I Thought I Understood Sexual Assault, Until it Happened to Me
And How I Realized My Shortcomings as an Ally
While I was doing a school assignment last week, a man named Gaston kissed my neck, then my cheek, then my mouth.
He did this without my consent, without knowing me, and seemingly without caring about either of those things.
It was Thursday morning, Oct. 12, up on Mount Royal. Beautiful day, sunny, maybe the last hurrah of a very long summer. The assignment was for my photojournalism class. I had to take pictures of people and then go get their information so I could “publish” their photo. It was an exercise in consent.
Near noon, I took a photo of an older man sitting on a table in a clearing in the sun. I went over to say hi, to get his story, and to get his permission. His name was Gaston, he spoke French, and he declined to give me his last name. He was fine with me using his picture for class. We spoke for a while, 20 minutes or so, about journalism, the state of the media, how hard it is for students these days. He seemed like a chill guy, amiable enough, and in tune with the zeitgeist. Plus it’s fun to talk to strangers in French—it’s good practice.
Having spent more time than I wanted chatting, I said goodbye, and moved on. I decided to go onto a nearby trail, hoping to find some hikers and get their picture. Before heading onto the trail, I turned back and saw Gaston looking my way.
I wave, then go into the shade of the trees.
Walking into the forest a bit, I turn around to see if there’s an interesting picture to be had of the entrance to the trail. There isn’t. But in my viewfinder, Gaston appears. I guess he’s going this way too, I thought. What a coincidence.
He comes up to me again. Asks about my camera. We talk a while longer, another 20 minutes. He makes a joke. I don’t get it, but he laughs and squeezes my shoulder. I look at the time. It’s 12:30, things to do. I say bye. Go to shake his hand.
He spreads his arms. Looking for a hug. Why not? I hug. Then his mouth is on my neck. I freeze. It’s a kiss. Then my cheek. Then my mouth. His lips brush mine, I push him back. I see his very blue eyes, very close to mine. They are very surprised.
“Non, monsieur,” I say.
“Non?” he asks.
I walk back along the path the way I came and out into the sun and down the mountain and I don’t know where to go so I go into the chalet at the lookout and I go inside and I go to the bathroom but I go down the wrong stairs and am at the women’s bathroom so I get water from the fountain to save face and then I go to the men’s bathroom and I look at myself in the mirror and ask in my head, “Shit have I just been sexually assaulted?”
But let’s be real. This is as good as sexual assault gets. I was in a public place during the day where, if I needed help, I would likely have gotten it. I didn’t know my attacker, he had no leverage over me, and I didn’t have to convince anyone of the truth of my account. If the thing had turned physically violent, I was younger, faster, and stronger than him. I would have broken free if I fought back, and I would have gotten away if I ran—if it came to those things, and if I was emotionally able to try. But I didn’t have to go there, because when I forcefully said no after my space and comfort and skin were violated without consent, that was the end of it.
I know how rare that is, how rare all of those circumstances are. I also know how that rareness is multiplied by my gender (male), my race (white), and my class (upper). But even with all of those caveats, having pretty much dodged the bullet, I still know what it’s like, now, to stare down the barrel of the gun. That raises a big question, though. Why didn’t I know before?
I never took the abstract concepts I’d read and heard and used them to examine my practical experience.
Gaston pried my eyes open in a way that no article, no personal story from a friend, no movie or song or hashtag ever did. I wasn’t able to understand the power of sexual assault, even with the generations of survivors of all genders screaming the truth at me from so many directions. All of the #metoo’s and the #yesallwomen’s and the sharing of trauma again and again, re-opening wounds in the hopes that it’ll make a difference, change a mind, change the culture? It didn’t add up to as much understanding as those 10 seconds of violation.That’s bad, to put it mildly.
And shit, I’m supposed to be one of the good guys. I’m an editor at an anti-oppression publication with an avowedly anti-rape platform and a history of advocacy.
Right now I feel simultaneously like that country musician in the aftermath of the Vegas shooting who only realized how bad guns were when he was the one getting shot at, but also like all of those internet folks shouting “THAT’S WHAT WE BEEN SAYING!”
It’s a weird position. I don’t know why I didn’t understand assault on a level consistent with my work. I’m flabbergasted at that deficiency. But now I know. I get it.
I get the shock and bewilderment. “Did he just kiss my neck?” I wonder, not understanding what’s happening, and I’m still wondering by the time he’s kissed my cheek, and have partly processed enough to push his shoulder back by the time he holds my head and moves his mottled lips towards mine. Then the surprise I feel, seeing the surprise in his eyes when I say,“no.” He had no idea.
And the confusion, turning in on myself. What did I do that made him think I wanted that? Was it that I waved at him after leaving the first conversation? Was it that I was friendly, and he thought I was flirting? When he squeezed my shoulder, I should’ve realized and left. Why didn’t I? Why did I accept the hug, why did I let this happen?
Then, the anger. He was so selfish. This was all about him. His vision of our conversation, his wants, his horniness. And for what? What did he think would happen? Who did he think he was, who did he think I was? What entitled him to my body, my mouth, my attention? What gave him the right to project his desires onto me as an object for him to lust after, when all I wanted was a conversation and a picture and a decent grade? I was trusting the rules of normal social interaction that I’ve spent my life learning, and he threw those away, breached that trust and understanding and violated my bodily integrity for a deluded attempt at seduction.
And yeah, I’ll say it. I never saw it coming because I’m a guy. Which made it all the more shocking for me, in retrospect, but I guess that isn’t shocking at all.
I don’t know how this must read to people who have been through this before. I don’t even know how this would read to me, from two weeks ago. Looking at it, at these feelings, at the shock and confusion and anger, I recognize them as things I’ve heard expressed but that I failed to internalize. After all, this is just like the chorus of other stories that I’d read and supported and thought I’d understood.
What a privilege it is to get to this point in my life before having the facade of a decent masculinity crumble at the hands of an abusive man. But here’s the thing. I’ve also been that man, or at least a man operating under similar assumptions. I realized it right away, walking out of the forest from Gaston.
In grade 11, five years ago, I was on a date. Well, it was a “chill,” because I was too cowardly to actually ask my crush out and be clear of my intentions. So, without her knowing, I was scrutinizing and projecting onto our interactions through a romantic lens.
So, we were hanging out. Walking along the street, chatting. Then, out of nowhere, without any invitation, any sign of interest, any indication of consent, I tried to kiss her.
I suppose it’s innocuous enough, in the pantheon of things that could maybe sort of be considered sexual violence. But looking at that moment through the lens of this moment, I see the dishonesty and entitlement there that I’ve seen and criticized in others, and now experienced. And the harm it can do.
I never thought about that failed kiss within the context of a non-consensual encounter. I’d never examined my own attitudes at a deep enough level to go that far back. Maybe I didn’t want to. But, nonetheless, I put my own feelings above hers, totally subconsciously. I tried to impose my wants. I betrayed a trust. I didn’t respect boundaries.
That’s one moment from my youth, among others, where I was using the same tools that are used in acts of sexual violence. But I never thought of them as that, even as I grew into a feminist who, I think, has done some okay work. I never took the abstract concepts I’d read and heard and used them to examine my practical experience. How am I supposed to expect others to listen and change when I hadn’t even done that, and hadn’t even realized that I hadn’t done that, until the problem became about me?
I just want to say that I’m not equating that moment with Gaston, nor am I equating Gaston’s minor assault with something like what Harvey Weinstein did. But I’m comparing them, because their characteristics bleed into each other. And I didn’t understand how little I understood until I got some of the blood on me.
Women have shared their stories enough. They’ve put in the work. They and other survivors keep trying to educate us and relive their trauma to break down how all this shit works, but it’s not them who are the ones perpetrating violence on a societal scale. It’s not them who ask “how does this keep happening” while doing nothing more than half-listening, and then congratulating themselves for it. We don’t get As for showing up to class.
Maybe a man will listen to my experience differently. Maybe he’ll understand when I say we’re not doing enough, and will start doing enough. Or maybe he’ll learn what enough really is. I know that’s what I’m going to be doing. After all, and it’s a fucked up thing to say, it still took a man to teach me the truth of sexual violence.
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