In a culture where nearly one in five women will be sexually assaulted at least once in her life, we must be vigilant about reporting any and all attacks.
I’ve always been troubled by how many sexual assaults go unreported. On an intellectual level, I understand that victims feel shame, fear, even guilt, and prefer to put their experience behind them. They may not be certain that what happened to them was a crime. They worry that if they do speak out they won’t be taken seriously, or worse, they will be blamed.
But my gut still says, You have to tell someone! Without being in someone else’s mind, however, I cannot know how I would behave. If you’re as conflicted about this as I am, walk with me through the following scenarios.
You’re staying with friends, a happy family, people you know and love. You’re in the shower when you realize you’re alone in the house with a man, maybe the brother or husband of your close friend. You find yourself feeling nervous, vulnerable. You tell yourself you’re being ridiculous, but you wish you’d locked the door.
1) The man comes into the bathroom. You don’t know what he’s thinking and you don’t want to overreact, because you’ve been socialized to be polite. So you say, “Dude, what the fuck?” He gets flustered, apologizes, and leaves. Maybe he made a mistake or maybe he wanted to see you naked. Either way, you feel violated. Do you tell anyone?
2) He doesn’t leave but he doesn’t force himself on you. You still don’t know what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s watched too much porn and thinks it’s hot to surprise a woman in the shower. Again, you don’t want to overreact, but he’s trying to kiss you and touch you and this is definitely not OK. You say no and tell him to leave and he backs off. Maybe he’s embarrassed or angry. He leaves and you feel violated and confused. Do you tell anyone?
3) Instead of leaving after you say no, he persists but doesn’t become violent. You say no again. You put up a fight. You scream. He backs off, calls you a crazy bitch, and leaves. You’re certain you’ve been sexually assaulted and that this guy is dangerous. Do you tell anyone?
4) The man comes into the bathroom and forcibly rapes you. There is no confusion about what just happened. There is only the aftermath. Again, do you tell anyone?
A few thoughts run through my head when I imagine myself in the above situations. How bad would the assault need to be for me to report it? What if my attacker denied everything and no one believed me? What if I failed to report the assault and someone else became a victim? What if I went to the police and they declined to investigate?
While these scenarios vary in intensity and trauma, none are OK. What the man is thinking is irrelevant. You needn’t worry about his feelings. If he were a stranger in an unfamiliar setting, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to report the assault. But the majority of victims know their rapist. Being sexually assaulted by a family member or friend adds a layer of complexity for victims trying to decide whether or not to speak out.
If I were forcibly raped, I believe I would report it no matter who attacked me or whose lives would be disrupted. But I see a gray area, a continuum of sexual assault outside of forced intercourse, where that decision would be more difficult.
There are endless ways women, and men, are sexually assaulted. Someone rubs up against you on a crowded subway. You’re fondled on a dark dance floor. A stranger walks up to you at a bus stop and starts talking dirty to you. You’re in a cab after a first date and the guy who seemed so nice at dinner takes your hand and rubs it against his dick.
I’ve experienced most of these. I always removed myself from the situation as quickly as possible and without confrontation. I never reported encounters like these because I figured nothing would come of it. I may have felt shaken and repulsed, but I never believed I was in real danger. I also never worried about the next person who might be subjected to sexually inappropriate behavior in public. I was selfish.
Inappropriate behavior? Notice how quickly I minimized sexual assault. I used language I might use with my kid when she’s behaving badly in public. I suspect a lot of us have this kind of skewed internal dialog, a means of rationing fear and outrage to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by the many ways we might be hurt.
When I was a freshman in college I went with an older boy to his room in a fraternity house. We drank too much saké and talked. He climbed the ladder to his loft bed and invited me to join him. We fooled around, but I repeatedly pushed his hands away when he tried to undress me. At one point I tried to climb down, but he pulled me back, laughing.
I wasn’t afraid, but I sensed I wouldn’t be leaving until he decided to let me. I was drunk and I wanted to go home. After a while I stopped saying no. When he got the dimmest of green lights, he wasted no time. I’ll admit that once I resigned myself to having sex, I figured I might as well enjoy it. It was over pretty quickly. I dressed, tripped down the ladder, and left.
The next morning I told my roommate what happened. I wondered aloud if it was date rape. She was upset for me. I felt guilty and embarrassed. I didn’t talk about it again until years later when I was visiting my old roommate and the subject came up. I brushed it off and told her I was just being a melodramatic teenager. She seemed relieved.
Since he continued pressuring me to have sex after I said no, there’s no doubt it was date rape, even though I didn’t force him to stop. Silence is not consent, nor is physical passivity. Still, I felt complicit.
If I picture my daughter in the same situation, however, I feel much different. I would not blame her for making the bad choices I made. I would blame her rapist for taking advantage of a young, drunk college kid.
When I was in my 20’s, two girlfriends referred me to a gynecologist. He was funny and easy-going, and for several years I saw him for routine pap smears and breast exams. At his suggestion, I also saw him as a general practitioner. I made an appointment to talk about stomach pain. During that visit, he managed to touch my breasts three times while palpating my abdomen. I froze. I said I needed to get back to work.
I couldn’t make sense of it. I was shaken and angry, but also unsure and confused.
A few months later I was having lunch with the two friends who had recommended him, and I told them what happened. One was horrified. She said, “He delivered my baby.” The other was skeptical, dismissive. I was stunned. If one of my best friends didn’t believe me, who would?
TV shows and movies make it look so easy. A woman reports a sexual assault by a doctor or public figure and during the ensuing police investigation more women come forward with similar allegations. The perp is convicted. Case closed.
Real life isn’t that tidy, but validation sometimes comes eventually. A couple years after I confided in my friends, the woman who didn’t believe me apologized. A friend of hers had told her that the very same thing happened to her with that doctor. A part of me felt vindicated, but I couldn’t help but think I might have protected other women had I trusted my instincts and reported him. Sometimes I wonder how many women he’s touched, and if he’s still getting away with it.
When my daughter was little, maybe 4, I remember a friend wondering when parents should start talking to their kids about sexual abuse. Someone recommended a book, The Right Touch, which I bought and started reading to Gigi occasionally. The book addresses good touching and bad touching, and how kids should trust their instincts if they feel uncomfortable in a situation. The ending summarizes the message:
“Say no. Get away. No matter what happens, tell someone. And it’s not the kid’s fault.”
This is solid advice for adults as well as children. In a culture where nearly one in five women will be sexually assaulted at least once in her life, we must be vigilant. But vigilance cannot always protect us. Many brave women are speaking out about their rapes, and in doing so they are lifting the stigma around sexual assault, helping other victims feel less alone, and sending a message that we will no longer tolerate a culture of rape.
I hope to teach my daughter to protect herself, but also never to be silenced by guilt or shame. I hope she never needs to be reminded that sexual assault of any kind is not her fault. I hope this generation of sons and daughters grow into a world where there is no more stigma around rape than around murder or armed robbery or any violent crime. We cannot protect ourselves or our children from bad people and bad things, but by refusing to remain silent, we can help victims become survivors.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.