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 did it. He grabbed me languidly between my legs. And then ran off.
I stood there, shocked and 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? So many questions that 17-year-old me didn’t have answers to.
That wouldn’t be the last one. 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 get drunk and slap my butt and leer at me at an event. That one still shocks me.
And the things I would hear from my friends. 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. But that’s not what happens when someone presumes to touch your body, grab your private parts, or look you up and down as if you solely exist to be sexually pleasing to others. You are never ready. You were walking around thinking that your body was your own, your desires your own, your decision to engage in any acts involving touch or sexual expression your own. And then someone comes and snatches that from you. Usually, quite quickly. Often, succeeded by them running away. Or worse, maybe they stay — stay because they know that they have you in a power play that you can’t afford to lose.
I’ve gotten better at responding to these assaults over time — with practice, you might say. It’s an art of practicing and preparing to lose face, friends, respect, and many other things that we fear we will lose when we speak out about these transgressions. It’s a truly terrible type of practice. But before I started practicing doing this, I was silent. I was shocked. I was trapped as the world whirled on, quietly or not-so-quietly mocking me for “letting” it happen.
As a society, we are more comfortable defending those we deem as completely innocent— victims of egregious or random assaults committed by strangers, or against children. Verbally, at least, we protest. (Of course, this sadly doesn’t mean that the legal, psychological or emotional supports to overcome those crimes exist to the extent needed). We certainly draw a hazier line in situations where we assume that a level of personal responsibility should have prevented something from happening, though. The victim who didn’t scream. The co-ed who was drunk. The employee who didn’t quit or file a report. Anything, any label or trope to keep from acknowledging that all women are at risk of being boiled down to the sum of their sexual parts at any moment in time. No amount of education, respectability, pantsuits or positions of power has stopped it thus far.
When I hear men say that women “let” this happen, I’m furious. When I hear men repudiate these fools using arguments that women are sacred “mothers and daughters,” I feel defeated. We are full human beings regardless of our relation to men. And no amount of innocence, no dress code, and no profession makes this more or less so.
We have to stop reinforcing the belief that silence is consent. That desire has anything to do with the pause — either moments or years long — between an act of sexual aggression and our decision to act or to speak. I owe myself and my friend, the one assaulted in the interview, a whole lot of compassion and correctly placed anger. And we all owe it to this world to completely change the dialogue about women and our right to sovereignty.