It Can’t Happen To Me: Lies, Bias and Ego that Keep Us Silent About Sexual Assault
This post originally appeared on Many Kind Regards. It is republished here with permission.
The club was packed. The music pulsed through the crowd making the dance floor look a rhythmic sea of hands, and hair and bodies. I gleefully joined in – ready to fully surrender myself to the sensory overload of bass, of lights and movement. It was the first time I’d been out dancing in months. A seemingly disembodied hand grabbed mine and pulled me in towards the center – and I melted in.
Then out of no where, a hand was around my waist- and while I was trying to figure out to whom it belonged – I felt another hand go up my dress.
A voice hissed in my ear, “You wanna get fucked?”
Suddenly, my heart was beating in my ears louder than the music. And I felt as if the “No!” my mouth was attempting to shout was somehow stuck in my throat. My hands frantically scrambled to release my body from the unwanted grasp.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I shouted over the music, turning around to meet the face that belonged to the trespassing hands and hissing lips.
I found the face of said lips contorted into what can only be described as a mix of bewilderment and surprise. An expression I’m certain I mirrored as I stood eye to eye with someone who looked like a guy eternally stuck in the friend zone. Not exactly who I was expecting. He looked…“harmless” – although his actions spoke loudly in opposition to my assessment.
In short, if he tried anything else I was pretty sure I could take him down…even in heels. Instead, I simply left the dance floor.
The music was over for me.
It Can’t Happen To Me
So why am I telling you this story?
I’m telling you this story because of what happened the following Monday when I walked into work and told my colleagues about the event.
“EJ – You were assaulted…” said one of the guys. And he said it with the most sincere expression of both surprise, and concern.
“Yeah, I guess technically I was.” I replied rather matter-of-factly.
“No, not technically. You were.”
“Huh. Yeah, I guess I was.”
I’m a counselor at a rape crisis center and I missed the fact that I was sexually assaulted until someone pointed it out to me.
How is that possible? Am I just a messed up idiot who doesn’t know her own job? I suppose that’s possible, but I don’t think so.
I think there are several real reasons that contributed to not recognizing what happened. And I’d like to share them with you because I believe there are quite a few people out there who write off things that happen to them.
“Despite training and increased levels of general awareness, professionals and advocates are exposed to the same social messages regarding sexual assault through cultural outlets, media, and general societal assumptions.”
1) Mistaken Meaning
In the media, and often in conversation, I hear the terms rape and sexual assault used interchangeably, however social justice advocates note that it is not always correct. Sexual assault is an umbrella term. Part of the problem is nailing down the definition of rape, which currently varies by State. So to simplify our discussion, I will use the FBI’s definition that was recently revised in 2014:
“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
I like this definition for our discussion because it illustrates exactly why the terms rape and sexual assault are not always interchangeable.
The somewhat obvious problem is that – as we learned in middle school – there are often several stages of sexualized contact and/or exposure (I believe we called them “bases”) that do not involve penetration (therefore, not rape), but absolutely require consent. Such as, you know…having someone put their hand up your dress while you’re dancing, being groped, or having someone forcibly put your hand on one of their sexual organs as well.
These behaviors would fall under the umbrella of sexual assault, but not rape.
2) Rape Bias
I’ve got to admit, it’s difficult to sit here and try to argue for the presence of a bias on a topic that in and of itself is so grossly underreported and mismanaged by society.
That being said, there is evidence to suggest that there are narrow criteria that we seem to collectively accept as “counting” as rape. The National Center for the Prosecution of Crimes Against Women (NCPCAW) put out a phenomenal article in 2009 that addressed this bias specifically.
To summarize their work, people are more likely to categorize something as rape when the following are present:
- The victim and perpetrator are strangers.
- There is evidence the perpetrator used a weapon and/ or physical assault, like bruises, and scrapes.
- The victim was “morally innocent” at the time of the assault (i.e. not drunk, wearing conservative clothes…).
- The victim reports immediately and behaves the way we expect a victim of a violent crime to behave (i.e. crying hysterically, cooperating with police).
- The perpetrator is non-credible, a derelict, or otherwise associated with a marginalized group.
And for those things that “fall short” of this particular scenario (which, by the way – stranger rape alone counts for a very small percentage of rape – about 22%), we’re much more likely to introduce doubt, or attempt to “write it off” as something else. This goes for the victims, as well as professionals who work in these fields.
I mean, think about it – despite training and increased levels of general awareness, professionals and advocates are exposed to the same social messages regarding sexual assault through cultural outlets, media, and general societal assumptions. So it’s absurd to think that we would somehow be immune to it.
And while we – invested professionals and advocates – might find ourselves passionately driven to correct myth-based thinking in others, it’s a lot more difficult to do when you’re talking to yourself.
I don’t want to admit vulnerability or bias or that someone only saw me as a sexual object and treated me as such.
I don’t want to admit that my first thought upon leaving the situation was to blame myself for “leaving myself open” for such an event to occur.
3) Judging the “Wrongfulness” of an Act Based on Our Response
We typically consider rape and sexual assault to be traumatic events, right? And when a traumatic event occurs, we typically expect there to be some sort of reaction – tears, intense fear, maybe anger or grief.
Of course, those of us with training in dealing with traumatic events will tell you this is a myth – that not only is the response to trauma highly individualized and relative to the individual, but also that what one might deem “traumatic” can vary widely based on personal experience.
The problem is that we often have a tendency to gauge the seriousness of an event, or even the “wrongfulness” of an event, based on our reaction to it.
And even though I know better through my training, that’s exactly what I did. I wrote off the event in my mind as ‘no big deal’ because I didn’t feel particularly upset or traumatized by the experience. I didn’t feel that my life was in danger, that someone had taken control over me, or anything – so it was easy for me to write the whole thing off as “some asshole getting hands-y.”
But why should my reaction or lack thereof absolve someone’s inappropriate actions? Why should MY ability to break free, throw an elbow, or whatever else make what HE did less horrible?
Why the Hell Am I Writing About This?
You know, even as I’m writing this months after the fact, I can’t help but feel that nagging sense of shame for having not recognize what was happening in the moment, and that I failed in “walking my talk” in the sense that I ended up feeling and thinking many of the same thoughts and emotions that I work with my clients to overcome.
I guess that last part is why I’m writing about it.
Sexual assault, molestation, rape, abuse, etc. They can happen to anyone. There is no “too smart for that” or “too good for that.” I never want someone to hear me speak or read my material and walk away with the idea that “Oh that would never happen to her, she’s a professional.” WRONG!
To people who know me, love me, respect me, etc, I’m a whole bunch of personalized quirky things. But to a would be perpetrator – be it a “handsy asshole” or an aggressive predator – I’m just another object to be exploited.
Sexual assault, molestation, rape: They can happen to anyone.
Do I feel permanently traumatized? No. But that’s me – based solely on my personal history and unique experiences, which should not be confused with, “No, because it wasn’t bad enough.” And even though I wouldn’t consider myself traumatized, I also have to say I’ll probably be a little more hesitant to go out on the dance floor in random clubs.
And that’s sad. Everyone should be subjected to my horrible dance moves.