When I was in high school my teacher redefined the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” to mean “a forced invasion of someone’s personal space” and everyone laughed. Of course we laughed, we were not yet 18, still living in loving, sheltered households and it was funny to walk too close to your friend and make a rape joke. What comedians, we didn’t know about the impact of our own naivety.
I went on to university, still not fully understanding the concept that lesson had placed before us, yet knowing that I needed to be wary that nothing of that definition ever happened to me. Since moving away from home, I’ve had to endure varying degrees of personal space invasion; men grabbing me in nightclubs, trying to steal kisses without even caring about my name, men standing too close to me at ATMs so I’ve had to yell at them to back off, one of my own contemporaries, drunk and needy – stroking the back of my neck and holding my waist, despite my protests that I didn’t want to be touched.
Society has taught me that as a single woman walking by myself to class that I need to carry pepper spray in my hand. It’s taught me to shrink away from groups of rowdy men in supermarket aisles or on the street. Watch your drink girl, don’t walk home at night, use your house keys as a weapon, be aware of your own weak, victimised and objectified body and what it does to sick men’s brains-because the way I dress is apparently now an invitation for someone to attack me.
And then it happened. In the broader sense of the definition of sexual assault, it happened- multiple times, yet I only recognised it for what it was at the last minute.
I went out with this person for drinks last week, simply because he’d been hounding me for months, having difficulty taking “no” for an answer and I was mad at someone who deserved it a little bit. We went out and he bought me drinks and I got drunk, then he tried to kiss me. I pushed him away the first time, he played it off like a joke and I went along with it. The second time I succumbed and then told him it was never going to happen again. I didn’t want it to happen again. I didn’t like it.
He assured me that it was a once off thing, he wasn’t going to try and kiss me again, he wanted us to stay friends. I went home early and didn’t tell my mother because I was scared of the look she’d give me.
“How could you be so stupid Harriet, going out for drinks with men you barely know and letting them kiss you when you weren’t so sure you wanted it? You idiot.”
I kept it a secret, put it in my pocket and went back to university.
Then he showed up, wanted to take me out lunch. I said okay because despite the slip up I liked his company, I had nothing else to do and I knew he’d hound me for months if I didn’t.
At lunch he made jokes about how attractive I am, how he only has 20 more days to “get with me” because when I turn 21 I won’t be the youngest he’s ever had, then he leant in to kiss my cheek.
I pushed him off, he said it was a joke, I wanted to go home, so he took me there.
This is when it gets scary, this is the part I keep reliving- bile rising in my throat every time I think about it. When I said goodbye to him he said he wanted a kiss for good luck. I refused, told him I didn’t want to, but he held my face and did it anyway. I told him it counts as harassment, told him it was too far before he grabbed me from behind and pressed himself against me.
I’ve never pushed someone away so hard, walked so quickly through my gate and into safety, felt so confused – standing in my bedroom, trying to make my brain work.
“Sorry, the joke got out of hand” he texted.
What joke? It wasn’t a joke. Trusting this man with my company, having him abuse it, ignoring my no’s, invading my personal space to the point where I felt physically sick and uncomfortable. Where is the joke here?
I sat on my bed, texting various friends to make sure I wasn’t overreacting, that this wasn’t normal. And then I cried. For 2 hours I lay down and sobbed, feeling dirty and used. My best friend phoned me from Grahamstown, she knows how I feel, she understands how tainted a touch can become and how quickly intentions can turn sour. She let me cry into the phone, told me I was probably always going to carry a part of the incident with me- like a devil on my back.
I haven’t told my mom yet. I don’t know how to. She’ll read this post and phone me and I’ll probably cry all over again.
Everything has changed. I’ve started calculating people’s intentions, watching my back constantly, and if I go out at night I know I’ll see the shadow of him in every corner, behind every villainous smile and feel sick.
Assault is a spectrum, like most things in life. There’s no black and white- there’s a very real grey area that some people think is okay to cross into. In the broader scheme of things he didn’t touch me inappropriately, he didn’t place his hands anywhere deemed “private”. Yet I still feel dirty, waves of nausea come over me every time I picture this man’s face. I’ve received so many hugs and messages from the people who care, and they aren’t okay with what happened.
There’s something about this grey area that’s stripped me of my fearlessness. The girl who sees good intentions in everybody, who trusts so willingly played with matches and got burned.
This person has been blocked, from everything, from my life. If I ever see him again I will yell until the sky falls down. I will beat my fists and scream “no” until he and the rest of the world realises that abusing someone’s personal space like that is never okay, that sexual harassment is not a “joke”, no means no and I’m not playing around when it comes to my own safety.
I’m not laughing.