As a college professor, I recognized that many of the students I taught would be hearing about the various topics taught in class for the very first time. They were all hungry for a knowledge that they weren’t aware of; looking for answers to questions that they didn’t know they had. My desire was to teach the things that I wish I had known at their age and where this was the most apparent was in the topic of sexuality.
Most of us brought up in the U.S. have had some form of sexual education, but lets really call it what it is; anatomical education. I was never taught about relationship dynamics, fully informed consent, how to recognize what your body is telling you, and assertiveness skills. And I was definitely never taught about the myths of sexual assault.
The #MeToo movement has given a platform for everyone that has ever been sexually violated and has sparked a global conversation about the prevalence of such violations. Now is the time to shed light on the myths that have ever been fed to us about having our boundaries pushed, crossed, and at times, completely annihilated.
The following are questions that victims/survivors are repeatedly faced with when they share their experiences of violation. Throughout this piece, I will refer to victims/survivors with a female pronoun. This is not to negate the fact that men are faced with sexual violations as well, in fact, the number of men admitting to having been sexually violated has risen dramatically, with a recent survey identifying that 38% of all sexual violations were against men (National Crime Victimization Survey, 2014). The reality still stands that the vast majority of sexual violations are against girls and women.
- “What were you wearing?”
This is the number one question that victims/survivors are asked. The implication is that wearing provocative clothing is an invitation for violation. But here’s the truth:
Nothing is an invitation except an actual invitation.
You could be standing naked in front of someone and that person is still 100% responsible for the actions that they take.
- “Why did you go with him?” “Why did you go to his house?” “Why did you let him up to your place?”
These questions are problematic for two reasons. The first issue is that just like #1, the responsibility of an offenders actions is again placed on the victim/survivor. The second issue is that consent to one thing does not mean consent to ALL things. It’s not only possible, but likely that you felt comfortable enough to go with someone to their house, but that things then became uncomfortable or unsafe. Just because you agreed to go to someone’s house does not mean that you have consented to any and all activities that may take place within that house.
- “Were you drinking?”
Being under the influence of a substance is not an invitation for unwanted or nonconsensual sexual activity. And being unconscious as a result of substance use is not an invitation either; if you are unable to consent then it is a violation.
It is true that being under the influence of a substance makes one vulnerable in many different ways, but all too often in our society we focus on avoiding such vulnerability (or even blaming women for “making themselves vulnerable”) rather than directly addressing those who prey upon and take advantage of such vulnerability.
- “Did you walk home by yourself at night?”
Just as in the previous statement, women are blamed for putting themselves at risk. But an even bigger issue here is the assumption that women are primarily assaulted by strangers, outside the home. Here’s the shocking truth:
7 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows (Dept. of Justice, 2015).
- “Why aren’t you more upset about it?”
There is a huge spectrum of feeling and expression of emotion and each person will go through an experience differently. Some people express outwardly in the form of crying, intense anger, wanting to talk a lot, and needing specific forms of support, such as company. Others may not show anything outwardly and will have an intense internal experience that doesn’t involve anyone else. And still others may be completely numb to what’s happened to them, giving the appearance that they’re fine, but in reality, they are cut off or disconnected from their feelings.
Please don’t assume someone’s experience purely from what they show or don’t show.
- “Did you fight back or say no?”
There’s a lot to say about this one! First, let me take a bit of a scientific approach. In Psych 101, we teach about the different ways that your body responds to stressful events. We call this the Fight-Flight-Freeze response. When faced with a stressful situation, we can either fight, run away, or freeze like a deer in headlights. This response is what your body automatically does, there is absolutely NO thought process behind it, it is purely automatic and unconscious. Although each person responds with with either fight, flight, or freeze, different situations evoke different responses.
So when someone is in the experience of being sexually assaulted, they may fight back, they may do everything they can to run away, or they may freeze up entirely. Absolutely no one should be blamed for the ways in which their body responds and someone having a freeze response does not mean that a violation hasn’t happened and it definitely does NOT mean that they enjoyed it and that’s why they didn’t do anything to stop it from happening.
It’s also important to note that in some situations it is actually MORE dangerous to fight back. So it may be better for survival to go along with what’s happening to you. Again, this doesn’t mean that you enjoyed what was happening, it means that the survival part of your brain kicked in and directly told your body what to do.
I want to address the fact that the person that you’re with is also responsible for checking in with you about a reaction that you appear to be having. If a person cares about you and is concerned about your experience, they will notice your body language (freezing up, becoming stiff, shallow breathing, sweating or clammy, shaking or shivering, zoned out/checked out/spacey) and will check in with you about it.
7. “Why don’t you confront him about what he did to you?”
This is another very complicated question/statement that victims/survivors often face. Part of the assumption with this question is that a victim/survivor will feel better once they have confronted their perpetrator. This is definitely not always, and perhaps not even often the case. It may be psychologically or even physically dangerous to confront ones abuser and for some, the act of confrontation of their abuser is actually more traumatic than the abuse itself. In cases where a family member has been the violator, a victim/survivor may risk losing the support of their entire family by confronting their abuser.
Another variant of this question is suggesting that a victim/survivor press charges against their assaulter. Our justice system does NOT treat victims/survivors kindly and they experience blaming language, invasive and triggering questioning, and having to retell their experience in graphic detail numerous times to complete strangers. Additionally, anything involving the justice system is a long process and can take years to complete. This is not at all to discourage anyone from involving the justice system, this is to educate everyone who may suggest this as an option to a victim/survivor.
Two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported every year (Dept. of Justice, 2015). Considering what we’ve just discussed, this statistic isn’t surprising but it continues to be incredibly disturbing and indicative of the lack of safe spaces for victims/survivors.
If one chooses not to report a sexual assault, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t sexually assaulted, it means that they anticipate that the experience of reporting it will be a traumatic one and they may not be psychologically, emotionally, or even financially up for the experience.
8. “Did you enjoy any of it?”
I saved the most loaded question for last. When talking about sexual violations or abuse, we create a very rigid binary of either good or bad and it doesn’t leave any room for complexity of experience, which is remarkably confusing and distressing for victims/survivors. There are very few human experiences that are either all good or all bad, there are parts that are good and parts that are bad. But because abuse and assault are such taboo topics, we shy away from the complexity in order to just be done with the discussion in many ways and to relieve our own psychological distress over it.
Here’s the complexity that we’re working with when we talk about sexual assault or abuse:
Things you may have enjoyed or liked (and as with everything, enjoyment and like are on a spectrum from ‘just a bit’ to ‘quite a lot’):
- undivided attention
- compliments and affection
- support, either emotionally or even financially
- physical touch (many victims/survivors feel betrayed by their bodies for the ways that their bodies responded to being touched. Your body is an organism with receptors, if those receptors are stimulated, your body will respond. Although your body responded with tactile pleasure, your mind and spirit may not have actually enjoyed the experience. This divide in experience is what causes many victims/survivors to go through a division of the different parts of themselves, which can lead to dissociation and depersonalization)
Things you may have not enjoyed or really disliked:
- having your personal space disrespected
- psychological manipulation
- feeling unsafe
- being unable to speak up about what was happening to you
- having certain things done to your body
Enjoying certain parts of your experience DOES NOT negate all of the parts that you didn’t enjoy. And experiencing any enjoyment at all doesn’t take away the fact that you were violated. Just as consent to one act is not consent to all acts; enjoyment of one part of the situation does not mean enjoyment of all parts of it.
The more we’re willing to talk about the things that make us squirm, the more we’re able to support those that have been through deeply damaging experiences. Silence and shame will be replaced by support and understanding. #MeToo got us talking, but now it’s up to us to keep the conversation going.