A Brief History of Sexual Assault

by Aly Hazlewood on October 16, 2016

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This is undoubtedly the most challenging, vulnerable post I have ever written. In the aftermath of Trump’s ‘hot mic’ revelations of his practice of sexually assaulting women BECAUSE HE CAN, I lay awake for hours feeling a trauma response course through my body. Feelings of rage, of impotency, of shame and even a little despair plagued me for days afterwards. Despite my deep discomfort at bringing this into such a public arena, I cannot keep silent on the issue of sexual assault any longer.

The process of healing the malaise at the heart of human society starts when we are brave enough to look, to understand the nature of the disease, and to name it accordingly and fearlessly. This sickness, like the sickness of racism, has become so normalised that most don’t even notice it. At least, certainly not those that were fortunate enough to be born white and male.  Thus it is incumbent upon men to face the discomfort they feel head-on when the magnitude of sexual aggression is revealed, as it is incumbent upon women to be accountable for all the ways in which they collude in their victimisation.

The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 9 years old on a packed tube carriage with my mother. A business man in a suit and bowler hat rubbed his erection into my back and groped my bottom while I stood immobilised, trembling with shame and fear.

Throughout high school, we were warned in morning assembly, and sometimes by other parents about men that used to hang around in the bushes wearing raincoats, exposing their penises, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. We were told to avert our eyes, to keep walking fast. I encountered two such men on several occasions. One used to sit by the river every day and masturbate as school girls hurried past.

During math lessons, one male teacher would linger just a little too long behind my chair, leaning both hands on my shoulders, his groin pressed into my back, peering down my school shirt as my heart beast too fast and my stomach churned. That was when I started skipping math lessons.

The second time I was assaulted at age 14, on holiday with my parents. A man attempted to rape me on a Tunisian beach, and would undoubtedly have achieved his aim had he not been forcibly removed by another passing local. Again, I told no-one, fearing that I had somehow brought this upon myself. I learned about terror that day, and about how ineffective physical struggle is against a man intent on harming you.

Around this age, usually in my school uniform, men began to address me in the street. Sometimes it was names, whispered at first, “hey sexy”, sometimes suggestions shouted across a busy street “show us your tits”, other times, men pulled over in their cars to persuade me to “come back to mine and I’ll show you how to be a real woman’…

If I ignored the comments, I was a ‘stuck up bitch’. If I dared to suggest that I didn’t in fact want to get my breasts out in public, the response quickly turned to abuse and even threats of violence or rape. I think this is when the rage began to ferment inside my young body. The sense of powerlessness and injustice birthed an anxiety and mistrust of men that was hard to shake. It was patently clear to me that these men were fathers, brothers and sons of women. So when could we feel safe?

The third time, age 15, I was sexually assaulted by a boy at a friend’s party, while I was outside in the garden vomiting, after being plied with cheap alcohol. The assault was preceded by the boy offering me comfort. It didn’t end in quite the same way. It was the first and only time in my life that I’ve ever allowed myself to be persuaded to drink too much alcohol. I learned that day the importance of being in control at all times, because danger was ever-present. Still, I told no-one.

The fourth time, after hitching a lift from a truck driver in Italy with my boyfriend, I awoke in the front seat to find the truck driver with his hands inside my pants as my boyfriend slept beside me. He was still driving the truck. Not even the presence of another man in this confined space was enough to stop this man from assaulting me.

On this occasion, I was so afraid that he might physically harm my boyfriend and/or myself, I pretended to stir in my sleep. He withdrew his hand. I nudged my boyfriend awake and told him that I needed to stop for a toilet break, and we ran as fast as we could. Luckily we got away from that truck driver, but to this day it sends a shiver of horror down my spine to imagine what could have happened had I reacted differently.

At 33, a celebrity client locked me in his dressing room, ripped my shirt open and proceeded to masturbate in front of me. I threatened to scream and he eventually let me out and sauntered off to his TV appearance as if nothing had happened. I told no-one, not even my boyfriend at the time, so afraid was I that he might think I had encouraged it. And this, just one of countless other occasions where I was groped by celebrities while working.

The reason I stayed silent for so long? Because I knew that I would:

- not be believed

- my experience would be minimised and quite possibly I would be shamed in the process

- it would very likely end up presented as somehow my fault

- and latterly, that I would lose out on jobs for ‘making a fuss’.

After all, victim-blaming is a well documented and seemingly acceptable phenomena, even in the most brutal cases of sex crimes against women (see the case of Brock Turner). What were you doing there? What were you wearing? Did you lead him on? Were you drunk? And so on, and so on, and so on.

Secondarily, but no less importantly, part of the reason for staying silent about these assaults has simply been that I haven’t wanted to upset my parents, who I know will be distraught. But that’s not a good enough reason for silence.

In the years between then and now, I’ve experienced the usual low-level harassment that most women deal with as a matter of course; inappropriate touching at work, being followed and chased late at night, unwanted sexual advances and groping in clubs, on trains, at festivals… Y’know, just everyday stuff that 99% of my sisters encounter on a regular basis. And even with all this under my belt, I am one of the lucky ones because I escaped the debilitating trauma of rape.

Back to present day, at a recent party hosted by old friends, surrounded by people I know and love, I was sexually assaulted by a married father of two children. This man is a friend of my hosts, though I’d never met him before. As the party was gradually fizzling out in the garden, I awoke on their sofa to find this man determinedly trying to prise my legs open and insert his hands into my underwear. Immediately, the familiar rush of humiliation, shame and rage triggered the freeze/flight/fight response in my body. Without going into further detail, once the ‘freeze’ response passed, the flight response took over and I leapt from the couch, and ran straight out of the door to my car, without saying a word to anyone.

At the age of 43, one doesn’t expect to get assaulted at a civilised house party hosted by friends. I now feel a needle-hot surge of anger toward myself for not screaming or lashing out at this man at the time. But what is almost worse than the humiliating assault itself, was the reaction of my best friends and hosts a few days later when I told them why I’d left the party.

To my utter amazement, my friend suggested that this man must either have a) drunkenly mistaken me for his wife, or b) have been assaulting me in his sleep. I.e totally unaware of what he was doing – because “there was absolutely no way such a nice guy would ever behave this way.” NEWSFLASH - Sexual offenders come from all educational, occupational, racial and cultural backgrounds. They are “ordinary” and “normal” individuals who sexually assault victims to ‘get their kicks’, to assert power and control over them, or to inflict violence, humiliation and degradation.

This is what is formally known as ‘MINIMISING’ and is the most unloving, unsupportive response anyone could have offered me, but particularly from a close female friend. It sends the message that the violation of my body and my dignity are not as important as your need to prevent any embarrassing drama play out in your friendship circle.

Furthermore, I did not receive a single word of empathetic acknowledgement from my friend’s boyfriend – whose married friend perpetrated the assault. Let me be clear, I don’t expect anyone to apologise on behalf of another’s shitty behaviour, but a simple “I’m so sorry this happened to you at our house, by one of our friends” would have been deeply appreciated. Instead… silence.

Make no mistake, this silence, this refusal to acknowledge that this ‘great guy’ would ever commit such a gross act, makes one complicit in this and every other act of sexual assault against women. At last count since the Trump ‘hot mic’ conversation was released, 30 MILLION women have tweeted about their personal experience with sexual assault and/or the way that others had tried to minimise it. And they are just the ones who are brave enough to ‘fess up.

As another commentator wrote earlier this week, “By default, the person who gets punished in these situations is the woman. We all learn that by the time we are sixteen. Unless you are 100% sure there is a large enough group of powerful people who will intervene to support you through the process, making a fuss about unwanted sexual touching only ever makes things worse. Instead of having a handsy guy to deal with, you have a pissed-off, vindictive handsy guy to deal with, and often half a dozen of his friends as well.”

I’ve debated long and hard whether to post such a vulnerable confession. But since that damaged, narcissistic man-child Trump was revealed to have boasted of sexual assault, the burning rage in the pit of my stomach will not abate. My hope is that in giving voice to my experience, the fire that burns inside me will instead burn away the pain and shame to ashes.

More distressingly, upon reading of the huge swell of support that his vile comments garnered among men AND women, I’ve felt a growing and acute sense of not being safe in this world as a woman. If this, from a PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE is considered normal locker room banter by many men, and whitewashed by frankly deranged women as ‘boys talk’, then what hope do we have as a species??

Brothers, in order to end this toxic rape culture, we NEED you to raise your heads above the parapet, and take a bold stand against this and every other instance of demeaning, violent speech about or towards women. We NEED you to teach your sons about respect and accountability. Every time you engage in so-called ‘banter’ about uptight women “needing a good fuck” OR ANY OTHER VARIATION OF THE THEME, you degrade a living, breathing, feeling, thinking, female human being to the status of a mere object, a flesh toy for your pleasure and derision.

I realise that this way of relating among men is deeply embedded in the culture, and to turn a critical eye to the ways ‘things have always been done’ can be deeply uncomfortable. It means experiencing incongruence and cognitive dissonance, and that’s never easy. I often relate it to veganism. For 40 years, one might have been happy to eat animals every day, sentient beings, with thoughts, feelings and families. And one day, you watch Cowspiracy and something clicks. You wake up to the extreme suffering and cruelty that billions of animals experience each year in factory farming, and all of a sudden, you have no appetite for meat, for suffering and torture.

Brothers, we NEED you to talk about explicit consent with each other and with your children. We NEED you to loudly speak out when men display ‘entitlement’ behaviour about women’s bodies, or when we are discussed as ‘less than’ you, simply for having a vagina. And we NEED you to vocally support survivors by letting them know they are not to blame. Please, brothers, be active in your support. Silence, when rooted in compliance is VIOLENCE. We should not need to be your mother, girlfriend or daughter for you to be horrified by the abuses we suffer daily.

Furthermore, we all need to raise the standards of what we expect from each other as humans. Calling out this harmful crap – without shaming people in the process – is an essential skill that we all need to learn if we’re ever to evolve past this painful point in history. The Trumps of this world (not to mention his delusional fans of both sexes) are simply a product of a much greater sickness that permeates society and culture. We must have the courage to see it, understand it, expose it, and set the bar much, much higher. We all deserve to feel safe from threat or harm. May it be so.

And please watch this impassioned speech by Michelle Obama on the issue of Trump and sexual assault. Whatever your political views, this intelligent, articulate woman speaks for all survivors of sexual assault.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate M October 18, 2016 at 8:49 am

Thank you for sharing and for articulating your harrowing experiences with such clarity and insight. Your speaking up is giving me food for thought about my own experiences. I admire your courage. Big love. x

Corey November 1, 2016 at 9:33 pm

Wow, such a brave and raw post. Thank you for your honesty. As a white male, I cannot, have not let myself imagine what this would be like for me, or for my daughters. It leaves me feeling impotent with sadness and rage.

I hope you continue to speak your clear voice of truth.

Jenny February 16, 2017 at 8:41 am

Such a brave and beautiful post, thank you…I’m sure that so many women, myself included can absolutely relate to these experiences…you feel so guilty for staying silent but you feel that if you do speak out no one will believe/support you…we all need to work together to end this ‘rape culture’; I know for sure I won’t be staying silent anymore x

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