Today, I know I had poor judgment in trusting this man. However, I place the responsibility for what happened with the perpetrator and not with me. When I accepted the back-massage I did not consent to vaginal penetration.
I now realize that pretending to be a willing participant is a valid coping mechanism. What I had just experienced with this man was that he was capable of hurting me by using stealth and deception. By my pretense, I got myself out of that situation as quickly and safely as possible, preventing further losses.
The intense humiliation and confusion and self-blame keeps most women from reporting sex-crimes with the police. For those few women who do report the incident, even fewer find justice. Since most non-violent sex crimes are “he said, she said” scenarios and we live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, the law is often unable to protect women.
However, I found some solace in knowing that my report is on file with the police and a paper trail has been created. If other women come forward with similar complaints about the same person, at some point it may add up to enough evidence. Also, the perpetrator, knowing about the complaint that is on file against him, might be inclined to change his behavior.
My experience with the San Rafael Police department was positive. I know that this is not always the case. I highly recommend getting assistance with reporting sex crimes. Rape crisis centers have advocates to accompany the victim to the police and ensure that the complaint is properly processed.
A scene from Until Someone Wakes up (created by Carolyn Levy)
Waiter: Would you like some coffee?
Woman: Yes, please.
Waiter: Just say when. (Starts to pour.)
Woman: There. (He keeps pouring.) That’s fine. (He pours.)
Stop! (She grabs the pot; there the coffee is everywhere.) What are you doing? I said stop.
Waiter: Yes, ma’am
Woman: Well, why didn’t you stop pouring?
Waiter: Oh, I wasn’t sure you meant it.
Woman: Look, of course I meant it! I have coffee all over my lap! You nearly burned me!
Waiter: Forgive me ma’am, but you certainly looked thirsty. I thought you wanted more.
Waiter: And you must admit, you did let me start to pour.
Woman: Well of course I did. I wanted some coffee.
Waiter: See, there you go. A perfectly honest mistake.
Please forward this reading to whomever you think might be interested. If young boys understand that “consent is necessary” we won’t have to worry so much about young girls. So, please forward this writing to your sons and nephews.