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.

*update*


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.

15 comments:

The Tramp said...

It is completely normalised, especially in clubs. The awful thing is that a lot of girls go there specifically to get some kind of sexual attention due to various influences, media/celebrities etc. I know intelligent girls who think that a builder wolf-whistling is a compliment, or even that a man introducing himself by grinding on them is a compliment. It isn't their fault, but it's no wonder it happens to all the others who DO view it as it is - sexual harrassment - so often.

T said...

"I feel almost guilty or hyperbolic."

Strange, you clearly have every right to feel angry about them. Their behaviour, as you described it, is completely disgusting.

It is as though they do not know how to say "I want to kiss you..." and then pause for a yes/no response.

...Do I take it that that would be an acceptable action to you?


"...I want to say that men can't get away with seeing women's bodies as their commodities."

Maybe add a qualifier of some kind before the word Men. As otherwise, it could imply (hopefully accidentally) that you think ALL men see women's bodies as their commodities and that they (rightly) shouldn't get away with that.
Many, many men do not see women's bodies in this way at all, so it could be a good idea to add a qualifier for clarity.

How do you feel about this:

"...I want to say that such men can't get away with seeing women's bodies as their commodities."

foolonthehill said...

I've actually been subject to quite a lot of this behaviour from women. It's happened so many times I've lost track. It is mainly around grabbing my ass, but sometimes it's just a direct grab for the family jewels. Technically this is sexual assault, but I don't tend to take it personally, and put it down to pissed-up high jinx. Obviously the behaviour you've described is clearly unacceptable. What do you think though about women behaving the same way? I would hardly think that women believe that men's bodies are their commodities?

sian and crooked rib said...

I kind of write about the differences between men harassing/assaulting women and vice versa here http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/my-body-is-not-your-property-street.html

both serious but perhaps our views and reactions to both are very different.

Marina S said...

What do you think though about women behaving the same way?

That it's clearly unacceptable.

I would hardly think that women believe that men's bodies are their commodities?

You'd be right, because women don't live in a society that encourages them to think of men's bodies as theirs for the taking, nor do we live in a society that treats men's bodies as commodities. No behaviour is free of context, so just because things look similar on the surface doesn't mean they come from similar psycho-social dynamics.

From experience, I'd say women who sexually assault/intimidate men in this way are misguidedly aping the behaviour of men. They basically make the context mistake: if I behave in this way that means I'm as sexually liberated as a man. But of course it's a very tall order in our culture to be as sexually liberated as a man, and just being an asshole doesn't get you there.

foolonthehill said...

Thanks for that, I think what you wrote in that previous blog covers it. I think I just didn't get that far down the page before due to my woeful attention span!

MariaS said...

@ The Tramp - you say "It isn't their fault, but it's no wonder it happens to all the others who DO view it as it is - sexual harrassment - so often". That IS implying that it is some women's fault that other women get harassed, and it is not. Am sure you would agree that the blame should always lie entirely with the person engaging in harassing behaviour. The unsolicited sexual behaviour is still harassment even if the person subjected to it then plays along with it. There's enormous pressure on women to minimise and excuse unsolicited sexual attention from men as being something to actively seek out, to view as a compliment or just as behaviour that you put up with. Women are constantly told that attracting the attention of men is a goal they should strive for, so of course many of us buy into that. That's why simply naming such behaviour as sexual harassment or sexual assault can be such a radical act.

@ T - Telling a stranger in a club or on a bus "I want to kiss you" would be just as much a manifestation of the kind of sense of entitlement that Sian describes. They'd just have been giving forewarning that they were thinking of sexually assaulting her, only very slightly better than just going ahead and doing so. It's still creepy unwanted attention.

Your nitpicking about a single instance where Sian does not specify a subset of men also misses the point, as well as evading engaging with what she's writing about. Firstly, using the word "men" like this is a common kind of generalisation and most readers would reasonably infer that it's not intended to mean literally all men, because it would obviously be nonsensical if it did. It's also not qualified with "all" or "always" or another universalising word. However, in the context of the post the point that Sian is making *is* a generalised one, going from the specific men who assaulted her to the wider culture of male sexual entitlement and how that is normalised (and not forgetting the fact that she wrote off and put up with these experiences for a long time precisely because they are such common experiences for women and girls).

Who are these "many many men" who don't see women's bodies as commodities? As Sian said, there are so many ways that women's bodies are presented to men, whether in reality or fantasy, as available to them as a matter of course. Only a minority of men actually commit sexual assault, but buying into the culture of male sexual entitlement, one way or another, is part of heteronormative masculinity. For example, a 2011 survey of 18-24 year-olds found that 8 out of 10 male respondents looked at internet pornography.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/12918531

If some men escape that culture and oppose it, brilliant. I don't think many of those men would be that bothered that a sentence on a blog, that they probably haven't read, may or may not lump them in with it or feel that they need defending from that.

e.f. bartlam said...

While there may be complicated forces at work...the naming shouldn't be complicated.

If somebody walked by and merely shoved you against the wall...legally it would be assault. Wouldn't it?

I don't understand these men that want to steal kisses this way or who think a formal request before "insertion" is a normal part foreplay. Losers.

geekyisgood said...

I think you've hit the nail neatly on the head with this piece. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

Unfortunately, as ever, it raises the question of what to we (society) do about it? Reporting it is likely to lead nowhere, sadly. Changing social attitudes is a slow process, and whenever this comes up in the media I'm shocked and dispirited by the backlash. This is yet another argument for full discussion on consent as part of education. As I said on twitter, learning about consent is as important as learning how to use a condom (more important really).

sian and crooked rib said...

thank you x

T said...

>Sian: "I'd say women who sexually assault/intimidate men in this way are misguidedly aping the behaviour of men."

It is not helpful (at all) to attempt to infantilize such women by thinking that they are simply mimicking the behaviour of others as though they don't know any better. They have as much freewill as any men that do the same action. They are both responsible for their own actions. Sexual assault is not a specifically male action, it is a human one. Some women commit sexual assault.



>Maria S: "Telling a stranger in a club or on a bus "I want to kiss you" would be just as much a manifestation of the kind of sense of entitlement that Sian describes. They'd just have been giving forewarning that they were thinking of sexually assaulting her, only very slightly better than just going ahead and doing so. It's still creepy unwanted attention."

Ok, there appears to be a misunderstanding here. Saying that to a complete stranger would be highly inappropriate.
The context I automatically assumed in my head when writing that was of two people flirting and getting to know each other - Sorry, if I assumed the wrong situation.


>Maria S: "Who are these "many many men" who don't see women's bodies as commodities? As Sian said, there are so many ways that women's bodies are presented to men, whether in reality or fantasy, as available to them as a matter of course. Only a minority of men actually commit sexual assault, but buying into the culture of male sexual entitlement, one way or another, is part of heteronormative masculinity. For example, a 2011 survey of 18-24 year-olds found that 8 out of 10 male respondents looked at internet pornography.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/12918531"

Maybe I am guilty of unconsciously projecting my own attitudes about women's bodies onto others when I say "many many men". This may very well be the case, goodness knows the way some men speak on the subject - it alienates me.

I think you are sliding down a very slippery slope with the word But after sexual assault. It would serve little purpose to get into a long discussion here about the problems (both real and imaginary) of pornography.

In my opinion it is perfectly possible to have a healthy attitude to people's bodies and gender equality, and still enjoy pornography, erotic art and literature.

Goodness knows, if I tried to take away my bi friend's porn she would tear my arm right off. She describes herself as feminist, though is evolving to egalitarian.
She is clearly not the only one. There are plenty of feminists that love it. You can find proudly identifying feminists (of both genders) eagerly posting their favourite images (some of which I am certain you would find appalingly disturbing and degrading) on image blogs all over the web.

There are as many types of feminism as there are feminists.
So, be under no illusion that you are speaking for women or even for feminists.

- T

sianandcrookedrib said...

T:

'>Sian: "I'd say women who sexually assault/intimidate men in this way are misguidedly aping the behaviour of men.""

I didn't say that.

HerbsandHags said...

It's really interesting the way you describe the doubt about naming it because you don't feel about it the way society tells you you OUGHT to feel about it.

In order for us to name something as sexual assault, we are required to be distressed, outraged, traumatised. If we just carry on with our normal lives, society says that means we weren't really sexually assaulted, because if we really were, we'd behave the way sexual assault victims are required to.

So society socialises us to accept sexual assault, by telling us we're over-reacting when we don't, then tells us that because our socialisation has worked so well, it's not sexual assault at all, it's just being a woman.

Clever eh?

sian and crooked rib said...

absolutely - it's very clever. and, as an aside, that's very much how so many people are undermining the claims made against Assange - e.g. they went to a party, they were smiling etc etc. It's the ideas around the 'perfect victim', and those who don't behave the 'right way' are therefore clearly not victims or survivors.

T said...

>Sian: "I didn't say that."

Oops, my mistake. Sorry about that.

- T