Hurting and Healing When You Don't Know if it Was Sexual Assault
**Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of the aftermath of sexual assault
Conversations about consent are everywhere these days, and rightfully so. After thousands of years of female participation in sex being obligatory rather than out of desire, it’s about time that the world realizes that our needs for comfort, safety, and pleasure are real and are just as important as men’s.
In an ideal world, consent would always be requested and honoured, and would only be considered consent when it was a clearly, enthusiastically stated or communicated “yes”. This is called affirmative consent, when both partners give unambiguous, clear, voluntary indication that they would like to engage in a particular sexual activity before it happens.
Unfortunately, at this point in our world, communication about consent isn’t always that clear-cut. Even in situations where people are aware that consent needs to be given and received and they care about each other’s comfort and safety, there are factors that can make make effective honest communication very difficult. We know that a person can be too drunk to consent, but what if a person is too drunk to know that what they’re doing is wrong? Do we call it assault and punish them for hurting someone else even if they believed that consent was given? What if a person is taken by surprise or becomes dissociated due to previous trauma, and consequently feels the need to act as though she consents even though there is no pressure actually being put on her by the other person? To what extent is it fair to consider people “unintentional assailants” when they have no malicious intent?
All of these circumstances could potentially indicate that an assault has taken place in some cases depending on the the context, but in other cases, it may be that no one truly did anything wrong. This doesn’t mean that people who don’t understand consent or ignore its importance are innocent; most experiences that leave someone feeling as though they’ve been assaulted are indeed assaults, meaning that there was intent on some level for the perpetrator to act without consent, even if it was an impulsive or subconscious decision. But occasionally people are unable to communicate what they’re comfortable with for reasons that aren’t obvious (eg. previous trauma), and miscommunications happen. They shouldn’t happen- and the way to avoid them is for everyone to understand that enthusiastic affirmative consent must be asked for and given before every sexual activity- but they do, and when they do, it can be extremely difficult for the victim to feel like their pain is valid. In nearly every assault (and potential-assault) case there’s tons of confusion, questioning, and undeserved self-blaming for the victim, but if you don’t know if the other person meant to act without consent, or if you know that they believed that they had consent, those feelings can be even more intense and complex. The questions that circle through your mind are endless and agonizing. Can you call yourself a victim or a survivor if no one intentionally victimized you? If you were a victim of circumstance and not of another person, is it reasonable to feel this violated? How do you accept that something awful happened when the causes weren’t in a specific person’s control?
The reality is that it doesn’t matter what the other person’s intentions or actions were in terms of what is “reasonable” for you to feel. The labels of “assault” and “rape” exist to indicate whether or not the other person did something bad enough that they should be punished, but that depends on what was happening through their subjective perspective. What you feel is based on your subjective perspective, and as much as we can try to share the same objective perspectives, social and emotional experiences like sexual activities are inherently very subjective experiences. Therefore it’s natural that different people feel differently about the same events, and anything you feel is reasonable because it’s based on your own experience.
Whether or not you believe that you’ve been assaulted, if you feel that you may have been assaulted or if you feel uncomfortable in any way about something that happened to you, you deserve and have the right to access support. It’s not the reason why something happened but the way that it affected you that matters. Feelings don’t lie; they tell us when something is right or wrong even when our conscious minds can’t. You don’t need someone to blame to feel hurt, and the only way to heal is to accept that the pain is valid and that you deserve everything you need to recover from it.
Sonia Randhawa is a 19 year old student in her first year at the University of Toronto, studying psychology and political science. She loves alternative and rock music, drinking copious amounts of tea, and creative writing.
Her favourite things to write about are mental health, and social issues from a perspective that integrates politics, philosophy, and psychology.
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