“More than half of all women experience sexual assault at some point in their lives.” I state boldly, knowing this is a jumbled statistic.
In my slightly tipsy state, I am actually misquoting a statistic from UN Women which states that globally 1 in 3 women report being victims of intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their lifetime, which is 30% of women aged 15 and older. This does not include sexual harassment, which we will come to later.
“That has to be too high.” He retorts. “There must be a difference between real rape and other types of grey areas in consent with sex. Not that many women are raped.“
And suddenly I feel scared and angry. I wished that I had some epic female warrior standing next to me who could help me call this guy out on his bullshit, but suddenly I felt meek, childlike, and shy. The “people pleaser” mode of my brain turns on, and I think, “Ah, wow, I don’t want to make this guy too uncomfortable but I better explain the situation because I know that he is wrong and I know this feels wrong.” While I defend my statement with more statistics and intellectual reasoning, his statement still feels like a violation. I didn’t want to tell my own stories, but I do anyway because I feel like I have to make a point. It is exhausting and upsetting. Despite the tense argument, he continues to attempt unwanted physical advances, and eventually I have to ask him to leave.
The next day I find myself reflecting on this interaction, feeling angry, sobbing gently while making a fist and punching a pillow on my couch. Scrolling social media platforms for feminist voices, almost too serendipitously I see a Twitter post by Elly Mae: “Men’s obsession with trying to debunk statistics about sexual violence is actually fucking terrifying.” As I read that, my whole body starts shaking and I weep in that messy, tangled, uncontrollable way that comes with pain and trauma. And I think, “Yes, yes, yes — that’s exactly right.” I was defending the severity of sexual violence towards women to this guy who wanted to test my physical boundaries and challenge my values. Yes, I did feel terrified. I was alone with this man in my own home, and I felt like my safety was violated. I was making a case about the ubiquity of sexual assault while this guy was not agreeing and making unwanted physical advances. That’s obscene and grotesque. And it’s also not the first time.
Consent should be enthusiastically given, and not just assumed as a default if there are no obvious indications of its absence. This is too big of a problem — we need to talk about consent.
Many naive approaches to consent treat consent only in the negative (what is not permitted versus what is), and also constrain the act of consent to a sort of verbal stop sign. For example, I have heard statements like, “Tell me if I do something that makes you uncomfortable”, or “Tell me to stop if I go too far.” And recently, some lucid part of me woke up upon hearing this for the fifteen-hundredth time, and I thought, “Wow, that’s a really odd statement.” These statements make me feel like the person making them is trying to get away with something, making a conquest or playing some game where I suddenly have to say, “Oh, wait, no! That’s too far.” I would never want me or a partner to suddenly open up a trauma-wound and have to confront it without any discussion in advance about the fact that this might happen.
The other issue with these statements is that they assume that people know their boundaries ahead of time. This way of treating boundaries focuses on blocks to consent rather than explicit, given consent, and as such it often shuts down an ongoing exploration about trust, safety, and desires. Another way of approaching consent communication would be to ask, “Hey, what are you comfortable with, and what are you not comfortable with?” Or if you want to just focus on the positive, try asking someone what they would like to experience that would feel safe and comfortable. Never push on another person’s boundaries.
And now let’s get to sexual harassment…
My fellow women and I all have an abundance of stories of everyday sexual harassment, including: being groped, inappropriate sexual comments from coworkers, being touched without consent, and being chased by strangers who hunt us down ask us if we’re single.
After my first keynote presentation at a major conference, I was approached by a random guy who loudly reported to the whole room that he had seen me on an online dating website. Even though I was horrified, I asked him, “Do you have a question about my presentation?” and the unease in the room dissolved into laughter. Another female researcher who I admired came up to me afterwards to tell me, “Hey, I’m really impressed with the way you handled that situation.” Despite this positive reception, when I got home I cried for a couple hours out of fear, shame, and humiliation. While this might not qualify as sexual harassment, it is definitely a situation where it felt very clear that this man wanted to make me feel weak after I had just had a very empowering experience.
Two weeks after I arrived in Dresden, my Lieferando delivery guy entered my apartment without my consent, not wearing a mask, and then backed me into a corner asking me if I had a boyfriend. When when I reported the incident to Lieferando they just gave me a discount on my next order (which I was too traumatized to place).
I’m scared to walk home alone at night. “Text me when you get home” is one of the most real hashtags I’ve ever seen — it is a phrase I say every single time my female friends and I part ways after dark.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
Read that again.
According to a new statistic in the UK, 97% of women report experiencing sexual harassment.
I remember during the early days of the Me Too movement, all the men I knew were saying, “Wow. It’s all of them, isn’t it? It’s every single woman I know.”
I’ve never spoken with a woman who did not have at least one sexual harassment story to tell.
While my own rape story is extreme — it was my sixteenth birthday, my first sexual experience, my first time ever drinking, and I was drugged (“roofied”) — I’m not sure that drawing a distinction between “non-consensual sex” and “grey area” casual sex is appropriate. It is certainly not constructive. Trauma is trauma, regardless of the circumstances.
Please lean in and listen.