When I was in middle school, all female students were required to complete a self-defense class. Fighting off “padded attackers,” we were instructed on how to disable sexual assailants with moves like, most memorably, the “slap-grab-twist-pull.” You can probably imagine how that one goes.
It was a foreign experience for a bunch of sheltered 13-year-olds at an elite private school. The vast majority of us had never seen or even thought about seeing a man naked; yet, there we were, getting a crash course in their most vulnerable anatomy because they might attack us.
An instructor rattled off startling statistics about assault, notably that one in every five women will be raped in her lifetime.
One in five??? I looked around myself in concern that so many of my peers would have to deal with this atrocity. I pictured one in five of us being preyed upon in a dark alley, like my young mind quickly pictured it.
Fast forward seven years later. There aren’t many dark alleys in college — not ones that you’d plausibly find yourself in, anyway. There are dimly lit parties, however. In fact, the effects of alcohol and the presence of some (but not all!) men who think that they are entitled to a woman’s body make the dark alley wholly unnecessary.
I got drunk at a party several months ago. I knew all the guys around me and never even considered that I could be placing myself in a harmful scenario. And then I found myself naked in a bathroom begging someone I thought was my friend to stop touching me, to stop taking my body as if it were something he was entitled to.
I backed away from him with my head in my hands, repeating a million times to deaf ears that no, I did not want to have sex with him, that I would not do that, that, in fact, I didn’t want to be doing any of this. I felt powerless, but by the grace of God I was able to sprint out of the room and run up a hill where I sat alone, sobbing.
I had nightmares. I still do. I tried to shake it off, since we shared so many friends. But I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t be around him. He was my friend, and he betrayed me in the worst way possible.
Months passed by as I endured the nagging feeling that I needed to speak with him about the incident. Not for my own relief — there was nothing he could say that would alleviate my pain — but because I did not want him to do this to any girl ever again. One point in particular I felt the need to emphasize:
“I know this is something that is not really clear to a lot of guys, but not saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean saying ‘yes.’ Further, I was adamantly clear to you that the answer was a firm no….And quite frankly, even if I had said ‘yes,’ by definition I could not provide legal consent, considering how intoxicated I was. Yes, it is my fault for drinking that much at the party. Yes, it is my fault that I let you coax me into drinking even more after that. But it is not my fault that you didn’t have enough respect for me as a human being — let alone a friend — to make sure I was okay with you taking off my pants and taking off your own. Which I wasn’t.
Like I mentioned, there are a lot of perceived ‘grey areas’ with these issues. But nothing about what happened is okay with me. The more I look back on it, the angrier I get. I am sure you wouldn’t have done that sober (similarly, I would have not gotten myself in that situation sober), but being drunk isn’t an excuse for not respecting someone.”
Late one night about a month after this conversation, I discovered that another male friend of mine had just similarly assaulted one of my closest friends. I was so angry that I threw him against the wall, trembling, tears in my eyes, and screamed at him in the hallway at 4:30 a.m. that I didn’t know what the f*** was wrong with him, but he was not entitled to any part of a woman’s body in any capacity for any reason when she is saying no — in fact, if she is saying anything but a clear, sober yes.
A similar incident occurred with yet another one of my close female friends. And then another. And another. My friends’ experiences piled up to a point that the one in five started to feel like too small of a statistic.
The takeaway is a common and clear one. Sexual assault isn’t something that just happens at the hands of psychos in dark alleys, like I pictured when I first learned about it. It’s everywhere, from a party to your own home, and it’s not just your typical criminal who could be the assailant.
Sexual assault is in the one-drink-too-many that can put you in a bad situation, even with someone you thought you trusted. It’s in the minds of a number of men who have been raised in a culture that makes them think they are entitled to a woman’s body and sexuality; men whose morals are untenable enough to be compromised by alcohol and drugs. It’s in the eyes of the same men who think that, when it comes to sexual assault, there’s a “grey area.”
The grey area, to me, is created when men use something like the following excuses to justify actions that leave their victims scarred for life:
“I was so drunk.”
“We were already kissing, how was I supposed to know it wasn’t fine?”
“She was flirting with me all night; she wanted it.”
“No, she didn’t say yes…but she didn’t say no.”
“She could have stopped me if she had really wanted to.”
“There was no sex, so it’s not an assault.”
These guys aren’t dark alley rapists. A lot of them are average Joes who are likely to even be your friends. But they are people who wrongly and illegally believe that there are circumstances in which they are entitled to a woman’s body when she is not consenting.
Something I have found my friends and I saying these days when conversing about men in whom we are interested is, “I think he’s a good guy. Well…he seems like a good guy. I mean, I thought [*insert name of man who had assaulted one of us or one of our friends*] was a good guy, too. There’s no way to know.”
Because of my experience and the experiences of my friends, I find it exceptionally hard to trust men. The struggle is a very private one, and it gets me down more than I’d like to admit. Even if I am really interested in or attracted to someone, I am loath to be in a private space with him because you never know who’s going to be a grey-area guy.
None of this is fair. Not to the victims; not to the decent guys out there who actually deserve our trust.
It’s not even fair to assailants, because if they cite the grey area, they leave no room for themselves to learn from their mistakes and grow into a better person.
And quite frankly, respecting someone’s body is always black and white.
The grey area is bulls**t.
– Cat Davidson
Contact Cat Davidson at catsd ‘at’ stanford.edu.