Several months ago, I was out shopping with my girlfriend. We’d had a lovely time, and were standing in a queue waiting to pay for the things we were buying. At some point during our wait, the man behind me slid his hand down my top and touched my breasts. I jumped and moved away from him. My girlfriend knew something was wrong, but had not seen what had happened. I shook and tried not to cry and couldn’t talk until we were in the car and I burst into tears.
When I told her what had happened, she was extremely wonderful in supporting me and making me feel safe again. She was really angry towards the man who did this and immediately recognised it was wrong.
I told a few people why my day had been hard. Unfortunately the responses I received were not like my girlfriend’s. The majority of responses told me to get over it, and that men will be men. It was not like he sexually assaulted me, they said, he was just being a bit unpleasant, and probably couldn’t control it. One person even went as far as to reassure me that, due to the fact I had suffered sexual violence before, this must seem like nothing.
The latter paragraph describes a very common experience for women of all ages. A man touches your bottom on the bus – it’s fine, it’s not rape, it’s just men being men. A man squeezes your knee when you are sitting in a waiting room. It’s okay though, because he was attracted by your skirt. One of your male friends decides to lift your top up or grope your chest. It’s okay, though, because he doesn’t fancy you and therefore it’s only meant in jest. You feel uncomfortable regardless.
I suspect that these situations are fairly common. I can say that they are in my world. I’m very aware that if I go out to socialise I will have to put up with behaviour that violates me space and makes me feel like I want to run away. Sometimes I’ll drink especially so that I can cope better with them.
But what happens if you confront this? Do people try to calm you down in a supportive way, or do they accuse you of being aggressive and hysterical? My experience has been the latter.
Now I want to introduce a concept that I wish was more widely understood. A woman’s body is her own. Touching a person’s body sexually without consent is violating their right to privacy and control over their own body. Whether it’s a quick grope in Ikea, or a spank on the bus – it is violent in the sense that the receiving party has no control or say over what is happening to him or her. The person who is receiving something that they do not want to has every right to scream or defend themselves. Taking advantage of being near enough to touch is, on its own, without rape or other assaults, a type of sexual violence. It is claiming something for yourself which does not belong to you. It is not a five pound note, a piece of jewellery or a slice of cake. It is a human’s body. It is not acceptable. It is sexual assault. Sexual assault is wrong.
Nobody should be expected to accept this just so that they can live among others of the same species. On the other hand, it is also incredibly offensive towards men. There are many men who do not touch women without consent. There are many men who fight against this kind of violence. To say that a woman is making a fuss is also saying that men are not capable of control or decision. This is not fair on the women men assault or the men who choose not to assault women.
The violence will not stop without this being acknowledged. This is why I am writing this. It is in the hope that the next time somebody sees this happen to another woman, they will support her rather than blame her. It is so that innocent men do not get told they are incapable of choice and decision-making. It’s is so that people can listen and comfort without spreading blame. A lot of people recognise that sexual assault is wrong, but far fewer recognise that this is exactly that.