When I was discussing sexual assault with my friends, I noticed a gray area emerge. We talked about times we were “almost” assaulted or “sort of” assaulted. None of us wanted to claim that the sex we had wasn’t entirely consensual, and no one wanted to use the "r" word.
Unfortunately, this amorphous gray area is damaging our mental health. We can tell ourselves something was consensual and bully ourselves into believing it, but that doesn't make it so, and the wound is still there—unhealed, until we accept what happened. So what is this gray area, and how can we make consent more clear? From the conversations I’ve had, there can be several reasons (this list is not exhaustive):
- Not wanting to identify as a “victim.” Admitting something like this happened may cause feelings of extreme shame. There might be an idea that the person is "damaged goods" or that they "deserved it." Internalizing blame is a large problem. Victims can also have long-lasting trauma issues that make it harder to be in intimate relationships. This sounds like a lot of work, and it's tempting to skip over this by simply claiming one was not a victim at all...but that the sex is consensual. However, this does not work in the long term, because deep down, a person knows when they are lying to themselves about a sexual experience. The shame and the fear of being discovered as a person who was a victim of sexual assault can last for a lifetime. Online, there is no shortage of comments regarding victims of sexual assault, and anyone who has grown up with this messaging will not want to identify as a victim because they know what is next. There's also the idea of family shame: People might not want their parents, siblings, children, or spouse to know that they were a victim. They might fear this will change how their loved ones view them, or that they will think they deserved it or did something to bring it upon themselves. If the abuser was a relative or close family friend, the shame may be compounded.
- An expectation that subordinates have to do sexual favors to advance in their careers, so that isn’t “necessarily” assault. This situation masks the fact that a superior may be able to manipulate a subordinate and abuse their power. Some girls are seen as "fast" and some women are seen as "taking advantage" of a situation. Remember how Monica Lewinsky was treated? She was a young woman and the person in question was the president. Talk about a power differential. While we like to think that we have more awareness now, many people have still internalized the idea that sexual encounters with a boss-like figure is a quid quo pro, not sexual assault. If a person is pressured into sex by a work superior, they might never view that as an assault on their person, even if the work superior engages in predatory behavior: always hitting on interns; pressuring the new person; promising a promotion for sex, etc.
- Not wanting to ruin an otherwise fun or positive memory. If someone had a great time at a party until something "sort of sketchy" happened, that person might want to gloss over that memory. "I was drunk" or "We just had crazy, out-of-the-blue sex" might be something a person tells themselves. Nobody wants to ruin a fun memory. Once someone admits that an experience they had was non-consensual, there's a lot to unpack. It's tempting to just tell oneself that it was consensual and try to skip over the pain.
- Being in love and not wanting to admit the other person was abusive. Love makes us do strange things. If we are in love with someone, we might start to tell ourselves things we know aren't true. "They would never hurt me. They were just in a bad mood. I'm their partner. I'm supposed to provide sex. I'm not doing my job as a spouse." These are just some ways we can internalize blame and begin to find fault in ourselves. As human beings, we want to protect ourselves from pain. We want to believe the people we love also love us back and would never hurt us. Sometimes, the realization that we are in an unloving bond is too much to bear.
- Fear they won’t be believed, or they will be ridiculed, hurt, or humiliated. It takes bravery to admit that one was assaulted. It's difficult to accept that something violated the very person, the body, that inhabits. It's painful and the healing process itself is complicated and long. Additionally, we live in a society that might not always believe victims. In the military, assault victims who report can be subject to ridicule and humiliation. When the reaction from society is this strong, this can cause people to resist reporting. Victim-blaming can be a way for everyone else to feel safe: Nothing like that could happen to them, because they were good, and something about the person assaulted must be inherently bad. However, this logic is faulty. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, and when we blame the victim, it might make us feel safer, but in reality, we are making it harder for people to report, accept, and heal. We are also making it harder to abusers to be caught, and so they may repeat their offenses.
- Unable to openly talk about consent and describe what happened. Not everyone grows up learning that it is okay to say no. Not everyone learns healthy boundaries. In some families, children are expected to hug and kiss adults, even when they don't want to. This may be a subtle example, but if someone grows up believing there are situations where they cannot say no, or when they should feel guilty for saying no because someone else was "nice," then this can damage their communication skills and ideas of consent. The same is true the other way: If someone doesn't learn a language of consent, they may be more likely to pressure others. When it comes to sex, enthusiasm is mandatory. The model of enthusiastic consent suggests that both parties explicitly say yes to what they are doing.
I genuinely hope that in the future, it will become easier to talk about consent and what we want to do with our bodies. I also hope that victim-blaming and self-blame becomes less common. The main obstacles appear to be accepting what happened, and also dealing with societal pressures.
We also need everyone to discuss consent so they know when they are crossing a line or being predatory, instead of rationalizing their behavior away in the same way assault survivors rationalize their attack.