Soup part 4: consent education and victim blame
If you’ve been reading my blog the last couple months you know I’ve done a series of posts with “soup” in the title. Honestly the whole soup thing wasn’t planned or purposeful. It sorta just happened. I actually didn’t even know I was ready to share my experience of being sexually assaulted when I wrote the very first post with the “soup recipe” included, which was actually about the many things going on in my life.
Anyway, this is part 4, and I also don’t know how many “soup” posts there will be. I suppose there will be as many as there needs to be.
Today I want to talk about the time someone I was supposed to be able to trust victim-blamed me.
If you haven’t read my previous “soup” posts, here’s a quick recap of the basic story:
Over 3 years ago in my sophomore year of college, I had been spending time with a friend from some of my English classes. He was manipulative and abusive but in that sneaky way where you don’t notice until you’re on the other side of it. He groomed me until I was convinced I wanted something more than friendship. After I insisted he take me on real dates if he wanted to continue kissing and hand holding, he finally took me on one, then a couple days later pushed my intimacy boundaries, groping my body in ways he knew I was not ok with and had not asked my permission to touch, using words to paralyze and silence me in fear and powerlessness. Later when I confronted him about it he said it was my fault that I had let him, because he had “uncontrollable man hormones” or whatever.
My mind had blocked these events for 3 years until last fall when the memory was triggered and I realized what had happened to me.
Ok, so that’s the catch up.
Now the first person I went to when this memory was triggered was my husband. A couple days after confiding in him I told my parents. A couple weeks later I told a counselor, a social worker actually, who I was seeing at our local mental health clinic.
Now the first couple sessions went well. I felt I had the help I needed to heal. I liked my counselor.
But things turned sour the day she asked for the details of my assault.
You see, “sexual assault” is defined as any kind of unwanted sexual activity –it could be rape, groping, etc. But this particular social worker was misinformed. When she found out I was groped and not raped, she told me I had not been assaulted. That assault had to be violent and it specifically referred to rape only.
Ok, no big deal. I said I didn’t really care about the label. It was just easier to say “sexual assault” then to get more specific about the details.
But then she took it one step further.
She said what he did was normal. She said because he was a young man in his 20s, it was naive of me to expect that he’d honor the physical boundaries I had set (and yes, she actually used the word “naive”). She said consent was assumed in a couple that was “dating” and if I didn’t say “no” in the moment, consent was implied, because he was probably just “hoping I’d changed my mind.”
I explained that the university we attended had an honor code, and that his actions violated it. And also violated our religious standards. That it wasn’t assumed in our religious culture that sexual touching like that was ok at all before marriage.
She then talked to me about how most people who grow up in “sexually repressive religions” will step over those boundaries, and that I was a “rare” person to have actually practiced abstinence until marriage, and once again it was “naive” of me to expect others in my religion to actually hold to the same standards, or to expect that I held them. I couldn’t help but wonder how consensual sexual contact and non-consensual were the same boundary in her book. The thought kept running through my head, “wasn’t what he did wrong no matter what religious standards we each practiced?”
After this session, I was confused (and not to mention in the throws of an anxiety attack). I wondered if I really didn’t understand what consent was. Was I really naive to expect this boy to respect my boundaries, my standards, things he was fully aware of? Was it my fault this happened because I was too afraid of him to verbalize “no” in the moment? Was I overreacting about what happened to me? Perhaps being prudish and unreasonable?
It took my parents, husband, and reading up on a few state laws from all over the country to convince me that the counselor was in fact incorrect –not just in her definition of “sexual assault” but also in her definition of consent. She had also crossed a couple ethical boundaries, especially in the way she spoke about my religion.
Obviously that was my last session with her. And because the process of finding a new counselor is a really intense one, I decided to instead seek help from an ecclesiastical leader, which was ultimately the right path for me.
This experience showed me just how much victim blame and shame can impact a person. If I didn’t have my family there saying, “uhhh… that counselor was WAY out of line” I don’t know how much devastation her incorrect assumptions would have caused me. Even remembering that session fills me with anxiety. Despite the advice of my loved ones I still haven’t reported the unethical behavior of this counselor because recalling the experience is too painful.
The moment you doubt a woman who has been assaulted, raped, or harassed you add a brick to a wall in front of her, blocking her from healing. To overcome that block, she has to tear down each brick, and she’s so exhausted already that it takes much more time and effort for her to take that brick down than it did for you to put it there. Some of the bricks were put there herself. Some were put there by her assailant. But the less bricks you add to her wall, the more she will be able to see the relief that lies ahead and the more strength she will find from within to tear that wall down.
You may not be in a position to help her take that wall down, but you can at least not add another brick.
So study up on consent. Educate EVERYONE about what consent really means. Understand what sexual assault really means. Not all women care about the legal implications, they just care that the emotional aftermath of what happened to them is taken seriously. And they just want to move on and leave it behind them. If they want to get into the legal stuff, they’ll find a lawyer. So don’t say, “well, I’m not sure you’d actually be able to press charges for that…” because legal action may not even be on their radar (it definitely wasn’t and isn’t on mine). Don’t say, “well, I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you,” because if a woman is confiding in you about being assaulted it’s not your job to concern yourself over the thought process and emotions assailant, it’s your job to be concerned about HER feelings and thought process.
I’ve also learned through this experience that non-consensual sexual contact of any kind has a greater impact on a person than you can even imagine. I never would have thought this event would have had such strong implications on my life and emotional well being. I wasn’t raped, so what was the big deal?
The big deal is that my body was used. It was used as an object. As something someone felt entitled to. As something that didn’t require my own permission to “feel up.” The big deal is that I was violated. Violated by a person I thought I could trust. By a so called friend. A person I thought enjoyed my company but really was only interested in exploiting my body (this isn’t an assumption by the way, he actually told me he was only spending time with me because he wanted physical intimacy).
My story is one of many. I promise there is at least one woman you know who has a story too. Believe her. Listen to her. Don’t add any bricks.
And to anyone reading this who has a story too: I believe you. And it is NOT your fault. And you are NOT naive. And what happened to you was NOT ok.