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[Trigger warning: sexual violence]

Most women don’t report their rape or sexual assault. In conversations about female sexual violence, people often deplore this state of affairs. Silence means perpetrators escape punishment. Silence also means the rate at which incidences of rape and sexual assault occur is unknown. Silence around experiences of sexual violence creates a culture in which these acts are permissible, or at worst, encouraged. See: rape culture.

Silence around incidences of rape and sexual assault is worrying. Safety concerns, patriarchy concerns, all the concerns. I worry about the silence, but I also worry a lot about the way in which our conversations about the need to report incidences of rape and sexual assault affect the victims of these acts. I worry that when we encourage survivors to be vocal about their experiences, we might accidentally make a lot of women feel inadequate for not being “strong enough” to make a report. Like survivors need any more emotional strain.

I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I feel guilty for not having reported what happened to me. I sometimes feel like a fraud of a feminist, because I talk so passionately about ending silence around sexual violence, and yet I can’t even find the courage to tell people, let alone authorities, about my own experience. The trauma of the assault is enough, but add to this the shame I feel at my own inability to deal with it “the proper way”, and it’s all rather unbearable.

People who don’t report their experiences of sexual violence often have very legitimate reasons for not doing so. I didn’t report my assault, and although I instinctively resist calling my own reasons legitimate, I know that they are in fact valid. Why didn’t I report my assault? Here’s why.

I feel like it was my fault.

It’s a victim-of-sexual-violence cliché to feel like what happened was your fault, but it’s the truth. I feel like I put myself in a bad situation, and allowed things to happen to me that I shouldn’t have. I feel like I failed at policing my own boundaries. I didn’t resist, so I made it hard for him to know that what he was doing was wrong. Consent was murky, and I should’ve made sure it wasn’t. Nevermind that the lack of a no doesn’t mean yes, and that consent is a two-way deal.

It took awhile for me to actually label what happened to me as assault, and even now I struggle to call it that. Calling it “assault” places the blame quite definitively on one person, whereas I feel like what happened was at least in part my fault. Using the word “assault” is in part an exercise in convincing myself that I am not to blame, and that this was not something I asked for, but something that was done to me.

I feel like it’s not a big deal.

Somehow, I don’t consider my assault important enough to talk about. No need to cause DRAMA. Being so emotionally low maintenance most of the time means I’m more inclined to work through the trauma by myself than ask for help.

I’ve had so many near-misses with sexual assault that this didn’t feel too out of the ordinary. I tolerate being abused and sexually harassed on the street, so when an unwanted finger was pushed inside me, it was just something I tolerated: collateral for being female and submissive. My understanding of what is ok behaviour is so fucked up that I didn’t even realise it was inappropriate when it happened.

I hear stories like mine quite often, but rarely are they tagged as “assault”. I must remind myself that what happened to me was abuse.

It was BDSM.

One way to really complicate your feelings about an experience of sexual assault is for it to involve BDSM. When the line between pleasure and pain is already physically and emotionally blurry, it’s almost impossible to determine the storyline of the actual assault. If you happen to derive sexual pleasure from the experience of feeling like a victim, it’s difficult to know when you actually are a victim.

BDSM is also difficult to explain. Any disclosure of my sexual assault to an individual not involved in the BDSM world would require substantial background information. There are not only the intricacies of consent to grapple with, but also basic principles like “sometimes people can hit each other and it’s actually ok”. I don’t want people labelling me a victim for the wrong reasons. I’m a victim because a man hit me without my consent, not because sometimes men hit me and I enjoy it.

I balk at the thought of trying to explain these things to actual police people. Not only is BDSM complicated, but it could also be subject to legal scrutiny. I don’t know the laws, but I know they’re unsound around BDSM practice. Reporting my assault could actually be risky.

I knew the man who assaulted me.

I met the man who assaulted me a month before the incident. It was not a stranger danger case of sexual violence. I didn’t know him particularly well, but we were acquainted long enough that I would feel awkward about having him arrested and put in jail, even if he did violate my consent (or assume it where it was not). It would not be easy to face him across the court room, knowing he would resent me for reporting what happened.

I acted like everything was ok.

In the aftermath of my sexual assault, I did not scream or cry or say something. I was amiable with the man who had assaulted me, and even met up with him again a week later. I did not tell him that he had sexually assaulted me. I did not tell my friends that he had sexually assaulted me.

It’s hard to back track and revise the narrative to say that everything was not ok.

I don’t want retribution.

People assume that retribution is a priority for all victims of sexual violence. It is not. Sometimes rape and sexual assault is tied up in love, friendship or acquaintanceship. It can also be tied up in complicated feelings of shame, blame and guilt. Different circumstances lead to victims feeling indifferent or strange about retribution.

I’m too unsure of the circumstances to feel strongly enough about retribution. I blame myself too much to passionately declare that my attacker deserves a jail sentence. All I want from the man that assaulted me is that I never have to see him again, and so far that is going ok.

Reporting my assault means reliving my assault.

I once tried writing out an unofficial report for what happened to me, but when I got to the box where I had to describe what happened, it was too much to relive the assault. Thinking about my assault makes me feel embarrassed, shameful and gross. A blog post is about the limit of my strength. A police report would be mentally exhausting.

Conclusion

When people tell victims of sexual violence to “report him!”, it is not always supportive. What matters more than reporting a perpetrator of sexual violence is respecting the wishes of the victim. Reporting the attacker is not always safe or ideal or even what the victim wants. Yeah, the silence around victims’ experiences sucks because it feeds into rape culture. But we can fight that in other ways. Ways that don’t compromise the recovery of a survivor of rape or sexual assault.

We need to be careful not to shame women who don’t have the strength to report what happened to them. Not having the strength is fine. If someone discloses an incidence of rape or sexual assault to you, don’t tell them to report it. Tell them to report it if they feel safe and ready, and if they don’t, that’s ok too.

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The popular feminist discourse around BDSM is all about choice. Sexual submission and associated acts of degradation all get the feminist stamp of approval because they are quite decidedly “a choice”, and who is patriarchy to tell us we can’t have them. Who indeed? We can dismantle patriarchy, be slapped in the face by our lovers, have our delicious cake and eat it too. Any discrepancies between our great loves of feminism and power exchange are explained away by the all-mighty magic of “choice”. Quite marvellous, really.

But I can’t help but wonder what it would mean if we don’t actually get to choose our desires at all. Because I don’t think I chose mine. A certain feminist fantasy of BDSM seeks to remove us from the influence of patriarchy altogether, but I don’t think dear patriarchy is so easily rid of. Our desires don’t develop in a vacuum. Patriarchy weaves its way into most places, so it’s kind of fantastical to imagine that we’d elude all our classic assumptions about sex and gender in the bedroom of all places (…kitchen, laundry, dungeon, library, whatever). “My thoughts, desires, insecurities, and behaviours are not suddenly cordoned off from a larger culture once I close the bedroom door.

To quote liberally from this article:

To me, I just can’t see the point of being a feminist if I’m not going to ask ‘why?’ about most everything. I ask why I keep shaving my legs, why I’m unable to eat food for the entire day before a first date (I get nervous, you guys!), why I think buying shoes will make my life better, and I ask why I feel or think or do the things I do in bed with a man. Sometimes I even think about why I go to bed with men in the first place. Is this biological or social? Would I be a lesbian if I hadn’t been conditioned towards heterosexuality? Some of these questions I have answers to, others I’m not quite sure about. But I know this: much of my sexual history and behaviour has been determined by factors including my growing up a girl in a man’s world.

So it is that lately I’ve been asking myself why my sexual desires are what they are. Is it just a coincidence that they’re so complicit with patriarchy? Basic submission can perhaps be explained away, but it’s harder to convince yourself that you legitimately chose to lust quite specifically after a sick “know your place” sort of patriarchal power exchange. As a feminist, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that your vagina is really into reenacting your own gendered oppression: worshipping hegemonic masculinity, being humiliated for your womanhood, the “eroticisation of a vastly horrific social order“. Excellent, just what I wanted. I endured patriarchy, and all I got was this stupid orgasm.

I can’t pretend like my desire to be demeaned and humiliated in a specifically gendered way has developed entirely independent of patriarchy. Perhaps reenactment is a way of dealing with trauma? Perhaps it’s all in the taboo? Whatever it is, it wouldn’t exist without patriarchy. Even when I’m fucking I can’t escape the blasted thing. When I think about it enough, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

Thankfully, even if it’s not entirely a choice, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong – and oh my Germaine, I don’t think it makes me “a bad feminist” after all. To quote liberally from here once again:

 “We can recognize our influences while still liking what we like.” We don’t have to have sex in any prescribed way simply because we are feminists. But to say that “sexism doesn’t get to dictate what I can and can’t enjoy” isn’t entirely true. Because in many ways it does and it has. All the fucked up ways I behave in my life were, as far as I can tell and in one way or another, determined by my experience being socialized in a patriarchal society. That doesn’t mean I need to hate myself for it. It doesn’t even mean I need to stop behaving in those ways or thinking those weird, unhealthy things about my face/life/body/boyfriends. But it sure doesn’t hurt to recognize how sexism factors into the equation. In fact, I think that understanding the way that sexism has messed with my head is the only way to overcome it (eventually).

So I shouldn’t feel guilty about my sexuality, and I shouldn’t stop spending my Friday nights over men’s knees, but I should definitely acknowledge what has influenced my desires. Identifying where patriarchy has tampered with us is part of the struggle to dismantle it.

I think it’s ok that patriarchy totally makes me wet. Different people’s desires have obviously evolved differently under the watchful eye of patriarchy, but mine are what they are as a (mostly) hetero cis-gendered female/femme who has lived with sexism as her constant companion, and they’re not dangerous. I’m thankful for sex-positive feminism, because it tells me not to be ashamed. I’m mindful too of the privilege that makes it possible for me to at least have the illusion of choice at all. But I’m starting to think that feminism and submission are not best reconciled by choice in the end. Alas!

As this lovely feminist writes, “You aren’t fucking in a bubble and yet you also can have your desire. Have it without shame.” That’s how I’m trying to have mine.

Michelle

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