We Need To Talk About The True Definition of Sexual Assault
I have been sexually assaulted twice, although I didn't recognize either event as such at the time.
The first time, I was 18, asleep next to my boyfriend. I had passed out almost instantaneously after a long day of skiing, but my boyfriend claimed that he "didn't notice."
Two years later, a stranger cornered me while I was studying abroad in Mexico. I suddenly felt his hand underneath my dress, his thumb pressing into me aggressively.
In both cases I felt violated, but wasn't raped. I am a strong, independent woman and take pride in my disciplined ability to conquer anything. Which is why even when it came to sexual assault, I was in denial about experiencing anything resembling weakness.
"Walk it off," I told myself. "People have faced way worse. Move on. It’s nothing."
I ended up mentioning the second incident to the resident director of my study abroad program. I figured doing so would provide an example of "what happens when you don’t pay attention" to other students. But the director's response surprised me.
"This is a sexual assault case," she informed me, before whipping out her giant binder of protocols and getting to work.
Once she named it, when she actually labeled it "sexual assault," everything changed for me. I had no idea that sexual assault encompasses a variety of violations. I had always equated sexual assault with violent rape. Although both of my experiences upset me, I failed to consider them serious because they didn't meet that narrow definition, because I have close friends who have faced much worse and because I had been exposed to a multitude of news stories that detailed events far more horrific than my own. In comparison to these things — and the many accounts that surely remain untold — my experiences seemed like nothing.
But I've come to realize that minimizing my experience perpetuates the idea that sexual assault should be tolerated. Where is the line that determines just how horrifying a violation must be to warrant a report? Why was I so sure that being "strong and independent” meant essentially denying my humanity and pain in exchange for stoicism and a machismo-influenced idea of independence?
Perhaps my experiences, my pain, could have been so much worse. But I was hurt and am still angry, and neither should be minimized. After all, my body belongs only to me. It should never be accessible to any given person in my vicinity on any particular day. I was so blinded by resignation, by the way I have been trained as a woman in this society to never really view my body as my own, that I accepted these experiences as permissible. My silence contributed to the normalization of such injustices and perpetuated rape culture.
I now know that just because “it could have been worse” doesn’t mean it should have been. Sexual assault is a disgusting, violating crime that should never be tolerated in any form.
More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Rape, Sexualized violence, Gender bias