Sexual Assault in Shades of Grey

I wrote most of this in the middle of the night, then clarified and expanded it the next morning. As I say early on, it is very disjointed. I have no solutions, no evidence, just personal thoughts, anecdotes, and many questions…

I can’t sleep. Partially because I have a headache, partially because I’m in a thought-spiral of largely disjointed ideas and questions related to sexual assault. Perhaps writing them down, whether published or not, will help quiet my brain for rest.

My husband and I tell this silly story of how our relationship began. You might call it an agreed statement of facts. His brother and sister-in-law hosted monthly theme nights, my brother and sister-in-law attended as guests, and I tagged along. In January, we met, had minimal contact but in retrospect, have said we noticed and found each other attractive. I don’t remember the theme of that one, but February was Red Wine Night. I was the designated driver and Luke’s never been much of a drinker, so we were the only two sober people in attendance. We had a fun evening together, bonding as we laughed at the shenanigans of the rest, and went our separate ways with moderate interest in each other. March – He wasn’t there. April – I missed the party. May – Tequila Night; I was not driving this time. Luke and I again had a fun night, being silly and playing Rock Band as I got drunk. I gave him my phone number. We left at the same time and before I got in the vehicle with my DD, I gave him what, in my inebriated state, I thought of as a romantic first kiss. In hindsight, we laughingly describe it as me “attacking him with my face”.

Here’s part of what’s keeping me awake – I can’t say I had his explicit consent for that kiss, which means the only thing that kept my sloppy actions from qualifying as sexual assault is that my advances turned out to not be unwanted, as evidenced by the past nine years.

How many of us have taken that leap of faith and leaned in for a kiss without expressly asking permission? Think of the start to your own relationships, did you ask aloud, “Can I kiss you?” Or, did you interpret what you saw as “signals”, see an “opportunity”, and “go for it”? When you make a move in that way, if you are right about the other person’s interest, you’ve started something mutually pleasurable. If you are wrong, you are either rebuffed or, if not, you have at minimum started something pleasurable to only one party and at worst traumatized said other party. If you were wrong about their interest, regardless of the forcefulness of their response, you have, by definition, committed sexual assault – unwanted sexual contact. Should we all be reflecting on our past behaviour through this new lens? Would we be proud of what we saw?

Unwanted sexual contact; contact without present, expressed consent. A broad definition, and rightfully so in my opinion. A victim should not be dismissible on a technicality. A person has the right to feel victimized by physical contact that occurs without their consent. However, is the opposite also true and should it be? As the person on the receiving end of unwanted sexual contact, do I have the right to decide I was not a victim and that was not sexual assault? Or, by doing so, am I perpetuating and enabling a culture that is harmful to others who would be victimized by those same actions?

#MeToo. Absolutely, me too. But I perceive these uninvited and unwanted contacts as relatively minor and without lasting impacts on my life. Therefore, I am disinterested in punishment or public shaming for those who committed them. Am I right to feel that way, do I lead a happier life by feeling that way, or am I the product of a societal environment that normalized sexual assault and do I now contribute to that environment by minimizing my own experiences?

Just because I don’t think a coworker putting his arm around me in a way that makes me vaguely uncomfortable is worth reporting, does that mean someone else experiencing the same thing who thinks it creates a hostile work environment and should be a fireable offence is inherently wrong? No, I don’t think that is fair to say. Pain is relative and personal, who am I to say that your pain is invalid because I did not feel it in kind?

If I do not pursue legal action against a perpetrator, perhaps because there is no physical evidence of the assault or perhaps because I feel the resources and energy needed for an investigation and trial would increase rather than relieve my trauma, do I forego the right to share my experience? To make others aware of hurtful actions of a person they know or work with or may vote for? I don’t think it’s fair to say I have an obligation to first confront the person that victimized me, as this expectation is not generally applied to other forms of assault (if you announce that someone punched you in the face a few years ago, no one says, “Well did you ever talk to him about it to get his perspective on what happened?”).

If a person initiates unwanted sexual contact of any kind against someone, should they lose everything and disappear? Should there be more nuance to the outcome? Is there already more nuance and we are merely seeing the initial wave of outrage that seems unchanged for each accusation made public? Should the victim get a say in the punishment based on the significance of the impact the assault had on their mental health? That impact is, again, subjective but real, and should be honoured.

Certainly, persons charged with any crime are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But, just like freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence, although innocent-until-proven-guilty is one of our legal rights, it is simply unrealistic to think the masses will wait for a day in court (that may never come) to pass judgement. Likewise, although it is your story to tell, once told, you do not have control over the consequences to yourself or your perpetrator. It seems recently the ramifications outside the legal process to the most publicly accused are quite significant (loss of careers, relationships, etc.), though it is too early to see whether these are temporary or permanent consequences. Does this mean there are times when the right thing to do is to remain silent lest the repercussions be disproportionate to what you, as the victim, viewed as appropriate? Alternatively, do you have a responsibility to come forward, just in case what you viewed as a minor offence was, in fact, part of a pattern of escalating behaviour leaving a trail of victims, and your words could stop it?

I can teach my children better. At least, I hope I can. They can learn expressed consent is essential and revocable. But should I also teach them to let some things roll off their backs? That dwelling on minor actions which made them uncomfortable will unnecessarily increase the discomfort in their ongoing lives? Or, again, does that give unfair power to perpetrators to proceed with their actions unchecked? Do my kids need to be on high alert and not only feel empowered but a responsibility to call out actions I myself would have ignored? Is that the path to positive change and increased awareness of consent in our world?

I’ve seen a few people publicly try to articulate similar thoughts to my own. From my observation, anything other than complete condemnation is met with significant criticism. Is that helpful? With that in mind, will I publish this? Will there be backlash? Am I okay with that possibility?

I have no answers, I don’t think there are clear answers to most of these questions, and I think that’s for the best in the interest of ongoing dialogues. I’m not even sure how to end a post like this, so I’ll just say thank you for reading.

PS: This entire post presumes the actions involve adults capable of giving consent, and that there is no power imbalance involved. I personally do feel things become more black and white when minors, persons with disability, or employee/employer or other power dynamics are involved.

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