There were no secret reservations. So many lovely people attended the wedding of my best friend and her beloved. I met a great guy. I spent time with old friends. I made new friends like Dave and Sally. They had been married for seven years. Dave and Sally seemed quiet, somewhat reserved at first and then this gradually transitioned into more relaxed, banter-filled interactions. I usually judge comfort with people based on the amount of shared stories or tagline-jokes. I was a fan of Dave’s because he seemed funny; Sally’s because she said the wrong things at the worst times—and she wore the cutest dress to the wedding!
Imagine my shock when later in the evening I found Dave’s hand on my ass. If you can imagine this, perhaps then try to imagine what it felt like when he began sharply pulling my hair. He was shoving me up against a table, a wall. Multiple walls. He thrust his tongue into my mouth. I was sober. My every sense was awake—I felt the contours of the walls as my back slammed into them.
We were alone in the reception hall. It was late. We were part of a small group of die-hards that hadn’t left. Friends had begun bouncing between rooms. Gradually the numbers had dwindled. I hadn’t felt the need to leave prior to the hair-pulling, ass-grabbing. The shoving. We were friends. Weren’t we? I knew that Dave seemed intoxicated. He smelled salty. His stubble was sandpaper on my lips. He pressed until it hurt. All I began thinking about was other people finding me in the middle of this: the kissing, the grabbing. The fumbling. The struggle. I wanted to be found.
It was a destination wedding. I had taken work to read on the way—ironically on visual constructions of masculinity. The image of the contemporary “attacker” that was regularly presented was that of the manly jock, with 6-pack abs, a fake tan and an imposing stature—perhaps he would wear a leather jacket. Historically, male aggressors are often visually depicted in uniforms, with attributes of swords or armor, perpetually inhabiting an akimbo stance. True, the maleness that confronted me that night was a tall and imposing figure but with the personality and appearance of an IT guy. Glasses. Average. This attacker was ordinary. This man was my friend. Wasn’t he my friend? This attacker wasn’t something that I saw coming in nightmares. This was a man who wears cardigans.
I didn’t want this. But what would happen if our friends were to walk in on this? Would I be the victim? The home-wrecker? Would anyone believe me? What was he? A friend? An attacker? A drunk? A rapist? All of the lines that had so neatly defined my existence from his were gone and I had to find a new place for them. I have always thought of myself as a fighter, someone who is direct and active. If confronted with a situation like this, I would have predicted that I would fight. I would remove him from my space. What actually happened was this: I froze. What did that say about me?
I tried to refuse like a lady. When that didn’t work, I pushed him away. I said no. I made it clear that this wasn’t going to happen. No matter how much I said no or how much I pushed, he wouldn’t relent. I walked to the other side of the room. One of our friends came back. He didn’t see the way that that married Dave was pulling my hair, grabbing my ass, trying to bite and kiss me. I told myself that he was just drunk. He was so nice yesterday—even earlier that day. Sally was so nice to me. I thought it was safe.
I was wrong. I knew that I was wrong fifteen minutes later when he grabbed my hair and forcefully jerked my head back. He grabbed my face hard with his other hand. Every time I struggled, I could feel his body pulsing with the cool authority of monumental equestrian sculpture—controlling the spasms of physical rebellion with his smooth, drunken composure. My face was directed at the ceiling and all I could see was his face, towering above me, right before he stuck his tongue in my mouth. Again. I was shoved against the wall. I didn’t want this. Again. Not again. He licked my face and neck. While I was trying to escape his grip, the weight of his body pinning me to the wall, he kept asking me if I wanted him to come up to my room. I said no. I said that I didn’t want this. Of course, in my head, I didn’t realize that he was getting off on the struggle. He was already getting his payoff.
Awful things had happened; now I had to protect Sally. Why was I more worried about her life, her marriage, her feelings above my own feelings? My own body? What did this incident say about me? The word victim to me conveyed a sense of powerlessness—but I don’t think that I ever felt that way. Instead I felt an incredible sense of power: I had the power to ruin a marriage, seven years and two kids worth of power. Was he family to the bridal party? Would I cause a family rift? I was paralyzed by the power in my decisions. I had so much power that I couldn’t take it. I had so much power, once wielded, would go wherever it willed itself. The word given to the security guards at the venue would mean a story that needed explanation to his wife. On the other hand, a friend entering the room as his body obscured my confused and terrified face could mean that I became the harlot, the home-wrecker. I’ve never been any of these things but I was terrified that I was then on the brink of becoming all of them. I was nearer than I’d ever been. The only power that I didn’t feel that I had was what I needed to absolve myself of making a scene: an ugly scene.
What this incident has underscored for me is the problematic nature of “self-defense” presented to women. I’m unconvinced that my problem could be ‘solved’ by attending kickboxing classes more regularly or taking up karate. In self-defense classes, you are directed to imagine scenarios in which a dangerous stranger approaches you in an alley—the darkest alley. Typically, those you learn to attack come armed with protective gear that obscures the face, creating the anonymous attacker. The faceless assailant is your obvious target. What happens most often is that you think you are in the presence of a friend. And it is more than likely that you are somewhere that you feel at least marginally ‘safe’.
The statistics on sexual assault are staggering. In Canada, a sexual assault is committed every seventeen minutes; roughly ninety percent of sexual assaults go unreported; and in British Columbia alone, eighty percent of assaults happen in victims own homes and are perpetrated by friends, acquaintances or family members. Half of all sexual assaults are committed by attackers who are married or in long term relationships. Why is the attempt to confront sexual assault directed at dark alleys where the majority of assaults happen in the most familiar of surroundings? When the dark alley situation is the ‘expected’ it is even more disorienting when an assault happens in familiar surroundings or with familiar people. Isn’t it easier to find your rage against a stranger? It was so difficult trying to surrender to my anger and outrage against someone I knew, that my friends knew, to someone that everyone trusted. Strangers don’t have a history with you.
There is no easy solution to feeling safe again, to feeling as though I am better able to prevent this from happening in the future. Self-defense strategies should better integrate the current conditions where sexual assault is committed by those familiar to or trusted by you. Women can’t do it alone. Women shouldn’t have to do this alone—this is everyone’s problem. One hundred percent of sexual attacks aren’t against women—at least fifteen percent of sexual assault victims are boys under the age of sixteen. We need new self-defense strategies that actually incorporate likely scenarios beyond a dark alley. We need to redevelop how to channel assertiveness and aggression in an attack from someone close to the intended victim. Men have to step up, to say something and directly confront the men that do this—the men that give others a bad name. Boundaries, assertiveness and empathy are paramount values that need to be firmly instilled in both boys and girls.
The justice system also has to do its part. The University of Ottawa conducted a series of studies that found more often police officers charge offenders with lesser offenses thinking that they are easier to prove; cases investigating officers believe ‘unwinnable’ are dismissed before a proper investigation can be conducted. During the period of 2005-2009, the Ottawa police force dismissed one third of sexual assault cases as unfounded and prosecuted sixteen percent of complaints. Notions of consent need to be re-examined—particularly when alcohol is involved; delays in reporting of a sexual assault have to be understood and then the biased against them needs to be erased.
For now, I need to stop questioning myself: what I did, how I did it, why I did it, what I think I should have done instead.