How Do You Listen to a Sexual Assault Victim?

How do you listen to non-violent sexual assault?

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.

Since then I’ve been painfully confronted with how my community applies 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 I paid dearly for it. I was often met with skepticism, judgment and a certain distancing, at a time when I was in desperate need of support by my friends. 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. I hope that after reading this, 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 how we assign responsibility for ensuring that sex is consensual. Specifically, I want to show how the non-violent perpetrator uses our moral code “no means no” to justify being sexual with a person’s body without their consent.

Also, I want to help prevent this from happening to other women in my community. The perpetrator walks in my social circles and, if you are reading this, it is likely he walks in yours as well. If after reading this you decide you want to know the name of the perpetrator to protect yourself or your friends,

What happened:

After partying all night at a Halloween party in San Rafael, I walked to my car, alone. A man, whom I had talked with 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, I didn’t notice that he never asked whether I wanted to be escorted to my car. I felt very comfortable with him, and he won my trust.

When we got to my car, he offered to give me a back-massage and said that he could do this while standing up. Feeling fully my post-party exhaustion, I accepted. He gave me 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. Part of my Halloween costume that year was hotpants and no panties. 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 move 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 approach to 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 a part of me that I have so many tender emotions about. In my life, I have had many different kinds of feelings 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 so he wouldn’t realize that this was not what I had wanted. 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 extricated 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.

Confusion:

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.

Making waves:

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 had a horrible experience with this guy who was now a part of my social circle.

My boyfriend now found himself in the dilemma of either diminishing my experience or facing up to the fact that he had been friends with a person who commits sexual transgressions. I questioned whether my boyfriend had enabled his best friend’s predatory tendencies. My boyfriend would at times criticize his friend’s sexual transgressions, but mostly condoned behavior he suspected was painful to women.

The perpetrator is a very handsome and gregarious person, whose male friends admire his ease of conquest with women. His technique to get women to accept a massage from him is to offer what he calls his “Harmonic Body Wave” massage technique, which is a great source of humor among 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 ‘yes?’ ”

Malicious intent:

You may wonder how much malicious intent was present in the mind of the perpetrator. Does he consciously use stealth and deception to close the window of opportunity for a woman to say “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 his hands on her body for 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 felt 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 know 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, treated with insensitivity 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…”

Talking about what happened that day meant facing the shame and humiliation and self-blame that I felt. It also meant finding myself on the defensive with people who told me I was 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 sexual 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.

One of the things 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?

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. 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 likes 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 (as was the case with the perpetrator) 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 an imaginary “Yes” 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. A man who chooses “no means no” fails to protect his sisters and daughters from this kind of sexual predator.

A man who says “yes means yes” instills that consent is absolutely required in sex. That man says 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.