As we approach New Year’s Eve, a night often shared with friends and strangers, I want to challenge us all to think about how we can share these energetic celebrations in a way that is safe and respectful for everyone. Leah, a 28-year-old social worker from Somerville, debriefs with us.
“You’re asking for it, wearing that dress.”
These were words I thought I would never hear directed at me. I was at a New Year’s Eve party among friends. An acquaintance of mine reached his hand down the front of my dress and grabbed my cleavage. Not just once; maybe two or three times. My memory is obscured because I was drinking, focused on flirting with another person, and generally floating through the night in a fog of lubricated gaiety. At some point after the first offense, I laughed, kicked him in the nuts, and told him never to do it again, as though we were horsing around. I was having a great night, and stubbornly, almost militantly, refused to let this individual change that for me.
I woke up the next morning feeling like a witness to a scene whose details I could not quite conjure. It was not until several days later, in a trauma seminar on sexual violence at my social-work agency, that I realized I had been deeply violated. As we talked through a case, I felt my body tense up. Nausea swept over me.
I may have wanted to run away from the scene of the crime. I may have wanted to avoid drama with my friends, downplay the situation, and even blame myself for drinking and being off my guard. Maybe it was my fault that I had shown so much cleavage? Maybe men really are allowed to just touch women’s breasts when they want to? Right and wrong began to get all topsy-turvy. I had a lifetime of social-justice learning under my belt and no significant trauma history. It might have gotten even more topsy-turvy if I’d had a different background, a different history. But still, it was dizzying.
I thought too much time had passed since the incident to say anything to the person who touched me, but my body refused to let the violation go without recourse. I went home and, stammering, initiated a Google-chat conversation with the perpetrator. He refused to apologize and, even worse, ridiculed me for calling him out on it. I admit, it probably wasn’t how those folks at Google intended for this medium to be used. But like many things I used to think I “did wrong” in this situation, I simply no longer had the energy to find myself at fault.
Harder than talking to him, though, was navigating the situation with mutual friends.
It is one thing to deal with an isolated individual with outspoken misogynistic views. As it turns out, it is much harder to work through preexisting friendships with people who agree that something had gone wrong and yet are not quite ready to take action on your behalf, despite the pain you feel from the wrong they acknowledge.
As it happened, other people slowly came out of the woodwork describing several other incidents when this individual had grabbed their butt at public outings or made provocative over-sexualized comments that made them uncomfortable. I feel sad when I think about the kind of self-doubt I may have suffered if not a single other person had recounted similar experiences with this person. The preponderance of examples bolstered my confidence as I trudged through conversations with friends, even months after the incident, explaining how terrible it felt for me to be victimized.
Even with other people corroborating, speaking up for myself and communicating my experience to friends posed continuous challenges. I deeply regret the number of times I said, “I don’t really want to have any drama,” as though somehow by describing exactly what happened to me, I was holding a knife up to someone’s neck. It had already happened. I did not make it happen—I just needed people to know. I did not cause the drama by speaking the truth.
Now, a year later, it is hard to think of New Year’s without remembering my confusion, isolation and depression in the wake of this incident. If I learned one thing from this process, it is that all my feminist training, peer support and generally positive life experiences were still somehow inadequate preparation for the murky pain of being an outspoken victim.
You can be sure that if someone shares an incident of sexual violation with me in the future, I will not, for a second, wonder whether it is really that big of a deal.
To prevent more incidents like the ones Leah describes, consider some of these ground rules for parties, or this advice on checking for consent on the dance floor. But even preparation and communication can’t control everyone’s behavior, so if someone talks about you or touches you in a way that feels bad, it’s not your fault. Find someone who believes you and takes you seriously. The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is a great resource for survivors and their friends who might be looking for a little support, and they have a 24-hour hotline: 1-800-841-8371.
To end on a hopeful note: What beliefs, values or goals will guide your decisions about sex and romance in 2014? Email firstname.lastname@example.org by FRIDAY with your New Year’s resolutions for dating, relationships, sex or sexuality. I’m hoping to hear about a range of topics with a range of perspectives—serious, silly or surprising!