One of the hardest things to do when approaching a subject is just that – approaching it. How do you start? You know (kind of) what you want to say, you know (kind of) the point you’re trying to make or explore, but in a world of near infinite writing space how do you pick a spot and say “here”. For me, for this article, it’s in letting you know in a roundabout way that this was hard to address. The reason (I think) that it is so hard for me to address is for a very simple reason; because it involves looking at myself, personally, and asking some seriously hard questions. Much of the social oil that appears to keep the machine of our civilization running is in gloss – letting things slide, explaining things away, making everything just be okay. And in many cases this can help. But it also has a risk. There can be so much gloss, and it can become so automatic, that soon in our unthinking efforts to make everything be okay we can actually be covering something important. I say this because it applies very much to this topic. And applies very much to my fear about this article. Because No matter how obvious the socially-acceptable answer might seem (“oh well of course you’re not”), there are times when you need to strip out that gloss and have a damn hard look.
The core, the heart, the brutal question at the centre of this article is as simple as it is terrifying: have I ever sexually assaulted someone?
Now feel free to recoil.
You see? Now you can see why this article is hard to write. It feels like walking into an airport and shouting “Bomb!” That simple. That horrifying.
Now that we know the real heart, it becomes very, very important to get some clarification. For a subject of such volatility it is so so easy for things to explode, and the conversational shrapnel will most likely land far from the true issue. So let’s define. When I am talking about myself here, I am talking about sexual assault. Not serious sexual assault. Not rape. I may well cover those issues. But to start, we are talking about sexual assault. Legally (in the UK) this is defined thus:
A person commits sexual assault if they intentionally touch another person, the touching is sexual and the person does not consent.
This is distinct from serious sexual assault:
Assault by penetration – a person commits assault by penetration if they intentionally penetrate the vagina or anus of another person with a part of the body or anything else, without their consent.
And from rape:
A person commits rape if they intentionally penetrate the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with their penis without consent.
Already I am willing to bet that some people reading this did not know how to specifically seperate those from each other. And that’s mind bending. These words and terms that get splattered across media left, right and centre and we don’t know what those words actually mean? This isn’t just semantic, these are huge differentiations that have a tangible impact.
The reason it is important is as equally simple and terrifying as my original question: I think that sexual assault is not simply more common than we like to think, it is common full stop.
As a society it is starting to be publically realized that rape is much, much more common than we told ourselves. Equally it is starting to be publically realized that rape is mostly not commited by strangers, it is not just a problem for sex-workers, and most of all that it is not a mythical thing that only happens in far away places. Rape happens. It happens where you live. It happens to people you know.
How scared are you right now? I, for instance, am over 6 foot tall and built like a walking tank. I am scared shitless. I am scared for every female I know. I am terrified. By dint of me being huge, and tall, and very importantly, male, I am not terrified for myself. I also know that that makes me so, so priveliged.
All of a sudden we see how that gloss kicks in – these thoughts are unpleasant and threatening so chances are your brain will try and make it be okay. But by doing so, we also know that we marginalise the problem, we minimalise it and ultimately, we ignore it. But it hasn’t gone away.
You know a rapist. Be sure of this. Someone you know has had sex with someone else, against their will – without their consent.
You know someone who has been raped. Be sure of this too.
It might feel like I have been avoiding my initial question, and I have. It is so much easier for me to write about rape than it is to answer the question, and that’s fucked up on a seismic scale.
The answer, as much as my own mind strongly recoils from saying it, and especially as much as it recoils from admitting it, is yes. I have sexually assaulted someone, possibly multiple people. I I did it as a teenager (so, under 18), and I it was non-violent (at least, from my point of view), but that does not change the fact that it happened. I didn’t meant to harm anyone, I didn’t mean to distress anyone, but that does not change the fact that it might have. I don’t know. As much as I despise it, I will own up to this. If I don’t, how is there ever a chance of it changing? It is my fault that it happened, and it was me that did it, and I say that to make it clear that I am not trying to excuse myself with what I say next. My actions are my fault. So are yours. But it’s very likely we had some help.
I was around twenty three the first time I conciously thought about sexual consent. Twenty three before I actually sat there, in my brain, and thought about what the word ‘consent’ meant, how that was important, and how it is integrated into my life and culture. Twenty three. Now, by that point I’d figured out that sex needed to be consensual. But *I* figured it out. Through experimentation, through real-life test cases of me fumbling around with people. That’s like testing if food is poisonous by selling it in supermarkets! Thank fuck I’m not a power-assertive rapist. Thank fuck I’m not a predator. Because if I was I might never have actually been told, in explicit and obvious terms, that what I was doing was unequivocally wrong up to the day I got arrested.
It was never mentioned in sex ed. I was never deliberately talked to about it in school at all. Neither of my parents ever explained consent to me. No friend did either – how could they, no one ever told them. That same deadly gloss that permeates so much of this issue is all over this; obviously it’s wrong to rape someone, why would you ever need to ask such an awful thing? Only bad people rape. …Except adverts feature unsubtle rape-tableaus with terrifying frequency. Except being woman means being weak, and being a man means taking control. Except everything in our society and culture teaches us that men can be violent and should be sexual aggressors and not wanting to fuck bitches means you’re weak. No one ever told me as a child or teenager, in any way, ever, what consent was, what it means, and how it should be the norm. Everyone knew it was obvious, so no one ever talked about it. Myself and every other person I knew were left to blindly figure it out. Is it any wonder our society and culture is so fucked up on this issue?
I do not have italics slanty enough or sarcasm deep enough to get the insanity of this point across. I honestly don’t. The roots of this hideous sexism, and all of it’s effects, are so widespread that they are pandemic. By the time you are old enough to read this article, the chances are that this bullshit is so deeply ingrained into your behaviours and psyche, that you might not even identify that they are there. When I think about it, when you think about it, it is so mindbendingly batshit it’s almost too much to handle.
When I was thinking about this, and writing this article, something else became apparent in my mind. Something horrifyingly obvious, really: I’m pretty sure that almost everyone I know has sexually assaulted someone else, at somepoint in their life. I’m thinking mainly of males I know, but that is in no way exclusive. Almost everyone has a story or a memory of a time they felt someone up, or went to snog someone, or were fooling around in a tent or whatever, and the other person pushed them off. Almost everyone has a near-identical case where someone didn’t immediately push them off. But they didn’t consent. Silence is not consent, so don’t bullshit yourself.
As messy as this article is, the crux is this:
I have sexually assaulted at least one person in my teenage years. There is an overwhelming probability that you have too.
I have also been sexually assaulted by at least one person in my teenage years. I’m reasonably certain that you have too.
So, to finish, here is a real issue for you. Make no mistake, this is your choice. Don’t talk about this with other people, at least not to start with. Don’t come to a communal agreement. Don’t instantly repost this to Facebook. Don’t do anything that allows that gloss to slide in. This is something for you to do, and you alone. And afterwards, if you make a decision and want to hide it, that is your choice too. If you make a choice and want to talk about it, that is your choice. But you have to actually think about it first. YOU actually have to think about it first, and only you.
The issue is this: knowing that sexual assault is common to the extent of supermajority, knowing that rape is real and common, that it causes terrible harm, that it frequently goes ignored and has almost certainly happened to at least one person you know, what do you want to do about it?
I am not going to say what you should do, at least not here. Because this is your choice. Whatever you wish to do; become an activist, start investigating more, conciously decide that you don’t wish to think about it, or anything else at all. This is your choice. At least admit that to yourself. No gloss.
Further reading, and referencing.