Learning it’s not my fault

A student reflects on experiences with sexual assault and coming to learn that she is not to blame.

JACLYN ROSENZWEIG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Content warning: This story mentions domestic abuse and violence that might be upsetting to some readers.

When a guy I already knew for a few weeks asked me to come over to watch a movie, I didn’t think much about it and agreed, considering our relationship was platonic and our interactions were solely friendly.

He got us wine — pouring me more — and let me pick what to watch.

The opening scene barely introduced all the main characters when he started moving closer, slinging his arm around my shoulders. From there it went quickly. He pinned me down with his body, kissing me, sliding his hand underneath my shirt.

“I’m not gonna sleep with you,” I said while trying to push him away, hoping it will stop his other hand from unbuttoning my jeans. 

“That’s fine,” he answered, yet proceeded as if my words were an exciting challenge.

Instead, he took my hand, leading it through the zipper of his pants, navigating it back each time I tried to pull away. “Just grab it,” he directed me.

“I should have known better,” I thought to myself while hastily leaving his place as if the euphemism of “watching a movie” was lost on me.

But then I realized I was doing it again. I was blaming myself.

Like the time when a former friend tried to take my underwear off while I was asleep in a hotel room, we shared for a summer job.

Like the time a guy I liked tried to make me perform oral sex when I was too intoxicated to protest.

Many other uncomfortable memories I have tried to suppress started to flood my mind.

Growing up in the Czech Republic, I was raised in a culture persistently turning a blind eye to the existence of sexual misconduct, when not directly pointing a finger at the victim. A guy slapping your butt is considered to be just sinlessly showing affection. You are asking to be harassed if your clothes are too provocative. You shouldn’t have flirted if you didn’t want him to touch you.

During my summer camp job when I was 16 years old, my boss repeatedly invited me over to his room at night, saying he was lonely. I tried to dismiss his insistence with witty answers, not allowing myself to think the man whose 6-year-old son I played games with during my breaks could actually be requesting anything more than my company. After all, I really needed the money.

It was quid pro quo from the beginning, and because I didn’t play along, I was soon replaced by another girl.

My next boss in the service industry believed he could “lend me” to his friends, making me choose between unwanted touching while I was serving them cocktails and losing my only income. Because this was happening under the watchful eyes of his wife, it made it seem like an inherent part of my job.

Letting feelings of shame, confusion and helplessness take over in a society deaf to the outcries of victims, I accepted responsibility for the situations I found myself in, bearing the bitter outcomes of them as if nothing happened.

But my belief began to change when I moved to the United States.

Activism against sexual violence had been on a steady rise on this side of the ocean. Women were speaking out and men were being convicted of sexual assault. 

Stories I could relate to were appearing in newspapers, and I slowly started to learn about the complexity of sexual misconduct — about unintentional rape, about coercion, about sexual harassment in the workplace, about consent. 

That “no” means “no,” and “maybe” is not a challenge. And that this issue is not reserved only for women.

The legal definition of rape in the U.S. used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation changed in 2012, after more than 85 years of it only including male penetration of the female vagina.

The new definition acknowledges that the perpetrator — just like the victim — can be of any gender and broadens the definition to oral and anal penetration and penetration by an object. It also takes into consideration non-forcible instances and situations when victims cannot verbalize consent.

Sexual assault had gained legal basis in law, yet out of 9.4 percent of college students who had been assaulted under the revised definition of rape, only 2.9 self-identified as such, according to a study from 2016.

And I blame lack of education for it. The feeling will always creep into my mind. I could have avoided certain situations if I only made different choices, drank less or didn’t flirt. But thanks to countless stories from women who were not afraid to speak out and educated me indirectly, I now understand that just my presence in the situation does not shift the blame onto me.

No one, not even my partner has the right to my body without my permission.

As I arrived home from the failed movie night, eager to get out of the clothes his hands were all over, I received a message from him, saying he hopes I still like him and will come over again.

If the same situation happened a couple of years ago, I would have found an excuse for his behavior, convincing myself that maybe I sent mixed signals his way, confused him with my body language or somehow unwillingly signed the silent sex agreement by coming over “for a movie.”

But I learned — it’s not my fault. 

Knowing so doesn’t make any of the memories go away or fix the broken system, but it’s the first step on the path to healing.

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