Trigger warning – this article contains content describing sexual assault.
There have been a few instances in my life where I should have said no.
I’m interested to know if by reading the statement above you assumed I said yes? Because then I think we’ve got to the crux of the problem.
At the moment there is a lot of talk about teaching sexual consent in the press and amongst feminist writers, which is absolutely vital and crucial. I’d just like to throw my 2 cents in about the word ‘no’ and how I’ve struggled with it over the years. Fifteen years ago we were told not to get pregnant, not to walk home by yourself at night and that no means no. That ‘no’ was the magic word. That if you said it, the person doing whatever they were doing to you would then become a criminal. Or if we’re being frank – a rapist. It sounds crude, but that is how I felt. I was taught that if you were ever to accuse someone of something like that the only thing that would stand with the police or in a court is the word no. Otherwise you were trying to ruin someone’s life.
The first time I was sexually assaulted I was only 10. I was still in junior school and was cornered by some boys whilst walking home from the shops in the summer holidays. I had my PE shorts on and a t-shirt that I’d brought on holiday that said Greece. He put his hand down my trousers and whispered in my ear “you like that don’t you”. Of course I didn’t. But the way he phrased it scared the shit out of me. Was I supposed to like it? I said absolutely nothing and ran all the way home. I never told anyone. That set the tone for how I would react when stuff like that happens for the rest of my life. It sounds blasé, but that’s how it feels. Sometimes being a woman can be a gauntlet of avoiding unwanted hands up skirts, cat calls and sometimes more serious advances. I’m not saying this to play any of it down, but its stuff that has happened and you learn quite quickly that is happens so frequently.
In my early twenties I experienced something far more serious. By that stage I was older, wiser and pretty confident in most areas of my life. But then there I was, alone in a room with a man who’d already been forceful with me and I just wanted to leave and go home. In my head I was thinking, if crying isn’t going to stop him will saying no really help? So when he said to me, “what do you want?” mumbling the words “just do it” felt like my only option. I think in my head I’d tried to convince myself it was fine, that this was just another bad experience that could be forgotten about if I waited for it to end. Uttering the words no in that situation for me felt like an accusation. It felt like the line between becoming a victim of a serious crime or perhaps something I could forget ever happened. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After situations like this I ran it over and over in my head wondering why I couldn’t pluck up the courage just to say ‘no’? No! I don’t want you to do that. I’d find myself practicing the in the mirror like someone in a shit film, but it’s too little very much too late.
Last year someone put their hands up my skirt on a crowded tube train. I completely froze. I couldn’t even move away because I felt too scared to speak let alone move. The weight of helplessness left me feeling paralyzed. I was on the way to work, I was thinking about an important meeting I had that day, that wasn’t why I was there. This isn’t by any stretch the worst thing that had happened to me so why still couldn’t I say no? Or even push him away? It’s completely at odds with the rest of my personality. I’m always the first to speak my mind or cause a bit of trouble. I’m actually very confrontational in real life. But then this was real life too.
Now I’m calling a truce with myself. I will not feel guilty anymore. I want to re-frame the conversation. Every time I’ve spoken to anyone about my experiences of sexual assault the first question they ask is ‘did you say no?’
And I’d like to suggest that this is like saying, ‘but what were you wearing?’ Both questions assume blame if you were to give what could be seen as the wrong answer. It was not my fault.
Consent is about far more than not saying no. No certainly does mean no and it’s a good starting point if you can – but not being able to speak up doesn’t make you to blame by default. And for so long I thought it did. Finding out whether someone is responsible for sexually assaulting you shouldn’t be down the person who has been assaulted. What were they wearing? Have they been drinking? Where they walking home alone? All completely irrelevant. Nobody is ever “asking for” something they don’t want. We need to educate ourselves to understand intimidation and cultural sexism that assumes that women are to be chaste. We are not.
There was a wonderful entry to the everyday sexism project: “Consent is a really low bar. Hold out for enthusiasm.”
Consent it quite easy really, we should just think of it like making a cup of tea. It isn’t about saying yes or no, it’s about the person making the tea. This video has been the only thing that has ever made me feel ok about the times when I’ve felt too scared to say no. Have a watch.
Rape Crisis Centre
1800 77 8888
Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre
0808 802 9999
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service for people living in Australia
1800 737 732
United States of America
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network
1800 656 4673