Consent violation, and owning my story
Content warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
I wrote this post about two months ago, but then decided against posting because the time felt somehow off. Now it feels right. I do want to mention that most of the events recounted here happened in my early to mid- twenties, thus quite a few years ago. While some anger and shame remains, much has changed since then. I have especially grown in my ability to voice my non-consent, to dare being impolite; I have also healed significantly from my broken heritage.
One night about a month ago, as I was about to fall asleep, a memory came to me so vivid that I spent the next hour listening to the blood rushing through my skull as I lay trying to moderate my breath. I was reliving telling a trusted friend, a male friend, a personal story that I was very ashamed about. The story I was telling went like this:
When I was 23 I moved to a new town and took a new job. I knew no one in this town save my colleagues and a few friends of the guy I was sort-of seeing at that stage, Alexander (we were in a long-distance non-committal thing, Alexander was on the other side of the world but some of his friends lived close by). At that stage my job was only part-time. I didn’t have transport so my explorations were limited.
The days were sometimes startlingly lonely.
A friend of Alexander invited me to supper. His name was Chris, I’d met him a few weeks before and had quite liked him. It was also the first time since moving to this town that anyone had invited me to their house.
I was picturing myself becoming fast friends with him and his friends, within a few weeks being invited to wine tastings and rock concerts and evenings of philosophising in tiny bars.
Chris, large, affable, rather macho, was a surprisingly good cook. He stir-fried chicken and veggies together and we ate while watching Top Gear. Conversation flowed easily. He did drop some comments that were critical towards Alexander, implying that I was being duped, which confused me because I thought they were very close. But I sort of ignored that because I needed Chris to be a loyal friend to Alexander – otherwise visiting him alone might start feeling strange.
Somewhere during the second episode of Top Gear Chris put his arm around me. “Don’t worry,” he said when I reacted in surprise, “this is the way I am with all my friends, I just like cuddling. I’m a very tactile person.”
Looking back, a part of me knew right then what was going to happen. But another part of me believed him. I believed him because I tell the truth (when it feels safe to do so) and I assume that other people do as well. I believed him because he seemed nice, and he was a close friend of someone I trusted. And I believed him because he spoke about his many other female friends, friends I assumed felt safe with him. Also, I couldn’t imagine he would make a move on a close friend’s lover.
Being touched by another human was nice. Sitting on a couch watching a TV show with someone’s arm draped heavily over my shoulders felt comforting. But by the time Chris moved his head and started kissing me, I wasn’t surprised. Somewhere over the previous ten minutes I’d figured out he was probably going to do that. So when he leaned in I did the maths and everything fell into place:
If I hadn’t wanted this to happen, I should have left long ago. I should have taken his arm off my shoulder. I should have been really clear about my need for a non-sexual friendship instead of just vaguely mentioning my unavailability. I hadn’t meant to flirt but I could understand how it might have looked that way. I could not plausibly plead innocence.
“I’m on my period, so we can’t have sex,” I lied when Chris’s intent quickly became clear.
“Go down on me, then,” he whispered. I did so without thinking twice.
Was I scared? Did I think he might use force if I said ‘no’?
No. My thoughts never went far enough to even entertain the possibility of physical danger. At no stage did I truly feel physically threatened. But I never even considered saying no, although I didn’t want to sleep with him, I didn’t want to give him a blowjob, and I hadn’t even wanted to kiss him. A quick blowjob just seemed by far the most expedient way of getting the evening to be over. That pattern had been formed much earlier, when I was sixteen and drunk at a party: If I make out with a boy, his horniness is my responsibility. If I don’t want to have sex, the least I can do is help him finish. This is what I learned early, and I learned it well.
Back to the story: afterwards, Chris drove me home and I sat for a long time in my flat with all the lights turned on, chain smoking and playing Solitaire on my computer. I didn’t want to try to sleep yet because I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I felt ashamed and very, very alone.
To understand what happened next you need to understand my thinking: I never considered the fact that I might not be in the wrong here. I’d felt uncomfortable and exposed when Chris made a move on me, but I assumed that I had miscommunicated somehow. I had failed to accurately convey the fact that I was not interested in having sex with him, and thus what had happened felt like the logical conclusion of my error. To fix it, I thought I simply had to communicate more clearly.
(Communicating clearly was in itself a source of anxiety, because I had so rarely done it in this context. Even now, when I suspect someone is interested in me and the desire isn’t mutual, I agonise about how to convey this as nicely as possible. Sometimes I avoid parties just because I’m afraid I’m going to have to say “no” to someone there. I replay every time I do reject someone over and over in my mind, agonising over what I did wrong for them to have misread my signals. I know that I’m an engaged conversationalist. I know that I am friendly. Am I flirting? Do I secretly crave the attention? Am I asking for this?)
Anyway – the next day I communicated clearly, or so I thought. I sent him a message saying “So last night was interesting but given my situation I really don’t want it to happen again, I hope you understand. Let’s just be friends?”
I know. I know. I should have just said “I’m not interested in you” instead of going with “given my situation”. And I shouldn’t have suggested we be friends. I should have blocked him and stayed the hell away. But I didn’t. I did the best I knew how, while remaining excruciatingly polite, because impoliteness was terrifying to me.
“It’s all good, I totally get it. It won’t happen again,” replied Chris. Ah, relief. Everything would be fine now. A week or so later Chris contacted me again, suggesting another meal. I didn’t want to go to his house again, because then I wouldn’t be able to leave at will (remember no car), so I suggested he come to my house.
* * *
At this point in the story, the friend I was telling it to, who was driving, let out an exasperated sigh and interrupted me: “But Sage, why did you invite him over after that? Surely you should have known better by then.”
I remember with crystal clarity how those words hit me in the stomach. He was confirming what I was thinking too, even as I was starting to own this story and come to terms with what had happened. He was blaming me and I suspected I deserved the blame. I felt hot waves of shame washing over me, even as the anger flooded through me, even as I felt almost paralysed in my need to make myself understood. You deserved it, whispered an inner voice. You were naïve and stupid. Surely you knew better. Don’t go around asking for someone – especially for a man – to be on your side with this story.
“Stop the car,” I said, voice choked. “I need to get out.” Wordlessly he stopped. I stalked off into a field, face hot with tears. Eventually I sat down and sobbed with my head between my knees, feeling profoundly inadequate, alone, and ashamed. How do you explain your choices, how do you explain what was done to you, what you ALLOWED to be done to you, to someone who doesn’t understand where you came from? Who doesn’t understand how deep it runs, this need to be acceptable, to please, to preserve the peace at any cost? Who doesn’t know how hard it is for me to exist without apologising?
And who, even if he does grasp this, would not be able to hold the complexity of that reality in tandem with the equally true story of my strength and courage?
Because I AM strong, and courageous, and I take up space daily even though it’s still so hard for me to do.
How do I tell this story without seeming either pathetic or criminally stupid?
I didn’t, that’s how. I got back in the car. He apologised. I shakily accepted his apology and we had a pleasant evening together. I didn’t tell him the rest of my story because he hadn’t earned the right to it. And I never forgot that moment; without knowing it I withdrew parts of myself right then because I realised that they weren’t safe. I wasn’t known.
And months later I lay awake in the middle of the night, sweating, weeping because I still wanted the chance to tell him my story. I DO want to be known. I want to be told “Fuck, I get it now, what happened is not your fault, and I’m so sorry I was an arsehole who couldn’t imagine a reality apart from mine”. I want to not have to explain and justify myself. I just want to be seen.
So I’ll tell you the rest of the story instead, unknown reader, even though I might not be safe with you either; and I’m telling this because it needs to be told. Because this happens to many women. Because this happened to me and it’s a complicated tale and I am still processing my regret and my shame around this, but I know this now: IT WASN’T MY FAULT.
* * *
The day came, Chris came over. I had only one chair and a tiny table so he had to sit on the end of my bed, which I had pushed up against the table, while I made sure to sit far away on the chair. We had curry and lots of wine. We spoke about music and got super excited exchanging favourite songs, waxing lyrical about the bands we’d loved as teenagers, Green Day and Depeche Mode and Radiohead. I was having fun, relaxing. Then suddenly Chris got up. “I just need to do something, I’ve been wanting to do this all evening,” he said. And he walked over and kissed me.
I kissed him back. My brain scrambled for a coping strategy and the best it could come up with was: kiss him back and then, after a while, withdraw and make a joke, say something that’ll defuse the situation. So I did. I was totally fake and I still struggle with that: I told him he’s a good kisser (which he admittedly is, so, you know, I wasn’t lying exactly).
And then I said “but this can’t happen again, you know we spoke about that”.
At this stage I was painting myself as withdrawing regretfully, which was inaccurate because in reality every cell in my body wanted to get away – but I WAS still saying NO. I was saying no, even though I could have said it better. But Chris was having none of that. He came in for a kiss again and I moved my head away, said no a bit more strongly this time. I leaned back in my chair, casting about for something to do, and lit a cigarette. That would clearly occupy my mouth. That would be a clear no.
Chris stood over me as I smoked. “Sit down,” I laughed confusedly. I moved my head away, blowing out smoke in the opposite direction. He kept standing. Then he loosened his pants.
“Look at what you did to me,” he said, pulling off his underwear as well. This was getting weird. I smoked frantically, looking away, moving my chair back a bit, laughing in embarrassment. I kept insisting he sit down. He kept standing with his crotch at my face, for the entire seven minutes it took me to smoke that cigarette. I was shaking with shock as I smoked. Finally he took my hand and put it on his penis.
At which point I gave up. I just…gave up. I couldn’t realistically be on my period again. I had no idea how to defuse this situation short of kicking him out of my house, which he might have refused to do anyway. No amount of politeness and joking could make this stop. So I had sex with him instead.
And he thought I loved it. I remember opening my mouth wide into my pillow as we fucked, screaming silently in an agony of rage and confusion, even as he groaned triumphantly above me. I was doing this. I was doing this to myself. It felt as if I was betraying myself in the most profound way imaginable and the anguish settled like nausea in my stomach.
It’s still there. The nausea is still there.
After that we only ever met up in public places, but stuff still happened. He’d drop me off at home and ask to come inside – once I even let him. (It would be weird by now to say no all of a sudden, I reasoned.) After that I managed to find lifts with other people. He’d send me dick pics. He’d try to make out in bars. Gradually I managed to evade him more and more until we never met unless there were many other people present, and after a while even that felt impossible to me. The discordance was too great, I was too disgusted with both him and myself. My fear of impoliteness was overcome by my terrified need to never ever again have to see his face.
When #metoo happened Chris contacted me by text. He was nice, bashful, a bit penitent. He wanted to know if he’d ever made me feel uncomfortable, if he’d maybe been a bit pushy back then. He said he hoped I knew he never meant to make me feel pressured.
I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do him the favour of explaining how awful those events had been for me. I didn’t have the energy to sift through the shame and the fear that it might have been my fault and come up with a coherent and accurate response; I didn’t feel like explaining something to him when I knew he’d act very surprised and try to scramble for excuses. His message didn’t fell genuine. It felt like the message a person sends when they really want to think of themselves as a good guy.
Chris was no longer living in my town by then so I thought I’d safely left it all behind. Then two years ago he came to visit local friends. He kept phoning me. I kept not answering. Then we ran into each other at a bar. Somehow, while our mutual friends were buying drinks or going to the loo, we found ourselves alone together for two minutes.
He confronted me immediately, still wanting to know whether he’d made me uncomfortable back then. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t have an answer ready and it was neither the time nor place to confront him with my version of events. So I got vague and said: “Well, you WERE rather pushy.” He looked shamefaced for a few minutes. I fought down the reflexive urge to make him feel better. He kind-of apologised.
Then he asked if he could come visit me. And he commented on how good I was looking nowadays. I fled the bar soon after.
A year ago I finally wrote him an email. I did it because I thought: he might really not know. By then I’d met scores of other women with tales about him, women he’d harassed and pressured, women who were warning each other about him. Maybe he really doesn’t know, I imagined. Maybe no one ever bothered to tell him this isn’t how you do things. And maybe, by telling him, I can stop him doing it to someone else.
And it also felt like a cop-out, avoiding him indefinitely without explaining why. It didn’t feel brave. It didn’t feel like I was owning my stuff. A part of me felt bad for him – lumbering around, thinking of himself as a well-intentioned if rather horny guy, freaking women out everywhere he went.
So I wrote a clear, long email, detailing how I felt about what had happened, detailing every time he had overridden my ‘no’. I wanted to sound lucid and believable so I stuck to the facts, pointing out my non-consent, giving the timeline of events, not dwelling on my feelings overly much – I didn’t want him to be able to point at my email and go “wow this chick is crazy”. At the end of my email I asked him to never contact me again.
He promptly did, of course. “Thanks for your honesty,” he wrote in a text. “I’ll reply as soon as I get the chance to think about this.”
Had he not read my request not to be contacted? I considered sending him another text reiterating that I didn’t want to talk. But then I didn’t, because I’d already said my piece, I didn’t feel like repeating myself. If he did speak to me again, I decided, I’d simply block him.
While I was writing this piece (which took me a month), Chris finally sent me that promised response. It came in the form of a voice note over Whatsapp, just over a week ago. I stared at that voice note for the longest time. Despite myself, I felt bad for him – most likely his message would be mostly nice. He’d say something like “I had no idea, I’m so sorry.” And then he’d add “You never told me you didn’t like it. I thought you wanted it too…” He’d manage to apologise while placing the blame squarely back on me. He’d be confused in a good-hearted way. He’d find excuses. He’d paint himself as more sinned-against than sinner.
And I would get it, because for a long time I too had thought this had been my fault. I’d thought I was in the wrong; it would be no surprise if he did too.
But I wasn’t in the wrong. He was. And I will not, finally, ease his guilt. I will not be polite. I will not make him feel better by incriminating myself and saying: “sure, I should have said no more clearly, sorry about that.” I will not tell him he’s actually a good guy.
I will not offer him cheap redemption.
So I deleted his voicenote without listening to it, and sent him a message explaining that I am not interested in a conversation, that I had said so already, and that he should learn the meaning of consent. Then I blocked him, and felt sorry for him for a while. I had to keep reminding myself that even in contacting me he was again overriding my “no”, and that I was fully justified in blocking him. You don’t get to apologise, you don’t even get to go through a process of sincere restoration, if your victim isn’t on board. You can’t force your apology on someone.
It’s hard for me, not being nice. It’s hard, when it’s so easy to make someone feel better about themselves. Not placating people, not apologising when I’m harsh, not softening the blow does not come easily. Because I was taught that my value lies in my ability to accommodate and please, even as my sin lies in being a source of temptation in the first place. The accusation goes something like this: “You have sinned and are shameful because you’re an object of desire. It’s your fault men want you. But since you made them desire you, you had better make up for your sinfulness by giving them what they want, whether that be sexual gratification, to be admired, or to be absolved. Be pleasant, be nice, be accommodating, and we might forget your shamefulness.”
In a sense I was groomed to be harassed, objectified, violated. My entire childhood and society at large prepared me to be an object for men’s consumption.
I still wonder: was what happened at my flat that day assault? Is it assault if you end up saying ‘yes’, kind-of? Am I allowed to claim that, when millions of women have been raped, abused, overridden in brutal and obvious ways? But then I imagine someone else telling me this story, and I imagine my response. It would be clear, it would be instantaneous: “Yes. This was assault. This is not okay. Your anger is so valid.” So that’s what I am telling myself.
Part of coming to terms with this story, for me, is also admitting its complexity. I don’t want to make Chris an uncomplicated villain. It feels powerful to be able to stand and say: he was groomed too. He was groomed to be a predator by a society that allows men to be less than what they can be. He was raised in a hypermasculine context, in a community which sent the messages “be a good man” while objectifying women at every turn. He was raised to believe that women’s “no” means “maybe”, and that “maybe” means “yes”. He was raised to view his own sexual desires as uncontrollable, and therefore excusable.
But it still doesn’t make what he did right, not by a long shot. And I am living with the damage he did, him and the men who came before and after him.
It started with my dad, who didn’t sexually abuse me but vilified women, considering them to be empty and unintelligent subordinates. My dad would force us to hold his hand in public. He’d force me to stand still while he’d pop a zit on my face when I was a teenager. He’d tell me I belonged to him, my body belonged to him until he found a suitable man to hand me over to.
And then there were the boys in high school, who thought I was hot but judged me for making out with them. The boys in bars who said “fuck you, slut” when I refused to give them my number after they’d bought me a drink. The men who called me a cock tease. The guy who told me he’d lost respect for me because I’d slept with him on the second date.
The friend who came over with DVDs and takeaways, and ended up relentlessly begging me to sleep with him until the early hours of the morning, arguing “but I find you irresistible!” as I hid in the bathroom. The other friend who came over for wine and chats and ended up pushing me into a corner, forcing a kiss on me until I bit his tongue. The man who sent me a voicenote detailing his sex dream about me, after I’d told him I wasn’t interested in a relationship.
There was another event, once, in my mid-twenties: a male friend came over for tea. We’d been involved before but things had petered out; now as we sat down, he moved in for a kiss. I drew back, said “no”, and then in the awkward silence that followed I added “I’m so sorry, I’m just not in that space”. And the friend looked at me with confusion on his face. “Why are you saying sorry?” he said. “You’re allowed to say no.”
I cried myself to sleep that night. No one had ever told me before that it’s okay to say no.