What’s been bothering me the most about some of the memories I have of being sexually assaulted is how at the time I didn’t seem to understand that what had happened was really bad. I knew in my gut that something was wrong — my behavior, my “acting out” that followed shows me I knew something was wrong, but that’s in hindsight. At the time that I was hurt, I didn’t seem to realize I deserved better.
For example, in the fall of my sophomore year I went with a (girl) friend to meet some boys in a fort they had built out of plywood scraps in the woods. We all got drunk. This was my first time ever drinking; what I remember most was gulping tequila and saying, “the faster you drink it, the less you feel it.”
At some point in the night, I was lying on the floor, slumped up against the wall. One boy was on my left, one boy was on my right. I don’t remember much about it except for this: they moved my head back and forth to take turns kissing me; they talked about what they wanted to do, they dared each other to do things; they had my shirt open (I remember the navy blue laciness of my bra and the pastel stripes of my shirt); they were touching me and I was mostly not awake for it. I don’t know what happened in great detail, though I suspect they did more than open my shirt and kiss me. I do know there is not a chance I was capable of saying yes to what they were doing. Later that night, my friend (the girl) also was trying to kiss me (at this point, I was sitting up on the edge of the two level floor) and I remember pushing her away and saying no. The boys (there were three) were sort of cheering her on, telling her to do things to me.
What has been so disturbing to me as I reflect on this experience is how after that night, one of the boys became my “boyfriend,” the other was “one of my best friends,” and the girl continued to be one of my very best friends. We all talked and laughed together like nothing bad had happened.
What I’m coming to terms with this week is that me now sees how wrong it was, but me then didn’t. Me now wants to make sure that all boys and girls today recognize the importance of consent. Informed, aware, and enthusiastic consent should be the minimum requirement in all sexual acts.
The me then had an idea that what happened wasn’t okay, I just didn’t know how to process it. Once I was no longer too drunk to talk, I didn’t say, “What you two did to me was awful, you are awful, you took advantage of me and it was disgusting and you should never do that again to anyone, ever.” I pretended like nothing bothered me. Part of me shut down. I desperately needed to believe that I couldn’t be hurt by anyone ever again.
The same “shutting down” process happened with each assault, those that came before and those that followed. My behavior as a young girl showed how I was frantically trying to figure out how to make my way in the world when people who were supposed to be safe, to be my friends would actually hurt me when I was at my most vulnerable.
My hope for my daughters is that we can create a world where people grow up understanding the importance of consent. That’s why I have no patience for people suggesting we do anything other than believe all the women who tell us, “He hurt me.” There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that sexual activities should only ever happen with enthusiastic consent — and that means taking into consideration power dynamics like employment. When in doubt, don’t sexualize anything. It’s a simple philosophy, but it’s a good one.