Never Say These Things About Sexual Misconduct

Our society’s lack of sympathy toward sexual assault victims has become increasingly evident and appalling. It seems like the further an incident deviates from our prototypical image of assault, the less sympathy the victim receives. Stories of marital abuse, male victims, mistreatment of sex workers, same-sex assault, rape involving alcohol, and verbal harassment get buried under the narrative which claims that rape always looks like a long-time criminal attacking a screaming woman at knifepoint.

During a recent appearance at UC Berkeley, attorney and women's advocate Anita Hill said that productive discussion of sexual assault requires wider acknowledgement of "a whole spectrum of behaviors that ranges from verbal harassment to physical and sexual assault.” Discussions of behaviors that don't fall on the "assault" side of the spectrum — and the myriad incidents that victims are unsure how to classify — are missing from many conversations about how we should respond to sexual misconduct.

I use the term “misconduct” — which legally includes "sexual harassment, sexual assault, and any conduct of a sexual nature that is without consent" — to describe all unwanted sexual advances, because when people assign a legitimacy to an experience by labeling it as “rape” or “assault,” victims and their confidants may worry more about how to classify the event than how it affected them.

A label should not determine how much compassion a victim deserves. Sometimes sexual misconduct involves a physically violent attack — but sometimes it's an encounter someone didn’t want but didn’t explicitly say no to, or an incident when one activity was welcome but the next was not. Circumstances like these can be viewed as "grey” and therefore less traumatic, but there’s no linear relationship between how grey an experience was and how much trauma it invoked.

I have my own painful memories of unwanted touching from someone I was happy to kiss but not go further with. The frightening sense of powerlessness — no matter what I said, he was going to what he wanted — lingered with me long after the event. But when I tried to confide in my friends, many dismissed my distress because it wasn't sex and, hey, I kissed him. Yet nearly everyone, even those who trivialized my story, had similar stories — and heard similar things from the people they hoped would sympathize.

Victims of sexual misconduct hear the following questions and comments time and time again — especially when their experiences are the kind not typically classified as assault or rape. And they shouldn't have to. Here are seven things you should never say to a victim of any kind of sexual misconduct.

1. “So, did they rape you or not?”

This implies that anything outside the commonly accepted definition of rape is less worthy of concern. It also pressures the victim to classify something they may not want to classify or expose information they’d rather keep private.

2. "Well, I have a friend who [insert supposedly worse thing], so …"

It’s not possible for you to say whose situation was worse. But let’s say there are worse situations than the one being discussed. The fact that people die in fires doesn’t mean a fourth- or even first-degree burn should go untreated. This is totally unhelpful and hurtful, and it trivializes the victim's experience.

3. "But you didn’t seem upset about it at the time."

There are many reasons a victim may act like a non-consensual encounter was a typical or even enjoyable. Here are a few.

  • It's a defense mechanism. In the (albeit problematic) book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham writes about a woman who was raped at age 10 while “making sounds of pleasure to protect herself,” relating this to an incident of misconduct she recounted to her friends as if it were just another one of her conquests. These reactions are common and don’t make the misconduct less real.
  • It's result of messed-up messages about consent that get in the way of recognizing one’s own victimhood. A recent study on young women found that they don’t even recognize sexual assault and harassment because they “regard violence as a normal part of life.”
  • It's a result of understandable discomfort with sharing accounts of sexual misconduct given the dismissal that often ensues. This is largely why the majority of victims don’t report their assaults.

4. "You should feel lucky it didn’t go any further."

How someone feels is nobody else’s business, and it especially stings to be told how to feel in the wake of a traumatic or upsetting event. Sticking with my previous analogy, knowing that third-degree burns exist doesn’t make a first-degree burn hurt less. A victim should most certainly not feel lucky.

5. "I’m not sure I’d consider that assault."

You’re not entitled to an opinion. It’s insulting to distrust people to recount their own experiences accurately. People don’t look to consider themselves victims — they usually come to this conclusion reluctantly after an arduous process of shock, denial, and self-blame. Even if someone asks for your opinion, it’s probably best to say you weren’t there and trust your friend’s intuition or that it’s contemptible regardless of how you label it.

6. "Are you sure you weren’t asking for it?"

Once again: Making out isn’t asking to be felt up. Engaging in foreplay isn’t asking for sex. Going to someone’s room isn’t asking for anything besides hanging out in that person’s room. Rather than treating one action as “asking” for another, both parties must get explicit consent before doing anything new. Talking may be uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as the violation of boundaries that can result from not talking.

7. "Well, did you tell them to stop?"

Many trivialize or doubt accounts of sexual misconduct with statements like these because they’ve been taught that consent is something taken away, not given. That is, anything goes until someone says "stop." Yet we also exist within a culture that discourages any sort of sexual communication, including telling someone to stop — rendering the typical model of consent ineffective.

The problem with this “no means no” model is that continuing with an activity until somebody says it’s not OK is like asking them to walk on top of a cliff blindfolded and tell you if they step off the ledge. By the time they get the chance to say “no” (if they do at all), something has already taken place against their will.

Consent according to the “yes means yes” model, on the other hand, requires both parties to be enthusiastic about — not resigned to — the activity taking place. With this understanding that consent must be explicit, previously overlooked forms of sexual misconduct become visible, and victims who suffered in silence can be heard.

Editor's Note: If you've been a victim of sexual misconduct or assault, please know that you are not alone, and that help is available.

Images: Alex/Flickr; Giphy