A couple of guys have asked me “so if a woman comes to us reporting sexual assaults or general creepitude, what the hell do we do? How should we respond?”
I don’t have an answer, because I don’t think there’s an answer that would apply to all people in all situations. I have a whole list of bad responses, but handing out red flags without a map to pin them on doesn’t seem much help. However, I remember very clearly the only time I’ve had a response that made things better for me. The story that will follow is a non-event, but it’s a. real and b. something I’m willing to share.
Storytime. Once upon a time, I was at uni and my bestest friend was called Rob. One day we were walking around campus when we bumped into this guy he knew from back home – they’d grown up in the same small community and gone to the same school. They didn’t really hang out at uni, simply because they belonged to two different sets. Rob introduced me, they chatted for a bit, and then we split.
A couple of days later Rob told me that the guy had contacted him to ask if I was single. He told him that I was extremely taken, and hoped that was OK. As it was the truth and not precisely a state secret, it was OK with me.
A few days after that the guy rang me at home (easy peasy due to the way the university directory worked). He said that he was going to have a bunch of his friends round his place that Friday, and did I want to come along. I said yes. Later on I checked with Rob and he’d not been invited, which we thought was slightly poor form, but as Rob was famously not a party kinda guy also not terribly weird.
When I got to the guy’s dorm room, there was nobody there but him. I thought that was odd, but then again none of us were terribly good at timekeeping and this wasn’t a formal do with a show-up time. An hour later, though, there was still no sign of anyone else. One completely baked guy stumbled in, looked confused, then walked out again. At this point I started to smell a rat – there I was, on my own in a guy’s bedroom…
…and the people who have a problem with that need to tell me what kind of university they went to. There’s a lot of blather spewed about that kind of thing, which completely disregards the fact that at uni most normal people live and sleep in a one-room space. You could hang out in the common rooms, but the list of things you can’t do there is extensive and the amount of disturbance you encounter is high. Technically I spent about 90% of my socialising time as a student in some guy’s bedroom. The remaining 10% was spent with some guy in my bedroom. If we’d had been aware of how risque this is considered in some parts, we might have enjoyed it more. All this sexual misconduct we shoulda been up to, and instead we were playing marathon sessions of Magic? What a waste!
Anyhoo, there I was, no sign of a party ensuing and minimally interested in talking to a near-stranger for extended periods of time, so I decided to leave. The guy wasn’t too happy but posed no great objections, and volunteered to walk me home. I wasn’t precisely mad about the idea, but it was not an unusual behaviour. Most of my friends walked me home, because they were actually invested in me making it there. The night is dark and full of terrors, kinda thing, particularly if you’re a girl and under 5′ tall and in a place where bad men occasionally cruise for girls.
When we got within sight of my humble abode, I told the guy that he could head back. The guy then was moved to tell me how very impressed he was with various aspects of me. I told him that I was flattered, but also very taken, which he already knew. He said something to the effect that my fabulousness had overcome his natural instincts not to poach, and my boyfriend wasn’t there anyway while he was, and would I give him a hug and a kiss. I said no. He asked again. I said no more forcefully, and grabbed the trusty metal mechanical pencil that lived permanently in my pocket – my sole companion during my hitchhiking days, because knives tend to make the police way too interested in you, and remarkably pointy. The guy tried to make another bid for my attentions, but I got my unkind voice on and he gave up.
On the one hand, this is a perfect non-event. Nothing happened. On the other hand, a jackhole got me to go to his bedroom under false pretences, then tried to press his suit in a dark alleyway, having been previously told that I was entirely uninterested. Entirely non-actionable behaviours, but still fairly shitty.
The day after, I de-briefed with Rob. He sat there on his usual chair (in his bedroom! alone! what a terrible slut I must have been), looking somewhat transfixed. He didn’t make a sound until I’d finished talking. When it became apparent that I’d run out of material, he looked at the ceiling, and in a calm if somewhat strained voice said “So, do I have to go and punch him?” I said “No, it’s ok.” He asked “Are you sure?” with a degree of wistfulness. I said “Yup.” “So you’re OK?” “Yup.” “Well, I’m sorry I introduced you.” “I’m sure you didn’t know.” And we got on to talking about other, more enjoyable stuff, and that was it.
I never saw or heard from the guy again. I’m entirely unaware of whether that was the result of my clear lack of interest, loudly manifested, or of words that may have been exchanged between the two of them behind my back.
I’m NOT saying that Rob’s response would work for everybody. People are individuals – yes, even women; and even women who are going through the same kind of event. I’m saying it worked for me. I never really thought about what about it was so great until now, but:
- He didn’t even begin to question my account of things.
- He didn’t press me for extra details, though he left an opening for me to talk more if I wanted to.
- He didn’t try to make excuses for the guy.
- He didn’t weigh what he already knew about the guy, who was ultimately a childhood friend, against what I was telling him. He seemed to be just adding what I was telling him to his opinion of the guy, adapting it accordingly.
- He didn’t try to minimise the event because it had not resulted in any kind of physical damage to my person. He understood the implications, rather than judge by the results.
- He didn’t try to tell me what to do or not do.
- This is dodgy: I did appreciate his offer to do so, which I’m sure it’s extremely idiosyncratic. It wasn’t about him being a manly man wanting to chase some other guy off his turf or anything like that; it’s because we were friends, and we were both the kind of people who get seriously vexed when someone attempts to mistreat their friends. If anyone had tried to hurt him, I would have liked the opportunity to hurt them back, too. Us both being that kind of person was part of why we were such good friends.
- He didn’t take over. He asked me what I wanted him to do; for my permission to act. I didn’t for a moment fear that he’d just haul off and lump the guy.
Thinking back on things, I never realised how important the last element was for me. When I’ve just dealt with something problematic, it’s important for me not to have to fight for it to be accepted as truth by third parties who are supposed to have my back. However, it’s just as important to not have to fight to remain in the driving seat in the aftermath. If someone’s just tried to bypass my consent or to take away my agency, more of the same kind of treatment, even with the best intentions, does not help.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will criticise what I’m saying here because it wouldn’t work for them. They’re right. This is not a will-suit-everyone solution, nor is it intended to be. If anyone would like to add what works for them, please do so in the comments section. If we don’t talk about this kind of thing, we can’t expect to get heard.