I know him through friends and it’s about 4am. We’ve all been drinking for hours, dancing to silly tunes in a loose-knit group comprised of the last kids standing. At some point, he kisses me. I push him away playfully – then he kisses me again, harder this time, his tongue pushing into my mouth as I struggle out of his arms. But then I force a giggle. This little laugh is intended to show him it’s “all in good fun”. This laugh is to avoid him becoming embarrassed, maybe even angry. “Come home with me,” he says, and I reply “No, I have to get back to my boyfriend.”
I don’t have a boyfriend, and he knows me well enough to know that. But this way we can move on like no one is at fault. But he is in the wrong, and I don’t think he knows that. By 9 am I am crying to a friend and feeling confused about how this has happened again.
I know I’m not alone in having lost count of instances like this. Unwanted interest, advances, touches, kisses, more. As a woman who works bar, who very much likes to drink and talk, and to have sex, it is often assumed by men that I don’t very much mind who this is with. As a survivor of multiple rapes and sexual assaults – and not even just that, obviously, but as an individual living in the world – I very much do mind. I could have told the latest guy (let’s call him Joel) to back the fuck off. There are people who would argue my imaginary boyfriend is misleading to the point of being unfair, that white lies like this one is the reason they don’t trust the words of women (shout out to you, MRAs!). To which I say this: Joel was drunk and bigger than me. We’re going to see each other again, and the above is the way I have learnt to manage these things in a minimal drama way. After all, they’re all good men until they’re not.
I know we raise girls and women to be responsible for the actions of men. The way we dress, talk, act and respond are all treated as instigators of another’s behaviour. This is total bullshit, but it’s pervasive bullshit. At the same time, boys are allowed to remain unaware of the lines they cross, of the boundaries they blow past. I’m confident Joel is blissfully unaware of how upsetting his actions were, and that even if I brought it up, he’d be confused at best and in denial most likely. That’s because we continue to imagine people who perpetuate sexual assault as monsters. I believe it would be much more helpful to reframe this assessment to something closer to the truth. In reality, sexual assault is committed by people who don’t understand or respect consent. The criterion is as simple as that.
I know it sounds kinda naff, but the best way to respect someone’s boundaries is to ask. My primary pick up line has been “Can I kiss you?” for years now. It’s seriously my fave because it’s direct, and you don’t end up kissing anyone who doesn’t want to kiss you. Take it with my compliments. But also, especially if you’re a guy, it helps engineer the situation to make sure the person you want to smooch able to say “nah thanks”. Being coercive isn’t just the obvious stuff; it includes the subtler side of – largely unspoken – communication. How close are you standing? Has the other person actively been engaging in conversation with you, or do they seem withdrawn? What’s the eye contact situation like? Being aware of all of this is super important. And if you’ve had too much to drink to be able to answer these questions, do not kiss anyone! It’s nice and simple, and if the sparkage is there, it will be waiting for you later, I promise.