The trouble with sexual assault (trigger warnings, also graphic content)

I’ve been trying to put this into words for several days now, ever since the Jian Ghomeshi story [link is to the most comprehensive, not the first, news story] broke this week.

People ask, time and time again, why victims don’t report. How these things happen over and over again, with little or no consequences for the perpetrator. I was left wondering last night what could have happened differently to stop this.

I’ll leave the broader, more technical, analysis to the countless experts out there.  Some good reading on what happens when victims do report is here, and a very personal account from a Twitter-friend is here.  I’ll also point out, as was reminded to me when I posed the question via social media of how this could have been stopped, that at least one woman did report it, which only made matters worse.

All I can bring to this table is to share my own experience.  I’m sure I’ve shared this story with some friends over the years, but never in a public space online.  It was so long ago now, and is admittedly somewhat repressed, so the details are missing – but they don’t matter here.

Years ago, probably about a decade ago now, since it was before I lived in Toronto, I came into the city to attend a friend’s party.  He’d offered me his couch to sleep on in advance, so I was comfortable drinking and not having to drive or find another way home at a late hour.  I don’t really remember anything in particular about the party, only that I had enough to drink that I wouldn’t drive home, and that by the time everyone left I was a little drunk, and very tired.  Another friend of the friend I was staying with decided that, even though he didn’t live far away, he too was going to crash on this friend’s couch.  I recall him flirting with me earlier in the evening, but not much more.  I don’t remember if I flirted back, but knowing myself at that time I probably did.

The couch was a sectional, so we could both sleep perpendicular to one another, with only minimal bumping.  I made it clear that I was exhausted and going straight to sleep.  He had other things on his mind.  He asked if we could cuddle, and I reiterated that I really just wanted to sleep.  After he climbed over to my half of the couch I said ‘fine’ but that I was going to sleep and it was his problem if I snored in his face.  Despite my lack of interest, and lack of permission, he wouldn’t stop touching me, and began touching himself, eventually grabbing my hand to touch him as well.  No amount of “I really just want to sleep” got him to stop, and I eventually gave in and got him off with my hand just to get it over with so I could get some sleep.  When one of the women in the Star article talked about doing things with Ghomeshi “just to get out of there,” I was immediately brought back to this moment.

I didn’t agree to it, and I didn’t enjoy it – I just knew it was the only way to avoid him going even further, possibly after I went to sleep.  I guess an advantage of being a man is I know how men work – most guys won’t make the effort anymore after they’ve gotten off, and this was easier than spending the next few hours saying ‘no’ over and over again or risking him doing something to me in my sleep.  We didn’t really say much the next morning, and I’ve only crossed paths with him a few times since, when neither of us have acted like anything was unusual.

I never said anything to him about it, and I never said anything to our mutual friend whose couch we were on and who was none the wiser.  I avoided this person for awhile, but our circles of friends didn’t overlap much, so it wasn’t really much effort.  The idea of “reporting” never even crossed my mind. Which brings me back to the original question – why not?  This was technically sexual assault.

In part, I didn’t think about it because I knew that, if I’d tried harder I could’ve been more successful at avoiding him.  I could have gotten up and walked away, despite my inebriation.  I had the means to pay for a taxi to get home, even if it meant adding it to my student loan.  I knew that if I said anything at that point, the immediate question would be why I didn’t just get up and walk away.  To this day, I still don’t know the answer to that question, though I doubt the alcohol helped my judgment.

The other big thing that comes to mind is that, by contrast to so many more ‘serious’ incidents, this was about the most mild form of sexual assault I could imagine – I used the word ‘technically’ above for that reason.  Compared to the allegations against Ghomeshi, this was nothing.  And compared to the crimes of people like Paul Bernardo (having grown up in St. Catharines, he’s never far from mind when this topic comes up), even the allegations against Ghomeshi are practically nothing.  There’s always someone in a worse situation when it comes to sexual assault, and what happened to me is incredibly trivial by comparison.

Lastly, there’s that nagging feeling of being the one responsible for it. Regardless of the lack of consent, the fact that there was flirting or some consensual activity preceding it makes it really hard to vilify the other party.  “I got myself into this” is always there in the background… not to mention how unpleasant the notion of turning in someone you actually kind of liked is.

So, it’s been this many years, and I still won’t be “reporting” this person.  At this point, I don’t even remember his name.  So I can empathize with all those who have not made their own reports.  Even if I now feel torn up and have questioned over and over whether I was one of many, like is alleged in the Ghomeshi case, or just a drunken fluke.  I can only hope that we can change our culture to prevent these things from happening in the first place – so no one is ever put in the position of having to even consider such things.

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