Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault and personal experience. This article was written for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Rape and sexual assault are not black and white concepts to me.
I am not comfortable saying that I was raped or assaulted, but I will tell you that I have experienced situations in which consent was not considered, situations in which I was very uncomfortable. I am still confused about my feelings on what happened, which is why it is important to talk about. This article will include a discussion of my experience and why I have trouble navigating my emotions concerning the event.
Sexual harassment is a common occurrence that has been accepted as normal in our society. We don’t think of these events, like getting your butt pinched in a club, as a version of sexual assault. What should bother us doesn’t always, and what bothers one person may not bother another. Something to consider when you, like me, are questioning yourself, if you feel that what has been done to you is wrong, then it probably is.
Years ago, a coworker I had no particular feelings for started complimenting my looks, eventually telling me that he would love to have sex with me. Rather than reporting him for sexual harassment, I let it continue. Over time, I came to think of him as a silver-tongued serpent of a man, but for the moment, it was flattering, it made me feel good about myself. I was living on my own and I was lonely; I was grateful for the attention, despite feeling weird about the fact that I worked with him.
A few weeks after we started having sex, I stopped by his apartment to hang out. In his living room was a group of his colleagues, turning their heads to stare at me, fresh meat on which to rest their collective gaze. I hadn’t expected them to be there. I felt nervous, on the spot. One of the women took special interest, telling me how cute I was to be feeling so shy, engaging in conversation to help me feel more comfortable.When the coworker brought up including a third in our activities, I told him I would be willing to have dinner with her, to get to know her better.
When I walked into his apartment on the agreed-upon evening, she was naked on his kitchen floor.
There had been no discussion between us about any of this. I was not ready to include her yet; I had simply wanted to talk to her. When I had said dinner, I had meant the three of us eating food, talking, with our clothes on, seeing if we wanted to go for it. We had not talked about anything actually happening this evening, or what it would be like include a third, or any other very important things that should be discussed before something like this happens.
I was immediately uncomfortable, but I didn’t say anything. I let them have their way with me, hating it when she spanked me, feeling exposed and self-loathing when he pulled out his phone to record the experience. I watched him choke her until she nearly passed out; while the choking was consensual between them, I had not agreed to be subjected to the experience.
The next day I asked him to delete the photos and video. He said he would, though I had no way of making sure. It did not end well. He refused to talk to me about everything that had gone on between us. I felt that conversation was needed so we could end things on a good note; we were co-workers, we couldn’t go on hating each other. But we did.
Sexual assault and rape are often portrayed as either violent or incestuous. The victim screams no, struggles; often the victim is underage. This is how society views sexual assault. My experience was none of these things. It didn’t match up with what I had learned about various kinds of assault. I hadn’t been beaten, held down. I didn’t say no.
My knowledge of sex and consent tell me that I was assaulted, that yes means yes, that the lack of a no is not the presence of a yes. My knowledge says, “you were assaulted. You were a victim.” But my training by society leads me to be hesitant. He made me feel obligated to engage in sexual activity with them, by having her already naked and ready to go when I walked in. I wasn’t comfortable saying no. I have never been a very forward person, the person able to say no, to stand up for themselves. For me, it was very coercive. I was intimidated by the situation, and didn’t feel that it was within my power to refuse. Coercion is non-consensual, and I know that, but I’m still uncomfortable calling it assault.
I loath the memory of him to this day. I feel that he took advantage of me, of my loneliness, of my anxiety when it came to sexually asserting myself, my wants, needs, desires, and the things I wasn’t comfortable with. I was never someone to stand up for myself, to make the first move, to have confidence in myself. Another contributor to the problem is individual differences in the way a situation is viewed. What was seen as acceptable to him was in no way acceptable to me.
Some good did come out of this. In the ensuing months, I learned to value myself. I learned that I was worth something. I dated around for a few months, nothing serious, just having a nice time out with people who made me feel good about myself. I faced the fact that I needed to be alone, on my own. I needed to build confidence in myself, prove to myself that I was just fine on my own.
When Trump talked about grabbing women by the pussy, I was enraged. You don’t touch someone like that without consent, without an eager “yes.” He was talking about assaulting women. So why do I have so much trouble calling my situation assault? Photos and video were taken that I hadn’t consented to, a threeway occurred with no communication beforehand. Things were done to me that I was not comfortable with, yet I still struggle to call it assault. Perhaps it’s because I knew my coworker, had trusted him. Perhaps this is what everyone feels like when someone they know does something that they are not okay with.
However I define my personal experiences and you define yours, know that your experiences are very real, and completely valid. What happened to me was not okay, was not consensual. It was not okay for him to make such a huge assumption (or, for that matter, any assumption), and it was definitely not okay that he took photos and video without my permission.
Consent is about actively saying yes. An active yes does not include coercion, doing what you don’t want to do, feeling unable to refuse. Consent is not a given simply because you have had sex together before. It is not consent if you are afraid to say no. I have to remind myself every day that it was not my fault. Victim blaming leads us to believe that the lack of the word no gives us some kind of responsibility in what happened. It’s important to keep reminding ourselves and others that the absence of a “no” is not a “yes.”