Every day, I go out of my way to ensure that I avoid all discussions on sexual assault. Of recent, this has become an impossible task because it’s what most news networks are filled with now. The whole world revolves around America, after all. Even my favourite comedians are talking about sexual assault and so I had to sit and listen despite everything within me telling me to do otherwise. I have an overwhelmingly visceral reaction to anything related to sexual assault and the vehemence of the despair, melancholy, and anger I feel at this injustice lasts a while when unleashed. Having no control over what happens to the victim of the assault however, I’d much rather not feel these emotions so I avoid discussions around this subject.
It’s a dick move, I agree, but I know where I stand on sexual abuse and I know how the evilness of the act makes me feel. Nothing will ever change that. I also know however, that there is barely any order to this world and there’s no vengeful god seated somewhere, ready to ensure that assailants get their due. Therefore, I shrink back and decide to live my life as peacefully as I can without this behemoth dragging me to hell with it.
Not today, however.
Like I said, I had to sit down and pay attention because people are discussing sexual assault left and right, so when I read about the twitter call for women to share stories of their first sexual assaults, I was transported back in time. Against my will, of course, for there is nothing more I’d like than to forget some of these experiences.
I was 8 years old, slightly chubby and idealistic, my mind always playing with fantasies of magic, and dragons, and elves so I rarely noticed what was going on around me. We had just travelled back into my home country for holidays and my mum needed to do some grocery shopping so she decided to take my sister and me along with her to show us how to tell fresh from stale. The market was teeming with people and I figured that if I could keep my eye on my mother, I’d be fine. She had just stopped to check out some potatoes when I felt a hand grabbing my butt. I froze, unsure what to do and so I just walked away as quickly as I could and stood on the other side of my mother. The hand didn’t follow me. I don’t know why I didn’t look behind or even yell out in surprise but I know I felt ashamed that someone would touch me in a place I knew was private. I was afraid and I didn’t even know why. By the time we’d finished with the market, I had felt someone grabbing my butt at least 5 times and each time, I came ever closer to tears but didn’t call them out or turn around for some reason. I didn’t tell my mother either.
It took several days and us travelling back to the country we were living in at the time, for me to push those hands grabbing at my body, out of my thoughts. One might say – and I don’t know why but people say these things nonetheless – that I must have looked old for my age, as if looking older is reason enough for people to grab little girls’ butts. For the record, I didn’t; I was as flat chested as any average boy my age. Someone said that maybe it was because I was wearing shorts at the time, like baggy sports shorts and a large t-shirt is the sort of thing that makes it okay for a bunch of people to grope an 8 year old girl. Whenever I told the story, people would never just accept that there were people out there who were sexualising little children, and tried to justify the behaviour in all sorts of ways that put the blame on me.
That wasn’t the first time someone had sexually assaulted me, I would later learn as suppressed memories slowly made their way back into my consciousness as I grew older. Some dark shit I sometimes wish I never remembered. There are still blanks in my childhood memories though. I know that’s not normal considering what a sharp memory I have now but at this point, I’m just done trying to chase down these demons. Imprisoning the ones I have already captured is enough for me.
Reading and listening to opinions on this topic unsettled me once more and I ended up doing something rather stupid. We were having an onslaught of patients and a lot of help was needed all round so we brought in some doctors from another institution. I was in theatre, having just anaesthetised a patient and was having small talk with one of my supervisors and one of the new doctors who had come in to help. The new doctor mentioned something about her little girl and I expressed admiration for her fortitude in raising a child. I don’t want children, nor do I want to get married (and I am slowly learning that I can make this statement without adding a ‘because’ at the end of it). However, because I am the kind of person who makes statements only if they have a logical beginning and conclusion, the following conversation took place.
“I think raising children would be heart-breaking for me. There are some conversations I can’t bear to have,” I said, silently berating myself for even bringing the topic up. This was supposed to be just small talk, after all.
“Which conversations?” the new doctor asked, looking at me curiously.
I paused, wondering if I should continue and weighing the benefit of going ahead with this potentially frustrating line of discussion. Fuck it, I thought stupidly, I’ll deal with the fall out.
“Well, let me ask this, have you ever come across a woman who wasn’t sexually assaulted?” I asked, my heart beginning to beat a little faster because in that moment, I knew how this discussion would end for me.
I watched as the other doctor’s eyebrows rose and her facemask wasn’t on yet so I could see her lips twitch as she averted her eyes and nodded. Then my supervisor, who’d been tapping away on his laptop the entire time, stopped typing and looked up.
“What do you define as sexual assault?” he asked, and I knew then that I should have followed my instincts. This wasn’t a topic I ever wanted to discuss.
“Sexual assault is a range, a spectrum of experiences,” I responded quickly. Then in an attempt to change the subject, I looked back at the other doctor and opened my mouth to ask another question but I was cut short.
“So, are you one of those people who is sensitive to sexual abuse?” my supervisor asked.
I gaped at him in disbelief for a moment but my facemask was covering half my face so he just kept staring at me, waiting for an answer. In that moment, I thought that of course everyone is sensitive to sexual assault. How could they not be when they’re getting assaulted?
“How do you mean sensitive?” I asked instead.
“Like those people who see racism even when it’s not there. Do you also see sexual abuse when it’s not there?”
Something within me snapped at that question.
“Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Your opinion isn’t the basis of reality,” I responded, knowing that I was toeing the line of insubordination. This was medical school, after all. “People think it’s alright just because it happens regularly and so don’t think it sexual assault but you can’t sit there and tell me that I’m seeing something that doesn’t exist when you don’t have random men shouting lewd, sexual comments at you and grabbing you every time you walk by them.”
“Well, I know these things happen everywhere so these days I don’t even hear them. I’ve learned to ignore them,” the other doctor chimed in, effectively breaking my staring contest with my supervisor.
“Yes, most people have learned to ignore it,” my supervisor said and I took a moment to calm the hell within me, as my demons thrashed around inside. I could still save the conversation.
“Well, my point is that you’re used to it now but there was a time when it was new to you. I wouldn’t know what to say to my child if that happened to him, or to her. How would I start? That in this world this is what happens and you have to ignore it or else it will destroy you from within? It would break my heart,” I said in response to the new doctor and they both nodded, allowing the subject to drop.
The demons warring with my emotional integrity didn’t feel the same way however, and I really just concentrated on my work after that, as I tried to suppress my memories. When my supervisor came by later and sort of tried to take a picture with me, I tried to get out of that but he held my pushing hands and ignored my objections until the person with the camera could take the picture. I ignored how chilled I felt by that.
I calculate every single step I make and ensure that there is always a contingency in place for every single possible outcome even though it doesn’t always work. These calculations include the possibility of sexual assault. Do I have a visitor? Fine; I will always sit a certain distance away; always ensure I can see the person, and will sit closest to the knives. It’s almost always automatic now. Met someone I’m not close to? Quick handshake and if a hug is forced upon me, it’ll be a side hug. I don’t like to be touched.
There are so many little things I do to ensure I don’t ever get taken advantage of sexually again, if I can help it, that sometimes I wonder if I just don’t care much about my appearance because I’m trying to be as undesirable as I can without looking unprofessional. I wonder why it is that I feel most comfortable wearing my pretty short dresses at home. When people come home unexpectedly sometimes and find me all made up, hair done well, and clothes fancy, and they ask me why I’m all dressed up if I don’t have any plans to go out. I tell them that it’s because I want to. That’s half the truth. The other, more bitter half is that I feel more comfortable if I’m pretty when I am at home. When I am alone. Where I am safe. This isn’t depression because I know what depression feels like; this looks like PTSD.
All these are personal problems, yes and I’m writing this to exorcise my demons and there are a lot of them. Heck, if someone told me to spend an afternoon in a place which reflected my personality, I’d likely just carry a book and chair and go to a garbage dump. I am not a nice person and I don’t need haunting thoughts constantly trying to tear me apart. Which brings me to my last example.
I was in fourth year, a time when we were supposed to be having a breather from the crushing weight that was medical school and it was rather nice. We’d just finished a lecture and my classmates were waiting around idly as a registration form passed around. When my time came to sign, I bent over the table (because the people who weren’t idling were crowded around the form, making it impossible to write without bending) and as I was writing down my name, I felt something tap my butt. Twice. At this point I’ll just go ahead and say that I have a pretty huge butt and I suppose that’s why it draws attention. I ignored it because there was a crowd around me and it could have been anything. Then I felt it again. And again.
I wondered for a second if it was one of my female friends just playing around but they knew that I didn’t like to be touched so when I felt that tap-tap again, I turned around and came face to face with one of my male classmates trying to touch me yet again. He saw the rage on my face and skittered off to the opposite end of the classroom, close to where the lecturer was, packing up her material. That wasn’t going to save him. I followed him and promptly slapped him soundly, rage and humiliation fuelling me. The entire class went silent and he stammered out a startled “what?!” My emotions were chocking me at that point and I couldn’t yell, just angrily ground out why the fuck he thought touching me inappropriately was an acceptable move. I made him apologise and then stalked out of the class, every one staring at me.
Even before that point, I’d had quite the reputation as a no-nonsense (though I’m sure they used the term ‘bitchy’) person and the shit that went on with some girls just didn’t fly with me. Evidently, this wasn’t enough to make them think that what I had done was logical and that evening, you could hear the outraged yelling of the males in my class even from outside their hostel. I made no secret of telling anyone who asked me (that is, the girls and a few of my male friends in the class) that I had slapped that dude because he groped me. That didn’t convince the howling males however. Mind you, none of them ever confronted me about that (or any other issue, for that matter) but they grumbled and those grumblings always reached me through “well meaning” channels. To this day, that scene is still talked about amongst my classmates and I think it’ll follow me to my grave but they still refuse to believe that I did it because of sexual assault.
This guy was by no means an angel, in fact he was one of those sleazy, infuriating, medical school gunners but he’d been knighted by my peers simply because I’d accused him of touching me inappropriately. Years later, I returned for my Masters of Medicine and one of my former classmates was in my year of enrolment. He saw me slap the hand of some random dude who thought it was acceptable to just walk up to me and stroke my tattoo and he cautioned me. His words were “Denise, you go around hitting people but one of these days someone is going to hit you back and it’ll be brutal.” I asked him what he thought I should do then, just sit back and let people touch me in any way they please and he said that I probably did what I did for attention anyway.
Once more, I’ll state that I’m in this world and there is chaos engulfing it. There is no all powerful being watching out for me and punishing my assailants to I’ll maintain my peace and this means also cutting off anyone who thinks sexual assault is trivial or can be partially blamed on the victim. I have people telling me that I should try to educate these individuals and if they refuse to listen, then I can cut them off. My response is that if someone has grown up to this point, seeing and knowing the horrid things that happen but can still make excuses for some of them, I can’t waste my time with them. Let someone else teach them, I’m just looking for my peace where I can find it. If it exists.