Body Pacifism At War: Silence and Sexual Assault

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I didn’t think it was going to happen. At least, not on this trip.

I’m not the kind of girl who keeps pepper spray in her bag and continually thinks the worst is going to happen, but I did take a self-defense course in college. I read frequently about rape culture and sexual assault. I speak out against street harassment and the oppressive nature of the patriarchy that makes women into objects of sexual attraction. I know all of this.

And yet, I didn’t expect to know a friend who was sexually assaulted.

It happened while traveling. A friend of mine was followed, groped, kissed, and cornered by a group of drunk men after a gay pride parade. They would not take no for an answer, and my friend was forced to push them away and run, using another friend as a decoy significant other to try and ward off the men’s attention. We’re lucky that my friend escaped to this extent, but it’s still a harrowing experience to think about, something that I know has affected my friend more than they’re letting on.

My friend, by the way, is a nineteen-year-old male.

Not that this should matter.

Sexual assault, while a gender-based crime, does not discriminate along male-female lines. The myth that men and boys cannot be victims of sexual assault is pervasive (they must have wanted it; men always want sex; men are strong enough to get away and would have done so if they really were uncomfortable), and so it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of resources about how to support sexual assault survivors is female-directed.

But this doesn’t help my friend, or the other men who are trying to grapple with this invasion of their selfhood, this loss of control, without anyone to help them.

What makes it worse is that while survivor support for men is dramatically lacking, victim-blaming is not.

So much of what society tells us about how to prevent sexual assault comes from a place of concern. We are told not to walk alone at night. We are told to keep our phones in our hands, ready to dial 911 at a moment’s provocation. We are told to always have a safe ride, a backup plan, one form or another of self-defense up our sleeve in case we meet a sketchy stranger in a back alley.

All of these are practical ideas. They give us some feeling of safety, and allow us to regain some form of control. In a situation when our feelings of safety and control are being forcibly removed from us, this feeling is invaluable.

But it’s important for us to remember that while all these things can be helpful, what happens is not the victim’s fault.

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We shouldn’t be telling survivors not to be assaulted, we should be telling assaulters not to assault.

While the society in which we live doesn’t allow us the liberty to frolic through dark alleys at three in the morning, footloose and fancy-free, what all this focus on prevention does is, on some level, blame the recipient of the harassment for allowing themselves to be placed in that position. Our bodies are a safe space, and that any attempt to enter that safe space without express permission is a violation and a crime on the part of the violator.

Any attempt to teach us otherwise is false, cruel, and unacceptable.

I called this blog The Body Pacifist because our world, as it appears to me, is engaged in a perpetual state of body warfare. Not only are our bodies expected to look a certain way, take up a certain amount of space, exist within a certain gender paradigm, but they are considered public property by people who have no right to enter our most private spaces. “No means no” is not enough.

Our bodies belong to us. They are the vehicles in which we carry ourselves through the world, day in and day out. Just because their shape does not define who we are does not mean that they are not an intrinsic part of who we are, or that we are not entitled to decide what does and does not get to happen to them.

Our bodies are part of ourselves. And I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise, whether it be well-meaning advice or outside force.

For the record, I am absolutely, physically fine. I was in a different part of the country from my friend when this event happened, looking at cows and sheep and seagulls on the coast. My friend is physically safe as well, thank goodness.

But the point is, until we are all able to move through public spaces within our private selves, no one is really completely safe.

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2 comments

  1. So, Dan Savage is sort of a god in my book, and he covered one aspect of this wonderfully on a recent Savage Love podcast. A caller asked his opinion of the best way to deal with unwanted sexual advances, in the sense of having your ass squeezed or being rubbed up on in a bar. He answered, but then he also played back lots of other women’s responses, and it was incredibly helpful to me. The three times I’ve been groped all occurred in public spaces: a street corner, a crowded subway car, and a soccer arena. In each case, I was so shocked I couldn’t think of what to say or do before the attacker was gone, and that lack of response on my part left me feeling more victimized than if I’d been able to call them out or shame them.

    The advice from the podcast was all aligned (and all the callers agreed it’s valuable to have your “statement” prepared in advance so you don’t go speechless in the moment): they suggest you turn to the aggressor and say clearly and confidently, “That was completely inappropriate. If you touch me again, I will cause a scene and you will regret it.”

    This is so simple, but I’d never come up with the idea of having an elevator speech ready for assholes. Even though it *should* be completely unnecessary, and the fact that I find it worth thinking about is absolutely proof that rape culture exists, I do feel much better knowing how I’ll assert myself if I’m ever assaulted again.

    The idea that this wouldn’t do the trick, though? That someone might continue to pursue me or elevate the level of their assault? It’s fucking terrifying and I don’t have an answer for that. I’m really glad your friend is OK.

    1. Thanks for recommending the Dan Savage podcast! That sounds really interesting, and I’ll be sure to check it out.
      I totally agree that it’s helpful to have backup plans and strategies in case of situations like this, although it’s a sad, messed-up world we live in where we need to. I’m so sorry that you’ve had those experiences, and though the feeling of shame that comes with it is normal, it is not justified or fair.
      Maybe someday it won’t be necessary to write about this topic anymore. I sure hope so.

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