[Disclaimer: Identifying details have been changed to protect and respect the individual]
November 21st, 2015
“Hablas español?” was her first question.
It was my third shift as a hotline worker at Safe Passage –an organization that addresses domestic and sexual violence in the Hampshire County. The phone started ringing, which meant that someone was in some sort of unsafe and threatening situation that involved violence, and therefore, needed someone’s help... my help. This was my very first call.
She began telling me her story. They met two years ago, and had a long distance relationship until she moved from the Dominican Republic all the way to Massachusetts –with her 10-year-old son– only to be with this person. Everything was supposed to go well, but her partner started to be emotionally and mentally abusive. She began threatening and manipulating her. An unemployed, queer, single mother, and recent immigrant to the country with absolutely no English skills – where could she go? Her partner didn’t want her to get a job or leave the house so [she] didn’t tell her where things are in the area. They’re nowhere close to any bus stops or places she could go to. She’s crying, asking me to help her find a room somewhere. She’s running out of money, she’s running out of time. She’s hopeless.
My job is to give her emotional support and offer possible resources she could use. So that’s what I do.
“Eres un ángel”, she tells me, with a desperate but grateful voice.
But then, what? How am I supposed to hang up the phone and move on? They tell you in training to limit every call to no more than 20 minutes if the individual is not in a dangerous or life threatening situation. They tell you in training that that’s just how it is.
Is it, really? There must be something else I can do.
Well maybe this is it.
The stranger-victim narrative is important, yet I think we should pay a little more attention to the shocking number of cases in which the victim knows the rapist or perpetuator. Not only does my survey show it (although it’s a small sample of people), but there is a significant amount of research that proves that stranger-victim assaults are much less common. “Sexual assault is routinely depicted along the stranger-rape storyline, despite the fact that 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows” (Filipovic, 2009).
Some descriptions from my survey responses: “a very close family friend adult male,” “Sexually harassed and abused by partners,” “Boyfriend,” “my first real girlfriend,” “my first boyfriend,” “my mother’s boyfriend and his friend,” “my father”. I certainly can’t leave this one out: “He was my boyfriend at the time, so people told me it didn’t count.”
Who can we trust, then, if so many assaults happen in our own homes? In what spaces can we feel safe? Is there such thing as a safe space for women?
A Facebook post by feminist writer Jane Gilmore pretty much answers my question:
“Women, if you want to be safe, stay at home. Except that you are more likely to be killed at home by someone who claims they love you, so don’t stay at home. Make sure you don’t have a boyfriend because he’s the most likely person to kill you, but don’t go out without your boyfriend because you need someone to protect you. Don’t show too much skin or laugh too loud or dance too much but come on love give us a smile. Carry your keys and your phone at all times and make sure you run far enough to burn off all those calories but don’t do it in public and for gods sake don’t run in shorts, that’s just asking for trouble. Public transport is dangerous, but so are taxis and walking and driving on your own and did I mention that staying at home is really risky, so don’t do any of those things ok?
Men, just carry on as you were, this is not your problem ok?”
Very few YouTube videos struck me to the point where I [will] never forget the exact words I heard and the exact images I saw. During one of our training sessions at Safe Passage, they showed us a video of a large group of male students from a fraternity at Yale University, chanting:
‘No’ means ‘yes’! ‘Yes’ means ‘anal’! ‘No’ means ‘yes’! ‘Yes’ means ‘anal’!”
At some point during training period (last October), a story of a white male student from Warwick University went viral on the Internet. He wrote an article for his school’s online student paper titled “Why I don’t need consent class.” He included a picture of himself holding a sign where he handwrote with a thick marker, “This is not what a rapist looks like.”
One of the men who tried to rape me (on a college campus) looks exactly like him –tall, young, blond, short hair, white. I can’t remember the color of his eyes because he tried to rape me in the dark. ‘Looks’ are not what’s important here, but you get my point.
What does consent mean? What does it entail? In what ways is it relevant to discourses of sexual violence, sex education, gender violence, patriarchy and misogyny? How have I experienced consent? How have I asked for sex and how have I not? How have the dynamics of consent affected my body, my choices, my feelings? Consent is a loaded term –with loaded stories behind it. And like author, editor and blogger Rachel Kramer Bussel says, “…we do everyone a service when we recognize that consent is not simply a legal term, and should encompass more than simply yes or no.”
One of the most important pieces of consent that we need to consider and (re)consider every time we engage in an intimate encounter, is, that, “each new level of sexual activity requires consent” (p. 44). This clearly didn’t happen to one of the students who took my survey, who said, “I came onto him first, but he didn’t stop when I wanted him to.”
Consent, to me, has sometimes become about “owing” a man something. Even in my most healthy physical relationships and when I feel very comfortable, I still feel like I owe them to say yes –even when I feel like saying no. What does this feeling of owing a ‘yes’ even mean? What has led me to think that it’s OK for me to feel uncomfortable, just to please someone I may or may not even care about in the first place? Why do women constantly feel in debt to men and to society? I’ve been asking myself lately. I’ve been reflecting on every single partner I’ve had, and it’s scary. It’s scary to realize that many times, I didn’t consent to it. Many times, it happened without me wanting it. Many times, it’s a blur.
This blog is meant to be a space for me to share some of my research and reflections from when I wrote my college thesis in 2015/2016. Thank you for being here! <3