By Alexandria Roswick
Once we start comparing, we lose power as a community.
The other day, I clicked on an article that I knew would be an unpleasant read. What else is new, right?
It was an article about the legal distinction between rape and sexual coercion. Being an advocate for victims of sexual violence, I have to stay in the know about these topics. But, as a survivor myself, I am often triggered by reading about them.
Daily, I have to decide which risks for the sake of education will be worth the sting of past trauma. This requires me to set healthy boundaries for myself, which is a challenge given my emotionally masochistic tendencies. Finding balance is difficult, but I have to believe it’s worth it.
I went into this particular read prepared that it might open up some not-so-old wounds. Fortunately, the article itself — although lacking critical perspective — contained ideas I’d been faced with many times before, and it didn’t leave me huffing and puffing at the keyboard, which was a pleasant surprise.
That was until I got to the comment section. Now, why would I go there, you ask?
If there’s one thing I’ve ever been addicted to, it’s that delicious cultural observation. And why wouldn’t I be? I’m a writer! Although, if you saw my response to one victim-blaming comment beneath the article, you may question my professionalism. Here is the comment that pushed me.
As someone who was forcibly held down and assaulted against their will, I find it to be a slap in the face when someone calls it rape because they weren’t in the mood but did it anyway. Get over yourself (sic)
As a survivor who’s been both raped and coerced into sex on separate occasions — and was left feeling far more traumatized by the act that many consider non-criminal — reading this felt like the commenter had slapped me right across my face. My response? Let’s just say subtly and grace slipped my mind. As demonstrated by the very apparent grammatical and spelling errors, my feathers were thoroughly ruffled.
I don’t want to talk about that cringe response. However, now that I am a bit more collected, I’d like to take another shot at a healthy expression of anger into the implacable ether.
Unfortunately, I am all too aware of the cultural and legal distinctions between rape and coercion. There are experiences I know in my heart to have been consent violations, but any lawyer, police officer, or random male (or female, apparently) would disagree. I know because I have to know. That doesn’t make it easier to cope with.
Before my rapist was my rapist, he was a man who showed interest in me from two thousand miles away. Then, he was a man I’d gotten to know and trust for three months over the phone. Then, he was a man who begged to meet me in person. Then, he was a man who spent hundreds on a plane ticket just to spend time with little old me. Finally, he was a man in my bed, in my room.
Unfortunately, it was then that he revealed himself to be a man I didn’t recognize. I told him “no.” Several times. He responded by posing the threat of “rethinking our relationship” because we just weren’t connecting. Sexually, that is. You see, I was inadequate — as in, not willing to have sex with him immediately.
I knew exactly what game he was playing as it was happening. It wasn’t the first time a man tried to manipulate me into “consent”. It wasn’t the second or third either.
As he toyed with my emotions, my mind wandered back to memories of my previous relationship. My ex-boyfriend had me believing that it was my duty to open my legs when he demanded sex—every single day.
I snapped back to the present with a message from my past self to deliver. I told this new, incognizable man that I knew there was nothing unreasonable about not wanting to have sex with him that night.
I remember feeling momentarily proud of myself for standing my ground. So, then why did I feel the overwhelming urge to plead my case? To convince him that my choice was completely valid?
Because I’d already spent 3 months vetting this man thoroughly after suffering abuse at the hands of another. How could I have possibly failed to see what I’d just learned to look out for? I was already too attached to the fraudulent version of him.
I was in a state of denial and even though it burned like hell, it was my key to survival.
The more I spoke, the more his eyes pierced mine in disdain. He didn’t like “being rejected”, and he certainly didn’t like that I was talking back.
Like most women, I’d been forced to become an expert at managing men’s emotions since childhood. I knew exactly what it meant when this man’s tone shifted from charming to hateful as the volume of his pestering rose to the pitch of knives hacking my eardrums.
It didn’t matter when I said “no” for the thousandth time. He was deaf to the perfectly well-stated reasons I had rehearsed in my mind every day since my last relationship. The word “no” should have been enough on its own, but it wasn’t.
I thought about 2017 and the vitriolic response to the #MeToo movement from angry men on the internet and Fox News. A popular retort — to women’s lived traumatic experiences — was “Why didn’t you just say ‘no’?”
The word certainly didn’t work for me at this moment. And it never had before. I resorted to practically begging this man to understand that I was more than an object. Part of me knew that my attempts to convince him of anything outside of his narrative were moot, so after several unheard shrills, I began preaching for myself — to affirm my own validity.
Within these desperate moments, I was learning one of the most horrific truths of them all. It doesn’t matter how self-assured or enlightened by feminism or educated on the concept of healthy consent I am. I’m not immune to the psychological manipulation of narcissistic abuse. Nobody is.
Within a matter of minutes, the man mutated from slightly irritated to devastatingly whiny. He cried as if my autonomy was causing him anguish. And I found myself comforting him. He knew how to appeal to my natural drive to nurture as if he’d played this part before.
But he made it perfectly clear that my timorous shoulder rubs and jittery hair strokes did not suffice.
On a dime, his demeanor became stern and rigid, as if he was aware of the power imbalance between a stick-thin 25-year-old woman and a relatively muscular thirty-something-year-old man alone in a room. My room.
My response to trauma was never flight, anyways. It was always fawn or freeze. These are elements of my identity I now know as confidently as I do my astrological placements.
Predictably, I fawned — an actual trauma response and not simply “people pleasing” — and performed the non-penetrative (“non-rape”) sexual acts that he needed to heal his excruciating blue balls. The poor thing.
Although I’m one hundred percent certain that this experience was non-consensual, I’m also aware that many believe stories like mine are the fault of the survivor for giving in. Because “technically” — according to our society’s narrow understanding of consent — “I consented.”
They think I just wasn’t in the mood but said “yes” anyway.
Days later — since this man had done nothing “technically” wrong and I had every reason to continue our relationship — we were again, alone in my room. This time, this man revealed himself to be a “technical” rapist.
Violence begets violence. Our societal failure to define my “non-rape” as assault made the act itself more possible and mercilessly complicated to report to the police. In fact, if this man didn’t “technically” rape me afterward, there probably wouldn’t be a police report.
This is my story. It could be similar to what other victims have faced, but the only two people who were there were me and this sad excuse of a man. Nobody else will ever truly know what I felt that evening.
Nor would I ever in a million years project my experience onto another victim or judge them by the standards of my own trauma.
There are victims who have suffered traumas far more severe than I have, but don’t feel traumatized. There are victims who have suffered many microaggressions or “mildly” traumatic events over the course of decades who have PTSD, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, suicidal ideations, and IBS, just like I do.
There are a few survivors' stories I’ve heard that made me believe that if I was in the victim’s shoes, I wouldn’t have felt traumatized. But I never told them that. Because that doesn’t matter. It’s not about me. I’m not her/him/them/you.
The commenter above confessed to experiencing a horrific and violent event, and her story deserves respect. But then she compared her story to the hypothetical experiences of others and simultaneously invalidated them.
In two short sentences, she defined her trauma as real trauma, and any experience deemed less than her definition was worthy of nothing more than an eye roll.
In the process, she minimized and re-defined the entirely nuanced issue of coercion to simply not being in the mood but doing it anyway. She also commented, publicly, in a forum likely made up of many survivors of sexual violence — an issue pertaining to much more than just rape — “get over yourself.”
Get over yourself. So far, the comment has received 209 claps. That’s how popular it is to shame a hypothetical victim’s feelings.
When our goal is to “out trauma” others on the internet in the way that this survivor did, we contribute to harmful tropes that convey an ideal victim, as well as narrow down the cultural idea of what a traumatic event looks like. This harms survivors that experience anything outside of the limiting stereotypes.
The commenter may have been referring only to women like Deborah from Everybody Loves Raymond who is never in the mood to have sex with her lazy, inadequate husband but does it anyways because she’s a wife living in a patriarchal society. But, Deborah is a character in a television show (based on a well-known and nauseatingly overdone sitcom wife trope). She’s not real.
Like the screenwriters of Everybody Loves Raymond, this commenter was writing fiction. She created a world where there are swaths of fake victims who just need to get over the fact that they feel they have wifely duties.
This hugely problematic assertion makes it seem as if the “Deborahs” of the world are falsely reporting their husbands for assault, but that’s not even close to reality. The “Deborahs” are harboring resentment, sure. But they’re not the women who spoke out during #Metoo.
The women, men, and non-binaries who are reporting/speaking out about coercion are in abusive relationships. They are being traumatized by a power differential.
There is an ever-present unspoken threat that looms over a woman or any marginalized person when he/she/they is alone in a room with a man and no witnesses.
We have to put an immense level of trust in any man we decide to be alone with. We don’t know what this person could do to us. When he pleads or sneers or gives any hint of displeasure, it can heighten our fight, flight, fawn, or freeze instincts.
I learned from my experiences that if a man is capable of guilting me into acquiescence, saying no won’t make a difference.
Saying “no” has never stopped a sexual predator.
They will take what they want, but they’d much rather get it by psychologically manipulating their prey into thinking they “technically” consented. Because in many parts of the world, the law “technically” protects men who do that. Because the culture is uneducated and in denial about consent. Because manipulation is nearly impossible to prove.
Because the court of public opinion has demonstrated time and time again that they will make a judgment before knowing the complexities of psychological abuse. Because it’s very difficult for anyone outside of the situation to make a definitive ruling. Or, at least it should be.
It is, but rape culture has caused us all to believe we’re armchair experts on the specifics of any traumatic incident, giving us full authority to scoff at or minimize anyone’s narrative.
Which is a very easy tool for predators to use to twist the narrative of their victims.
Consent is not as simple as a yes.
Consent must be freely given, reversible, enthusiastic, specific, and informed. Whatever you want to call it — coercion, manipulation, guilting, shaming, or threatening — they are all examples of consent violations.
Sexual coercion is on the spectrum of sexual violence. No matter how physically “violent” you think something was or wasn’t, these are not just some silly events we tell people to “get over.”
It bothers me that most people seem to focus on legality when having this conversation. As if the fact that something was legal so it couldn’t have been that bad. We dismiss “non-rape” situations as something to move on from, like a breakup.
So, thank you, “she technically said ‘yes’” crowd for being there to state the obvious. Believe me, the fact that she technically said yes probably haunts her every single day of her life.
Although I do believe it is important to discuss the differences between rape and coercion, it seems the conversation is — surprise, surprise — always so black and white. But there is endless nuance here.
The emphasis on such technical talk takes away from morality and humanity. Coercion is an abhorrent act. People who abuse their power to intimidate a person into sexually gratifying them should be held responsible.
Do we all agree? It doesn’t seem so, considering the comment above and the demonstrated history of hills people are willing to die on for the distinction of legal or illegal. Was it rape or a cry for attention? A traumatic event or a woman with regrets? The problem is that we still believe it could ever be that simple.
A consent violation of any kind is serious and we need to start treating all circumstances as such.
This idea that the people speaking out are looking for attention when they only suffered an irritatingly horny partner and next-day-regret is a simplistic view and an inaccurate understanding of coercion.
These myths feed into victim doubting and reinforce the notion that women(or victims of any gender) are always exaggerating thus threatening the poor potentials of men — who are just being men — with their hysterical cries.
There is nothing productive, informative, or positive that can be added to the discourse surrounding sexual violence from a comment like the one above — which was seemingly for the sake of ego. (Maybe?)
I’m not sure what she intended to do with this remark. I know that the topic of coercion deserves more discussion, awareness, and education. Anyone who wants to begin a conversation about such things ethically must do so with compassion and openness. Not judgment or comparison.
Trust me, all survivors have had enough of those already.
Humanity has left the chat
My disappointment comes from the expectation that one of our own would not need to read my words in order to accept the stories of fellow victims. I imagine her reading my novel of an essay thinking I’m a precious snowflake and that she can’t believe I’m not over myself yet.
Well, not to excuse her, but I’ve also considered the possibility that she was triggered by memories drudged up by the sensitive topic of such an article which led to this less-than-tasteful victim-blaming comment.
I’ve certainly had my moments. Just look at any of my tweets from after the Depp v. Heard trial.
We shouldn’t assume all victims are perfect. None of them are. All humans are guilty of insensitivity and even callousness. It doesn’t make any of them less of a survivor. The internet causes us to lose our humanity at times because we feel a release of emotions when typing out a comment. When we blast it into the ether we rarely feel like the words are about to become more visible. The catharsis of typing them almost makes it seem like they have disappeared.
Maybe her comment and my initial response to her were prime examples of exactly this.
But each time we lack empathy it is an opportunity to learn and grow. The next time you decide to comment on anything about sexual violence, or any violence in general, think about how the victim of said violence would feel reading your words. Think about if you’d say it to them in person.
Please take a pause. Remember to be kind. Remember that the more we divide ourselves, the more isolated we become. And there is no community of survivors in isolation.