“Every woman in my life has had to ask herself the question: What does consent mean to me?”
My friend Sophie told me this when I first verbalized feelings about my experiences with sexual misconduct.
I was confronted with the enduring effects of these experiences at the beginning of this semester, so I started developing the vocabulary I needed to explain what happened and how it impacted me. The effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault manifest differently for different people, and my reaction has always come in the form of compartmentalization and avoidance.
I chose to evade these experiences for months, even years, after they occurred. They were simply “weird things” that happened to me, moments that were uncomfortable and awkward. Moments that just didn’t go well and weren’t worth talking about because I wasn’t a victim. I refused to let myself feel anything but slight unease about these situations because I thought what happened wasn’t “bad enough” for me to be as upset as I was.
The truth of the matter is if someone breaks physical barriers or pushes you into sexual circumstances without checking in, you’re not giving consent. Consent doesn’t only apply to penetrative sex — it applies to touching, exposure or sexual activity of any kind. Consent applies to unsolicited comments about sex, requests for sexual favors and “teasing,” which are invasive and disrespectful acts that disregard important boundaries and leave the recipient feeling as if their autonomy is in question.
However, the stigmas regarding sexual misconduct — the victim-blaming, lack of belief and internalized guilt that survivors feel — are existent and intimidating. Even though I can identify inappropriate behavior, I stand strongly with survivors and understand the importance of accountability, I could not break these stigmas down in my own life. I instead blamed myself and pushed my experiences out of mind to avoid dealing with their effects.
“I think it would help you to put objective language to it. If someone else told you this story, what would you say?”
My friend Nate asked me this when I began trying to process what had happened.
Every time I tried to talk about my experiences, I found myself making excuses for the other person. My judgment was clouded. As a woman, our patriarchal society has taught me to go out in groups, analyze what my outfit says about my sexual desires and be cognizant of who I’m talking to. I’ve been told to always carry my drink with me and to not accept one I didn’t see poured with my own eyes. Society has prepared me against boys in dark basements who I don’t know and it has warned me about those who might aggressively force sex. It’s all about how you can fight back or avoid a situation in the first place. It didn’t tell me that sexual misconduct is a snake with many heads and that most victims know the person who sexually assaulted them.
Friends, colleagues and classmates perpetuate sexual misconduct. Loved ones perpetuate sexual misconduct. The idea that harassment and assault happen exclusively in the shadows with unknown, covert players is a disservice to understanding the breadth and complexity of the issue. People aren’t monsters, they are human beings shaped by their surroundings, and even people we know are capable of wrongly pushing, or breaking, boundaries. Our existing culture does nothing to curb sexual misconduct, support survivors or hold those who do these things accountable.
Nate telling me to view my experiences objectively was the best piece of advice I received when I began coping with my feelings. I’ve always been a writer, and journaling helped me open up about the impact of past experiences. There’s something about articulating the pounding in my chest or the source of a random burst of emotion that makes it seem less scary or unfounded. But journaling is not objective: It leaves room for my own internalized guilt and shame and confusion to show itself. The idea that “if I could just get over it, then everything could go back to normal” appeared on my pages in a million variations. Journaling lets me process the good and the bad, the rational and the fallacious.
I alleviated some of my stress by trying objective writing. In Angell Hall Auditorium A I sat with my class notebook in front of me, dated and prepped to jot down lecture points. But instead of tuning into what happened with the development of sound in Hollywood, I wrote out what happened to me. I did this without using names or adjectives. I told the stories outside of myself, as if someone was in the room watching it all play out. This broke down some of the stigmas in my head. Looking at the folded up notebook paper, there was no question of blame. I was able to see that my internalized guilt and the fear that I was being “dramatic” were unfair. I was able to rationalize that consent is something I hold close to my chest to protect my autonomy, and others haven’t respected that power.
“Let me send you this podcast I listened to about consent. It will be really triggering, but it could help.”
My friend Danielle offered this to me after I had a noticeably difficult day.
“In the No” with Kaitlin Prest is a Radiolab podcast series collaboration that explores the meaning of consent. The link popped up on my iPhone, and after having a particularly bad day of crying fits and skipping class, I sat down and listened to part one. Kaitlin tells the story of her best friend sexually assaulting her and the subsequent damage caused by his problematic response to her pain.
It took me almost two hours to listen to this 55 minute podcast. I was sitting in the fishbowl with my headphones in, watching students printing and walking around the computer stations with a pen in my hand and my notebook on the desk in front of me. I wrote down everything that reminded me of my own experiences. I wrote down any powerful sentiments about consent that I either agreed with or hadn’t previously considered. I went in with a red pen and yellow highlighter until it looked like I was guaranteed an “A” on my next exam.
This process helped me deal with what happened in an analytical way; it was like an audio mind-map connecting dots that I couldn’t before. I shared the notes with Sophie and Danielle — I started talking more and generally being more open about it. Knowing there are so many people in situations like mine, who have had questions and feelings similar to mine, has made me feel less alone.
I’ve written poems and letters and bullet points and this article. I’ve gone to therapy and contextualized my situation to professors and colleagues. There’s an idea that sexual misconduct is something you don’t talk about, but if someone who experienced it opens up, listening can help the healing.
To me, consent means ownership of my body and my story. Situations from my past don’t make this ownership any less real.