My Dorm Mate Assaulted Me
When I was in boarding school, between the ages of 14 and 18, I shared my room with three other girls. At night, after lights-out, they would all climb into my single bed and we would chat about boys and school, and all the things we wanted to do with boys and all the things we wanted to do after school. It was very quaint, as though we had stepped into an Enid Blyton book about boarding school and were having a midnight snack consisting of chocolate cake and ginger beer from someone’s tiffin box. With a little more talk of sex.
That night, two of my roommates went off to their own beds, leaving me alone with Margie*. I was getting sleepy, but I didn’t want to kick her out, so I said nothing. Then she shifted until her body weight was on top of me. “I really like you, Ellie,” she said, and started kissing me, and touching my chest, sliding her hand into my pajama top. I was stunned, and I was trapped, under her weight, under the voice in my head that told me I couldn’t say anything, I couldn't reject her or I’d hurt her feelings.
I didn’t realise that rejecting a sexual encounter isn’t the same as rejecting a person. I didn’t realise that my right not to be coerced into sex was more important than her feelings not getting hurt. I didn’t realize that an assault could look like this, no violence but just initiating sexual contact even though I had shown no interest, putting me in a position where I had to push her away, either verbally or physically.
I tried to move away from her touch, to push her hands off, but she didn’t stop. I was squirming beneath her — she must have seen I wasn’t into it, even if I don’t know how to say it.
She puts her hand down my pants and starts fingering me, and I feel nauseous. I grab her wrist. “I’m tired,” I say. “This is too fast. Let’s talk tomorrow.” I want to buy time, without having to be mean. I try, gently, to move her hand away, but she resists and starts fingering me again. “Are you sure?” “Not tonight. Tomorrow. Let’s talk tomorrow.” She rolls off me and goes back to her own bed.
The next day I lie, and I tell her I don’t like girls. She cries, and I comfort her with a hug that makes every cell in my body want to run away. Nausea rises in my throat again. And yet, going away from this experience, I am the one that felt guilty.
It took a long time for me to realise that this was an assault. It took years of unlearning stereotypes about what sexual violence actually looks like.
These stereotypes that set a social definition of what is and isn’t assault hurt victims because they take away the possibility to name what has happened to you. The BBC looked at a meta-analysis of 28 studies of women aged 14 and older who had been raped, and found that 60% of these victims didn’t acknowledge it as such, usually because their case didn’t correspond to the traditional view of rape as committed by a male stranger in a dark alleyway, and consisting in physical restraint. Coercion and force can take many forms. We can’t limit our understanding of consent to no means no. We need to be looking out for an enthusiastic, positive yes! rather than merely an absence of no.
At the time, as I hadn’t been beaten or restrained, I didn’t see it as assault. I felt weird and wrong about what had happened — but I mainly blamed myself for not standing up for myself. The idea that I should never have had to, especially in my own bed, in the presence of a supposed friend, never crossed my mind. I felt like a pushover, and like a bitch for “leading her on”. Looking back, I never showed any sign of interest. I froze, I was quiet and unresponding and did physically push her away. But back then no one had told me that silence is never a yes.
I also frankly didn’t know that women could assault women. Our gender stereotypes directly feed who we see as victims and as perpetrators, and effectively silences those cases that don’t fit the mould. It is true that a vast majority of perpetrators of sexual assault are male, and most of their victims female. An estimated 91% of victims of rape and sexual violence are female. Nearly 99% of offenders are male, according to statistics from the US Department of Justice. But those other cases happen. Men rape women. Men rape men. And sometimes, women rape women.
We need to create an environment where these cases are acknowledged, firstly so that victims can recognise what happened to them. Only then can they begin to take the feelings of blame off their own shoulders and onto those of their attacker. This is also necessary so that victims can take their cases to the authorities, without fear of being laughed at or met with incomprehension.
It might have helped me go to my school counsellor and ask to change rooms, or for Margie’s expulsion. Instead, I continued to live in the same room as her. I lived with anxiety and a feeling of being constantly exposed. She made other unwanted advances, and although it felt wrong, I had no words to say why.
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