Public Sexual Harassment Series Part 2: Why Is Consent So Hard To Understand?

Illustration: Ana Pau B. Leon @theworldinposters

Content Warning: description of sexual assault, violence (and spoilers for I May Destroy You)

It becomes easy to not know the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault when sometimes, both experiences intersect.

This article is the second piece in a series addressing sexual harassment, in response to a questionnaire launched earlier this year which asked womxn to anonymously share their experiences of harassment. Inevitably, experiences of harassment and assault overlap for many womxn, so this series is unable to address sexual harassment without amplifying experiences of sexual assault.

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature inflicted on someone. Sexual assault is most often associated with rape, but it is also an umbrella term used to describe rape, but also unwanted touching and groping that doesn't involve penetration. Sexual assault can involve forcing or manipulating someone to witness or participate in sexual activity.

I May Destroy You, a series which premiered on HBO in June, starred in and written by Michaela Coel, broke many taboos in TV culture, by exploring consent. In Episode 5, Arabella, the protagonist (played by Coel), has sex with a man who removes his condom midway through intercourse without telling her. When she finds out, she’s initially more frustrated at the inconvenience of purchasing emergency contraception than the act itself, until she later discovers it is classified as rape under UK law whilst listening to a podcast. Viewers took to Twitter and to discuss the surprise that secret condom removal AKA ‘stealthing’ is classified as rape.

Why was this something nearly all my friends and twitter users alike, didn’t know was a crime until seeing the show? Why were we never told about 'stealthing' in sex education?

Half-hearted sex education in school told many of us heteronormatively that men must be sexually relieved and women..? Ah yes, we need to stock up on tampons because we ovulate and will eventually bear a child! Great.

I remember the word consent being introduced into sex education lessons during latter half of secondary school but the coverage was limited and vague at best. My most prominent memory of sex education during my time at (an all girls comprehensive) school, was being passed a handful of condoms and taught how to put them on the classroom dildos, which sat hauntingly in the SRE cupboard for the majority of the year.

Each table was given a few dildos and after a quick tutorial from our teacher, the fate was truly in our hands. At the time, it was embarrassing and I really tried to act like I had *done it* before.

Being presented with loose definitions of consent growing up, for example; “as long as you’re both sober, because drunk mistakes are bad,” makes it unsurprising that many survivors of sexual assault won’t acknowledge what happened to them straight away, or come to terms with what actually happened against them was a crime, until much later.

Overwhelmingly, womxn disproportionately experience sexual assault on a higher scale than men. Rape Crisis reports that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and approximately 90% of those who are sexually assaulted know the perpetrator prior to the offence - something which is candidly highlighted throughout I May Destroy You.

I May Destroy You (a show which everybody should see) also expertly demonstrates that trauma is relative, no matter the ‘severity’ of a person’s experience. Through Kwame’s (Paapa Essiedu) plotline, who is sexual assaulted by someone he had previously had sex with; to the character Terry (Weruche Opia) who realises that the two men she spontaneously had a threesome with had planned it without her knowing - essentially manipulating her into sex - the series navigates the realisations and different realities of sexual trauma simultaneously.

When discussing sexual assault, it’s important to remember that trauma is truly in the eye of the beholder - something which seems small or ‘insignificant’ to you, won’t be the same for others.

Trauma is further perpetuated by rape culture which silently permeates society. Rape culture is where sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults, but rape culture can also relate to the cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that womxn make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.

Rape culture is the trivialisation of sexual assault; ‘boys will be boys’ or victim blaming such as; ‘they asked for it’. This goes all the way from ‘locker room talk’ or ‘rape jokes’, up to the policing institutions which uphold rape culture by poorly prioritising the cases and situations of survivors of sexual violence - which might explain why 15% of survivors of sexual violence report it to the police. The Guardian reported recently that during the UK lockdown, less than 2% of people reporting crimes related to sexual assault and violence are getting a charge.

Stories of sports team initiations or challenges which are at the expense of womxn still become ‘legendary’ anecdotes on campus whilst rape culture remains enmeshed within student social life. It is this complicity within circles and groups which will perpetuate the normalisation of rape culture further.

Sexual assault is never the survivors fault, yet they will rarely receive justice. Any person has the right to say no, at any point during an interaction, and in any circumstance.

Causal, internalised and outward misogyny has been allowed to run rife in society, completely unchallenged, and now it’s time to recognise that sexual violence towards women, whether physical or verbal, is a hate crime.

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Content warning: Below discloses the anonymous responses to the sexual harassment questionairre which are sensitive and some may find triggering. Please read to be educated on others experiences and the way the oppression of womxn governs society.

“The worst experience I’ve had was when I was walking down the street headed to meet my friends. On the way there a man literally tried to touch my vaginal area over my shorts whilst walking past me.”

“I was in a crowd waiting to get my coat after an event at a club and I noticed that the man behind me was starting to feel me up under my skirt. I turned around and told him to stop but he just grabbed on to me tighter and then moved his hands to my crotch area and started to try to reach under my pants. I told my friend and both of us turned around to tell him to stop and he just laughed with his friends and held my skirt up. Then I pushed him back and he stopped.”

“My first experience of unwanted sexual attention was when i was 15. i was inappropriately touched at school by a boy. when i asked him to stop, he just laughed and went off to tell his mates. it made any sort of sexual relationships really difficult for me, and still does now. i lack trust in guys all because of a ‘small incident’ 5 years ago.”

“Several times I have experienced men or young men touching my butt in public places, once walking in a street during day time and he was passing beside me on a bike, many times in clubs or bars as I was walking through a crowd. Once, I was in a club and I spilled a drink on me and this guy at my table (who I didn’t know but was a friend of a friend) faked helping me clean myself whilst feeling my breast.”

“We were all in a big crowd, dancing and had been drinking. A young man was dancing behind me. We got with each other for about 3 seconds and I then pushed him away as I wasn’t comfortable and wasn’t sober. He then proceeded to dance and thrust against me and started to touch me inappropriately and attempted to finger me over my jumpsuit. I managed to get him off and my friends helped me out of the crowd. I was crying and then left the event.”

“I have had many experiences with sexual harassment (often being cat-called on the street). The main experience I remember was in a night club with friends and a boy came up behind me and started to dance up against me and rub his crotch on my bum. When I tried to move away, he pulled me back and slid his hand up my front and grabbed one of my breasts, at which point I moved away again and other people intervened.”

“There’s a few stories that come to mind but the story that has given me a lot of anxiety in the past years was when I was visiting family in the US. I was hanging out with friends of friends drinking in their basement. One of the boys (about 18/19 y/o) got very drunk and starting making inappropriate comments and advancements towards me despite everyone saying I have a boyfriend. His comments then turned into actions. I was standing behind the bar area and he reached his hand up my shorts trying to touch me inappropriately. I told my friend and people surrounding but no one believed me or took me seriously. They said “oh he’s just drunk ignore him”. Then, I was trying to go to the toilet and he followed me into the bathroom exposing himself. Luckily I was able to slip out. I told my friend and ask him to protect me going to the toilet. He said I was being ridiculous until I past the boy and he tried to grab me and take me somewhere in front of everyone. Only then did they believe me and someone escorted me to the bathroom so I could go in private, without fear of harassment. I then demanded my friend and I went home (I was staying with her). I didn’t say anything to her but I couldn’t believe that happened. I was in shock and was almost unsure whether to believe myself. The next day, my friend invited him out with us (without me knowing) and forced me to accept his apology so that I didn’t make everyone else feel awkward. I was so furious but felt like I was overreacting at the time and that it wasn’t that bad because he didn’t “do anything”. But after experiencing panic attacks and anxiety out of fear of similar situations I have come to realise, about 3 years later, that my feelings are valid and I should not be made to feel like the “bad guy” for making others uncomfortable. I only wish they had recognised his wrong doing for what it was, not just “awkwardness” or “drunken behaviour”. I felt violated, humiliated, and embarrassed.”

“I was heading back from a party in 2017 and was very drunk and out of it. I went back to my friends house with three boys, two of the boys went to sleep where the other decided to stay in a separate room with me. I wanted to head to bed but the boy left with me sexually harassed me. He tried to make me touch his penis, give him handjobs and blowjobs as well as trying to take my virginity. He was physically aggressive and very tall and strong, and I felt very stuck. At 5 in the morning, when he was finally falling asleep I left and got on the soonest train to my friends nearby. Recently, I have been in contact with other girls he has harassed and we have all collectively reported him to the police who have now tried to prosecute him. Since the boy went to our school and is /was part of our friendship groups we decided to ask the police to merely give him a strict warning.”

“i'm not sure if this is what you are looking for, but here we go. The harassment actually came from a guy I knew and was dating at the time. Now I know how that sounds and its like "if you were dating him...?" But in the same way marital rape is real and awful, this is too. We were around a bunch of shops, and they were all about to start closing for the evening, so really last look. And I thought we were getting ready to go home, but before I realized what was going on we were all of a sudden in a side alley and I was pinned up against the wall. At this point in my life, I had never had sex before and we hadn't really done anything past kissing because we were really young. I told him several times that I didn't want to be doing this and that we should just go home, and tried to just squeeze around him to get out of his grip. But he was stronger than me, and apparently prepared for my struggling because he ended up having a knife and getting severely cut was definitely a hindrance to my attempted escape. I'm sure you can guess what happened from there; it wasn't pretty, there was a lot of blood and tears on my part. I wish I could say that as quickly as it began it was over, but not only did the place emptying out mean that he felt like he could take his time, but I didn't have the confidence to get out of that relationship for another month and so this happened over and over. Maybe this isn't considered public harassment because no one else witnessed it, but it happening in such a public area in my town, closing for the night or not, made me feel like it might have a place here.”

“The first time I faced sexual harassment publicly was when I was 12. I was at the beach with my family and a man in the water pulled down his pants to show me his penis when no one was looking, and asked me to hand over his pants to him that were floating in the water. The next sexual harassment experience happened at 18. I was drunk after a night out during freshers week, and in (who I once considered) a friend’s kitchen in our resihall. We started kissing (which I was okay with), and then he took me to his room, insisting that we NEEDED to “go all the way.” I said no, but not forcefully enough (maybe?) so he continued to penetrate me. This was how I lost my virginity. It was so painful and I had to be silent. I only really processed my feelings 6 months after the incident, when I finally let out my emotions and cried.”

“I was at a party. It was a mixture of my year and the year above rugby boys. I’d had a lot to drink and I blacked out [redacted] at the side of the party. One of the rugby boys (he was 15/16 at the time), had picked me up, moved me to a dark corner in the barn and was putting his penis in my mouth whilst I was passed out. I woke up to flashing lights in my face, it was a camera. He was using one hand to keep my mouth open and the other the film the whole experience. My friends were laughing as they watched the whole thing unfold. 3 days later at another party, his teammates surrounded me (a group of around 8/10 boys) and played me the video of me passed out whilst he was putting his dick in my mouth.”

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Thank you to all of the respondents who shared their stories. We hope it will resonate with others and raise awareness. We hear you.

Resources for support:

Support Line

The Survivors Trust

London Survivors Gateway

Womens Aid

Rape Crisis

RAINN

Platforms for solidarity:

@100womenIknow - survivors online community

@cheerupluv

@cutecatcalls

@ourstreetsnow

@antiharassmentclub

@girls.against

@thecatcallcollective

Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar

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