Why I “Let” Him Grab Me

When one of my best friends told me that she had been sexually assaulted during a job interview, my first reaction was to rage. Yes, I raged against the man who had put his hands on her and asked her to do disgusting things. But I also raged against my friend — against her sitting there, against her decision not to report him and tear his company down, against her “letting him do it.” I cried, I shouted, I fumed. She sat there. My fear and powerlessness, my rage that was unlike anything I’d ever felt before, consumed me.

A decade earlier, I’d “let” someone assault me, too. It was an hour before I turned 18, as I celebrated my birthday at a nightclub in Washington, DC. Young and green as I was, my worldlier roommate and bestie looked after me. She formed a barrier around me whenever people pressed too close, made sure the DJ played my favorite song at midnight, and consoled me when I protested that we shouldn’t pay $3 for a bottle of water. At one point, we let a man through our barrier. I threw my head back and laughed and let him dance near me. Suddenly, he pressed closer and leaned forward like he wanted to say something. I awkwardly smiled and leaned in to hear, and he grabbed me between my legs. And then ran off.

I stood there, burning with anger, sadness and humiliation. Did my roommate see? Should I tell her? Was it my fault? Is this what happens at a club?

That wouldn’t be the last time. Years later, a drunk, naked man would crawl into my bed when I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. A prospective donor would ask me to strip down during a meeting in his office. A friend, of a decade-long friendship, would slap my butt and leer at me at an event.

And the things I would hear from other women. Being groped on a bus as she napped. Being told to “sex up” her outfits and makeup at a law firm. The endless violations.

What many of these incidents have in common is that the men in those situations may well have walked away thinking that we let it happen. After all, rarely are such incidents accompanied by screaming or running away. Often, this unwanted touch or word is greeted by either blank shock, or that tight-lipped smile so familiar to women — the universal symbol of weighing your options and coming up light-handed.

I’ve gotten better at responding to these assaults through practice: practicing and preparing to lose face, friends, respect, and many other things that we fear we will lose when we speak out. But before I started practicing doing this, I was silent. I was shocked. And I watched as the world derided women like me for “letting” it happen.

As a society, we are not yet comfortable defending and supporting women in situations where we assume that a level of personal responsibility should have prevented something from happening. The victim who didn’t scream. The student who was drunk. The employee who didn’t quit or file a report. Never mind that neither sobriety, nor education, nor respectability, nor pantsuits have ever stopped this from happening.

When I hear men say that women “let” this happen, I’m furious. When I hear men condemn this line of thinking by saying that women are sacred “mothers and daughters,” I feel defeated because we are full human beings, regardless of our relation to men. Defend me because I’m a person, and I don’t deserve to be demeaned or violated. I shouldn’t have to be your mom for you to say enough is enough.

We have to stop reinforcing the belief that silence is consent. We have to respect the myriad reasons for the gap between the time an assault happens and when a woman decides to speak out about it. I owe myself and my friend, the one assaulted in the interview, a whole lot of compassion and correctly placed anger. But we all owe it to this world to completely change the dialogue about women and sexual assault.