Tuesday 28 August 2012

Thoughts on sexual assault, and naming our experiences

A conversation between two feminists on Twitter has got me thinking a little bit about sexual assault, and how we name the things that happen to us.

On various occasions when I was younger, I was pushed against the wall in a club or in public spaces and had someone stick their tongue down my throat, or attempt to. I’m going to focus this post on two incidents that have stayed with me the most – one in a club and one on a bus. In the bus incident, he didn’t manage to hit his target as I pushed him away and so he instead kissed my shoulder. In the club, he actually did get his tongue in my mouth. Not with my permission, not with any overture or even a cheesy line. It was just push, tongue. It was, absolutely, sexual contact I hadn’t consented to. Sexual contact I didn’t want to happen. In the club situation I was really drunk, but on the bus, what with it being around eight in the morning, I was sober. Not that that detail matters. My drunken or sober state made no difference to whether a man felt it was ok to push and kiss me, and it made no difference to my ability to defend myself. 

At the time, I dismissed these experiences as just something I had to put up with, being a woman out and about, going clubbing, going dancing, getting on buses. I didn’t forget them, and the experiences upset me and left me feeling sad, angry and distressed. But I didn’t name them as sexual assault. 

I’ve always felt wary of naming things like this. I remember describing a one-night stand in an online discussion; a one-night stand that I consented to but in actual fact didn’t really want to happen. This guy tried to tell me that I had been ‘coercively raped’ (what even is that? All rape is coercive!). I hadn’t, and I was really angry that he was trying to tell me how to experience and label something that, although I perhaps regretted and had gone along with out of nothing more than a desire to avoid awkwardness, I had absolutely consented to. But more and more I’ve been thinking about how to name those non-consensual, forced sexual encounters in clubs and buses, and the only way I can name them is as sexual assault. 

I first started thinking these issues through, and re-considering my experiences of this kind of behaviour, with the #ididnotreport Twitter campaign. I started to wonder whether the fact I had never called these episodes ‘assault’ was because the thought of reporting being pushed against a wall and having some guy force his tongue down your throat seems fairly ludicrous. And the reason it seems ludicrous is because it is so common, so commonplace, that to complain about what is essentially sexually aggressive behaviour from men feels like you’re making a fuss. You feel like it’s too common, so that it doesn’t count, it doesn’t matter. 

And this got me thinking about how this behaviour is so normalised, to the point that to complain about it seems like you’re the one with the problem. 

On these occasions, I didn’t react with a fight. I just accepted it as something that happens. To react with anger, with shouting and kicking out seemed like an over-reaction – so much had I accepted the idea that, as a woman, men had a right over my body. It’s not an idea that our society likes to admit of course. But it’s an idea that is re-enforced every day. Every time you walk past a lad’s mag shelf, a strip club, a brothel; every time a man shouts at a woman on the street, we’re telling women that our bodies are property, that men have some kind of right over our bodies. 

So when a man acted on that supposed right, I accepted it. I didn’t name it. I didn’t complain. I felt sad, cross, distressed – but not like I could do anything. Because, I felt, it was just the way things were, the way things are. 

But as I’ve grown older, I feel like I can’t accept these episodes any more, and that I am right to call it assault. Because it isn’t ok for a man to push a woman against a wall and shove his tongue down her throat. It isn’t ok that this happened to me, more than once, and that society told me to accept it, to think it’s just part of life, to shrug and stay silent. That it’s just what happens when you’re a woman, and you’re living your life. 

So now I will say that those men sexually assaulted me. That they forced sexual contact on me that I didn’t consent to, didn’t want. And they got away with it because we’re taught as women to accept the idea that men have some kind of rights over our bodies, rights that don’t exist and should never exist. It is my body, and my right to bodily autonomy. 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what is and isn’t rape, thanks to Republicans, Assange and George Galloway. And I think this conversation has its roots in ideas around women’s rights to their bodies. It starts with the shrugging off of street harassment as a ‘compliment’. It starts with people ‘explaining’ sexual harassment as ‘just flirting’ or ‘just a joke’. The dismissal of sexual assault as something that ‘just happens’ or is ‘just a guy coming on a bit strong’. It’s part of the culture where we have women’s bodies as consumable goods, to be bought at the newsagent counter, at the lap-dancing club, at the brothel. 

It’s not hard then, is it, to dismiss women’s claims of rape. Because the root of that dismissal is in the basic refusal to believe that women have any rights over their body at all. Again, it’s not a refusal that society likes to admit. But it exists.

Because if that accepted refusal didn’t exist, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to name what happened to me as sexual assault. I wouldn’t have spent so long thinking it was just ‘something that happened’ because I was a woman in a club, on a bus. 

And now I think it is important to name it. Because not naming it gave those men license to behave in this sexually aggressive way. It re-enforced the idea that their behaviour was ok, was acceptable. I can’t accept that. I can’t allow that to happen.


The strange thing about writing this is that i still feel like it might be an over reaction. I wasn't traumatised by these events, beyond feeling angry and a bit upset. Angry more than anything. I know that many women will have had similar experiences that they, like i did, will brush off. I feel almost guilty or hyperbolic.

But i absolutely do also believe that when it comes down to it, those men shouldn't have behaved like this, towards me or to any woman. It was unacceptable, and it was unwanted sexual contact, it was sexual contact without my consent and with physical force. So to me it matters to name it, because if i don't, then i feel like i'm letting them off the hook for their behaviour. It's not up to me to tell other women that they should feel the same way if they've had similar experiences. Just that, for me, I find I want to say that men can't get away with seeing women's bodies as their commodities.

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