What if you were/are an abuser? What if you have committed sexual assault?
One time I questioned that myself when I was hooking up with a dude in Los Angeles. We were making out on his bed and we were getting pretty intimate. He was very religious and I wasn’t thinking when I moved my hand towards his crotch. It felt like the natural progression of things to me, but not to him. He then stiffened and turned away from me. A simple action that had happened to me a bunch of times with others, many times without my own consent, was one that I might had just performed without his consent.
I don’t remember pulling back. I remember attempting to give him a hand job while he continued to remain stiff. I asked if it was okay, if this was okay, and he didn’t respond. We lay in silence, staring at the golden sun peeking through the window, my hand resting on his penis, eyes uncomfortably shifting to the sand-covered neon green surfboard in the corner. Eventually, I got the message and removed my hand. I apologized.
That moment still haunts me not only because of the discomfort and emotional pain that must have caused him, but that I had no idea that my actions were bad. I did not know that I shouldn’t have done that until I looked back. I mostly remember the silence. The piercing invisible yet deafening static in the air, whispering in my ear telling me to stop.
Previously, we had jumped into the ocean naked holding hands, we had been dating casually for a few months, and as far as I knew, we really liked each other. We spent nearly every night together after work or my internship. We regularly cooked dinner together. I had slept at his place multiple times. However, none of that mattered. This step into furthering our romantic relationship wasn’t one that he wanted and even though he was about 5 years older than me, he told me that he was a virgin.
Just because I had been sexually assaulted in the past does not mean that it’s okay for me to touch someone else without their willing consent. I never heard an enthusiastic “yes” from this guy and I needed that before touching him. I needed that when others had touched me in the same way, before a different friend I had trusted woke me up with his head in between my legs. We all need that, even if it’s your great-aunt you’ve only met once in your life squeezing you and giving you slobbery kisses all over. It is not okay for your parents to guilt you for turning away, for wiping your face, for spending some alone time in the bathroom afterwards.
I can’t take back that moment with the California guy, but since, I have made a point to ask consent for everything. Sometimes I go a bit overboard. When I was in high school, a friend I had known for years asked me if he could kiss me and I thought it was the weirdest question because most people just go ahead and do it. I’m grateful for that moment, because I said no.
“Is it okay for me to touch your arm like this?”
“Can I hold your hand?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Do you want to have sex with me?”
You rarely think about a woman sexually abusing someone, but it happens all the time. Once, in high school, a bunch of us went to a college party and we all got pretty drunk. It was a themed party and we were all dressed up in various outfits, drinking tequila like it was our job. One of my friends really liked one of the college guys there and after he went to sleep, we learned that she followed him to his room. He told us the next morning over breakfast.
According to him, she had removed his clothes, sat on top of him, and tried to force him to have sex with her underneath her white flowy dress. We had no reason not to believe him. He seemed pretty upset, but we didn’t understand.
I was one of them. Why wouldn’t he want our gorgeous friend to have sex with him? I thought. Our friend wasn’t aware of what had happened at all or that what she did was wrong . . . I think. I never asked her. We never talked to her about it at all. I didn’t realize it was wrong until a similar instance came up years later. What the fuck was I doing, laughing at a sexual assault victim like that?
I was in Prague, easily 4000 miles away, five years after the party incident, and I had just told some of my Prague friends that I was sexually assaulted by a mutual friend. They had laughed at me, too.
“You weren’t raped,” one of them said with a thick Czech accent. “You had sex, but you didn’t want to.”
It finally clicked. I felt my heart sink to my feet and left the apartment. I cried on the tram ride home, watching my blurry reflection pierced with city lights. I stopped telling people and no one ever helped me. I wouldn’t be surprised if that guy five years ago had a similar experience.
Photo from Shannon Mackenzie’s “Rotatio”