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Was it sexual harassment? Was it my fault?

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Ms.dee asks:

Is it consider sexual harassment if some guy fingered my vagina, but I didn't want him to...I'm now 17 and this happened when I was 13, I haven't told anyone about this...I wanna know if it's my fault that this happened. We were on a bus and this guy undid my pants and fingered me. I didn't want it to happen, but I was too scared to stop him. Is it my fault? I mean, when he tried to kiss me I did sort of slide away. Is this my fault?

Heather Corinna replies:

I'm so glad you were able to ask about this and break your silence. I know how scary it can be to do that. It's a very big deal to take that step and I hope you give yourself a lot of credit for taking it. I certainly do.

What you have described is beyond sexual harassment: it's sexual assault. And it's not your fault.

Sexual harassment is generally emotional and/or verbal abuse that is sexual in nature, like sexual name-calling or jokes, or continued sexual propositions or sexual attention after a person has already said no. Gay-bashing is also a form of sexual harassment as is harassing someone about their gender or gender identity. Rape and/or sexual assault or abuse is a person forcing someone, physically, verbally or emotionally, to engage in any given sexual activity they do not want to, have not consented to and/or have not been in a position to give full consent to -- usually manual sex, oral sex, vaginal or anal sex or sexual fondling.

It is sexual assault ANY time one person does not want to be engaging in any kind of sex and another person does it to them anyway without their consent and against their will.

Silence is not consent. Because someone does not verbally say no does NOT mean someone is saying yes; because you were not able to say anything our of fear does not mean you actively participated in this or gave your consent. You were not silent because you wanted this to happen or enjoyed being silent. You were silent because you felt validly afraid of someone who was abusing you. That is not a context for consent or a scenario that demonstrates consent, and it is very unlikely the person who assaulted you mistook your silence for consent. The dynamics of rape/assault for an attacker are usually about power. Most commonly, someone who is sexually assaulting someone else knows the other person is not consenting and want to do what they are doing because they are not consenting in order to make themselves feel powerful.

It's not hard to know when someone we are talking to or touching is feeling fear: a person trying to slide away, flinching when we touch them, or being completely silent during something in life that's about expression and engagement is not how someone who wants to actively engage in sex with someone else behaves. As well, if and when we want someone to do something with us sexually, especially someone we don't have an ongoing relationship with, we ask them and need to ask them. You were not asked, you did not respond enthusiastically to this person's actions, and chances are that the person who assaulted you both knew that you were afraid, wanted you to be afraid, and knew they were abusing you. If and when someone says they just didn't know, or that they misunderstood in a situation like this, they're usually lying.

This is not your fault. If I get mugged, that's not something that happens because I left my home, walked down the street, and was carrying money of my own that someone else wanted, things I should be able to do safely that are a normal, and often essential, part of daily life, just like it's a normal and essential part of daily life for plenty of us to take the bus. If I get mugged, that's something that only happens because someone decided to mug me. It's the fault of that person who chose to mug me. In your case, the fault lies with the person who chose to sexually assault you. His age here isn't relevant: someone being any given age does assault okay or make assault anything but assault.

So many survivors of sexual assault or abuse misassign fault, putting in on themselves. Fault, in this context, means responsibility for a bad situation or event. Responsibility means being answerable for an act performed or for its consequences. You didn't perform the act of your assault: your attacker did. You're responsible for taking the bus, sure, but I think we can agree that very few people, if any, would say that they consider sexual assault to be something that is a natural consequence of taking the bus or something we agree to when we get on a bus. Sexual assault is a crime, and including on the bus, so the rules of the bus are, in fact, expressly THAT no one on it should be assaulting anyone else. Anyone who assaults someone on it is a person breaking the the law.

We take the bus to get from one place to another, and agree to pay the bus company for that transport and to be courteous to others on the bus. We do not take the bus in order to get assaulted, invite assault just by doing so, or make any kind of agreement to sex by virtue of sitting on the bus. I've no doubt that if you knew in advance that getting on that bus that day meant you'd be assaulted, you'd very purposefully have stayed off the bus.

To give you another example, let's say you came here asking me for help, just like you did. At this site, we clearly give the impression that this is somewhere where you would be helped in this way, so you had a valid expectation that this was somewhere safe to post what you did. But instead of helping you, treating you kindly and working within the kind of ethics I talk about this website upholding, let's say I called you a bunch of awful names, shaming and blaming you just because I could and because I got off on it in some way, and you were further traumatized as a result. Whose fault would those actions and the consequences them be? Yours, because you came here and put yourself in a position where there was the potential of abuse (which there is everywhere, in nearly everything), or mine, in responding the way I did, using the opportunity of you having asked a question and the power I have in being able to answer them?

Those actions and their consequences would be my fault and my responsibility, because I would have been the person who had the opportunity and power to choose to attack you, and who abused both your vulnerability and my power with my actions. Sure, if you had never come here or said anything at all, that wouldn't have happened, but that still wouldn't make my actions or the way you felt because of them your fault. The fault would still absolutely be mine and mine alone.

I also want to make sure you know that so much of the self-blame sexual assault victims do has to do with a long and incredibly horrible history of people blaming victims in order for those who abuse or attack to both exploit victims further and to avoid responsibility.

When I was young, my sister and I were fighting one day in our room and she called me a bitch, loud enough for our mother to hear. Our Mom came racing in, furious. My sister said it was me who said it. She did that because she didn't want to get in trouble herself, and in the moment, she cared more about herself than she did about me. Now, my sister was only six years old, and I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt me or get me hurt, so we can cut her a break. However, what she did in that exchange was one part of what people who abuse and assault -- who typically have a mental and emotional capacity far greater than my little sister did -- do when they blame victims. They knowingly and intentionally blame someone they know isn't responsible because they care about themselves, not the people they victimize, which is already clear given the fact that they've assaulted someone in the first place. It's also a way for them to keep on exerting power over the person or people they victimized.

Sometimes people around abusers, including those who don't even know them, do the same thing, either because they are, were or feel in some way complicit, because they've done or want to do something similar they don't want to take responsibility for or because they so badly want to believe someone they thought they could trust still is, even though deep down, they usually know that person has shown themselves to be unsafe.

Sometimes, too, people who have not ever assaulted anyone, and probably will not ever assault anyone, blame victims because it's hard for them to face the fact that none of us can ever be in complete control of whether or not we are or will be abused or assaulted. It's a hard truth to face, so while blaming victims (including self-blaming) isn't a sound way to deal with that, it's certainly understandable that people want to badly to believe they have the control to keep something terrible from happening to them. Sometimes people who have been victims of abuse or assault themselves are so steeped in their own self-blame that they'll blame other victims because they're just so wounded, or got blamed so much by others, that they can't see the forest from the trees. If a person makes themselves believe that abuse or assault is the responsibility of the victim, they can fool themselves into thinking that so long as they follow whatever "rules" they figure are required to avoid assault that they won't get assaulted.

The trouble with that is twofold: not only does that kind of ideology hurt victims and enable sexual abuse and assault -- in other words, helps continue dynamics and ideas that allow it to keep happening so much in the world -- there also are no such rules.

People get assaulted outside and inside their homes. People get assaulted in long skirts and short skirts. People get assaulted who meet a given culture's beauty ideals, people get assaulted who don't. People get assaulted by strangers and by people they know, sometimes even by people they trusted the most. There are some things we can do that can do help us avoid assault or abuse, but those things are about basic self-defense and self-protection, and if and when we don't know or exercise those things the fault still lies with anyone who exploits our vulnerability by attacking us.

How someone who is being victimized reacts to an attack also isn't something that determines where fault lies. I already explained that silence is not consent, but additionally, a lot of people, if not most, react to sexual assaults or abuses by freezing up. Some of that has to do with shock, especially if we're somewhere around other people who should be seeing what's happening but either aren't or are, but are choosing not to step in. Some of that is about fear, or even our gut instincts that not responding may keep us safer, which is true sometimes. Sometimes silence is about social messages a lot of us get and were raised with, especially around gender or sex. There are a lot of different reasons we can wind up literally scared silent with an assault, but no matter what they are, the person at fault will still always be the person doing the assaulting.

I'm sorry you've had to carry the burden of this for years without asking about it or talking about it until now. That's exceptionally hard on any of us who have been abused or assaulted. If it's shame or worry that this was your fault that kept you silent, I'm sorry you have had to feel that way for so long. Unfortunately, it's all too common for survivors of harassment or assault to stay in silence because of shame, self-blame or a continued fear for their safety. I hope taking this big step to ask someone about your assault and my response will open two important doors for you: a door out of self-blame, shame and silence and a door into healing and putting blame where it belongs. I hope that our exchange can help you take more steps to talk about this as you need to with others, whether with friends or family, or with a supportive therapist or counselor who can help you heal from your assault.

I'll inject something personal into this, which is that I, myself, spent years in silence about sexual assaults as a young teenager. I got good counseling and support a few years later that allowed me to break my silence, to start unpacking self-blame and start feeling a whole lot better. With every year that passed after, and with continued care for myself around this, I felt better and better, and knew more and more firmly that my assaults were not my fault and also had nothing to do with the way I reacted which, the first time I was assaulted, was exactly like what you did, by being frozen in silence, shock and fear.

Over the years, I accessed different things that helped me heal, like counseling, talking to other people in my life about my assaults, doing creative work that allowed me to express my feelings and working to help other survivors. I also did, and later taught, self-defense training. I'd strongly recommend everyone take a class at least once, especially survivors. So many of us were raised without any real instruction on how to adequately protect and defend ourselves, which can make us feel and be more vulnerable to violence of any kind. I don't want to be dishonest about self-defense: it can't always help prevent an assault. Sometimes assault does still happen. But feeling more capable of identifying potential attacks or assaults, and better knowing how to respond, not only does help prevent many assaults -- often without even having to do any active self-defense at all -- it can help us to feel more safe in our world and our own skin. I'd encourage you to check out any self-defense classes available to you in your area.

Since you're in the United States, I want to make sure you know about RAINN's services. RAINN is a national organization that supports survivors of sexual assault and abuse and to help educate the public about these crimes. They have phone and online hotlines you can use for free. You can use either service to talk more about your assault with someone trained to support you, and can also use them to get help locating a counselor local to you that you can see in person to get help healing from your assault. Pandora's Place is also a fantastic online support forum for survivors you can read or use. You are also very welcome to come to our message boards and talk more with me, other staff and/or other survivors any time you want to.

We talked about responsibility, and about what was not your responsibility. Let's talk about what is your responsibility: treating yourself with the care, humanity, respect and kindness that the person who assaulted you did not.

While we are never responsible for being assaulted, the fact that someone else is responsible doesn't mean that even if that person takes full responsibility they can do our healing for us. That's something we have to do ourselves and something we owe ourselves because we're entitled to lives of quality. We don't all have the same paths in what that self-care is, because we're all different people who also all have different resources and opportunities. So, I can't say what the best path for you will be, I can only encourage you to try and take more steps as you feel able to heal and to make a commitment to taking the best care of yourself possible, including working to put the responsibility for your assault on your attacker and to reclaim the life and the self that is and should be yours.

I'm going to leave you with a few links that might help some more and with all of my very best wishes and support.

written 06 Sep 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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