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I was molested on an airplane: was it my fault?

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Amsinha asks:

When flying on a plane back to New York I ended up sitting next to a man who had the wrong idea about me. He started out by complimenting me but the moment I lay down to sleep he started kissing me and feeling my breasts and ass sexually without my consent. This happened the day after I turned 18 and he made two very obvious attempts to engage me in something I wasn't into and didn't want. When I returned to my seat after a while the guy noticed that I was pissed and began talking to me about his reasons, one of which was that he asked for consent and that I gave it to him. I don't remember his asking or my consent partly because I was in a state of half asleep and listening to my ipod on maximum volume. The two of us had four seats to ourselves which I used to push him away from me after the fact, however throughout the rest of the flight and the last few days I have had a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I somehow told him it was okay even though it felt completely wrong and one sided.

Heather Corinna replies:

(Amsinha's question continued) Whenever I'm alone my mind drifts to the fact that I was already 18 and that he didn't exactly rape me and also that I wasn't careful enough or alert enough. I feel as if I should have known that when he complimented my hair that there was something inappropriate. Most of all, I feel guilty for betraying my boyfriend. He is great and keeps insisting that he doesn't blame me but I still feel dirty for having been touched intimately by some creep.

I didn't ask for a change of seat for that reason but everybody I've told around my home school and work insist that i should report him for harrassment but I how can I do that truthfully when it does feel like it was my fault? Like I somehow told him it was okay? He knows where I go to school and I am constantly worried that one of these days hell find me.

Was what he did actually rape? Should i report him? Was it really not my fault? It's hard to feel truly disgusted at him for what he did to me, rather I feel disgusted at myself and haven't been able to have sex with my boyfriend since coming back (we were active before I left). I keep have a nagging feeling that I should have stopped his advances from a verbal stage. Please help, I feel so confused and guilty.

Amsinha: I am very sorry this happened to you. By all means, what you are describing here is a sexual assault, is a form of rape.

This man was sexually or emotionally gratifying himself, with your body, without your express consent. A sleeping person cannot give consent (even if you had somehow said yes in your sleep, that still would not be legal consent), nor can a person respond to a question they did not hear. As well, the idea that any of us can somehow always see an assault coming isn't accurate. A ton of people may compliment us on our appearance and yet only one may do so with the idea of assaulting us: since more times than not, a compliment is only that, it'd be pretty unusual for us to somehow know the few times when it's a threat instead. And telling someone remarking on our appearance who does intend to assault us to bug off still may not deter them, anyway.

His doing this to you was not your fault. Did he have a right to safety on his flight? The right not to be engaged sexually when he had no interest in sex by the person seated next to him? If he had been asleep, or not been listening attentively to everyone around him, would that have meant it was okay for someone to molest him? If another person liked the way he looked, would that mean he should immediately be on alert for being sexually assaulted? The answer to all of those questions is a very resounding no, and it's a big no when it comes to you as well.

You did not ask for any of this: what you chose to do was to fly somewhere and in doing so, you needed to be seated next to another person. What you did not choose to do was engage in any kind of sex with the person sitting next to you, say okay to any kind of assault or invite unwanted sexual attention, harassment or assault. You did not betray your boyfriend. Rather, this man betrayed you by taking liberties which were not his to take and which yes, are criminal.

It's really common for anyone who has been sexually victimized to, for a while, think it was their fault. Some of that is because culturally, we are in many ways a society which very much still enables rape and sexual assault, and which also doesn't tend to do a good job differentiating between wanted, consensual sex and sexual attacks or harassment. So, a lot of the time, we're all so culturally and socially conditioned to think that when something like this happens to us, we must have done something to invite it, even though that is very much not the case. In fact, a lot of the time, the appeal to someone who does sexually harass, molest or assault is that it is NOT invited: that is part of the motivation for them to do so, so if you had invited it or consented to it, chances are good that this man would not have been so interested or excited anymore. Your lack of consent is a big part of the charge he got and the dynamic someone who does this to another person wants: sexual assault and harassment is about power, humiliation and forced or coerced dominance, not about sex.

But I think it's really important to think clearly about this and remind yourself that the responsibility for an action -- any action -- belongs squarely with the person who willingly and freely chose to engage in that action. That person, in this situation, is not you. That person is him. He knows that, I assure you, which is likely part of why, when it was clear you had become aware of what he had done, he raced to try and justify his actions: after all, what he did was criminal, so it's obviously in his interest to convince you he did not do something which he could be sent to jail for doing. It's in his best interest, and his self-interest, that you convince yourself it's your fault, not his. Don't give this guy that: he sure wouldn't do the same for you were the shoe on the other foot.

Listen to all the people who love you, and who are in the right here. This wasn't your fault, you didn't betray anyone, and what this man did to you was a criminal exploitation and invasion.

It might also be helpful to you to take a look at what are very typical feelings and effects of someone who has been recently sexually assaulted:

The Acute Phase: This phase occurs immediately after the assault and usually lasts a few days to several weeks. In this phase individuals can have many reactions but they typically fall into three categories of reactions:

  • Expressed- This is when the survivor is openly emotional. He or she may appear agitated or hysterical, he or she may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks.
  • Controlled- This is when the survivor appears to be without emotion and acts as if “nothing happened” and “everything is fine.” This appearance of calm may be shock.
  • Shocked Disbelief- This is when the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. He or she may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. He or she may also have poor recall of the assault.

The Outward Adjustment Phase: During this phase the individual resumes what appears to be his or her “normal” life but inside is suffering from considerable turmoil. In this phase there are five primary coping techniques:

  • Minimization- Pretends that “everything is fine” or that “it could have been worse.”
  • Dramatization- Cannot stop talking about the assault and it is what dominates their life and identity.
  • Suppression- Refuses to discuss, acts as if it did not happen.
  • Explanation- Analyzes what happened- what the individual did, what the rapist was thinking/feeling.
  • Flight- Tries to escape the pain (moving, changing jobs, changing appearance, changing relationships, etc.).

There are many symptoms or behaviors that appear during this phase including: Continuing anxiety, severe mood swings, a sense of helplessness, persistent fears or phobias, depression, rage, difficulty sleeping (nightmares, insomnia, etc), eating difficulties (nausea, vomiting, compulsive eating, etc), denial (which includes self-blame), withdrawal from friends, family, activities, hypervigilance, reluctance to leave house and/or go places that remind the individual of the assault, sexual problems, difficulty concentrating and/or flashbacks.

The Resolution Phase: During this phase the assault is no longer the central focus of the individual’s life. While he or she may recognize that he or she will never forget the assault; the pain and negative outcomes lessen over time. Often the individual will begin to accept the rape as part of his or her life and chooses to move on. (More on this page, here.)

Too, I think sometimes we can fall into self-blame because even though that is painful in its own way, in another sense, it's less painful to think an assault was our fault than to really accept that someone sought to do us harm, knew they were doing us harm, and not only did not care that they were victimizing us, but enjoyed doing it. It's very, very hard to really look those things square in the eye, because it can make living in the world difficult, and can shatter a lot of what many of us think and feel about our world and the people in it. If it's our fault in some way, then it's less of a betrayal, and we're only unsafe because of something we did. On the other hand, if we didn't do anything wrong, and there was little or nothing we could do to keep something like this from happening, the world probably feels like a much scarier, more unfriendly place than it did before. Accepting that there are people in the world who enjoy making us suffer, and really feeling that acutely through an assault, combined with the feeling of helplessness being assaulted often leaves us with, is tremendously painful.

I'm going to repeat myself one more time, just so that you can repeat it to yourself: This was not your fault.

As that explanation above mentions, it's also normal for any kind of sexual attack to influence our feelings about sex. It can be tough to enjoy sex again for a while, because it just takes a while to heal from any kind of rape or sexual assault. You will likely find that as you work through this -- especially once you can get past self-blame -- that will gradually get better, and since it sounds like you have a thoughtful, sensitive partner, I bet that you can easily ask him to be patient with you as you do start to process this.

Whether or not you report is up to you. For some people, reporting is something very healing and important, a way to find resolution and justice. For others, some of the stresses involved in reporting are just things they don't feel up to, or don't feel will be helpful to them. By all means, reporting can potentially help protect others from people like this man in the future, but right now, the person whose needs are most important is you.

What I would suggest is that you seek out some counseling or support specific to sexual abuses (and in doing that, you can certainly talk with that counselor or support person about your options with reporting, and figure out if it's what you want to do). It's fantastic that you have supportive people already in your life, but having someone to talk with who is very well-versed in these issues, and who knows a lot about healing from abuse and assault can be really great, since they can often also really walk you through healing and give you good tools to process all of this with.

I don't know where you are, but if you don't know of any local resources, one great place to start is with RAINN's hotline services. You can reach them toll-free by phone at 1-800-656-HOPE, or use their new online hotline by clicking here. Not only can you get started getting support wither of those ways, someone there can also help you find help local to you. Or, if you're prefer not calling or using RAINN, you can call into your local police station, community center or hospital and ask about resources or support for sexual assault survivors. If you have any sort of medical plan or national healthcare, you may also be able to ask your general doctor for a referral for counseling services.

But before even doing any of that, you can make great strides simply by thinking about what I've said here, and just earnestly accepting -- deep in your guts -- that you did NOT do this and this is absolutely, positively, NOT your fault. You chose to fly on a plane: that's the choice you made. He chose to fly on a plane and sexually abuse someone: that's the choice he made. HE did this, and it is HIS fault. If you can do that, you're one giant step out of how you've been feeling and a strong stride into healing from this and getting back on with your life and all of the good things in it.

I very much hope I've been of some help, and I wish you hope, health and healing.

written 26 Mar 2008 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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