My friend Sara always stayed in her home country, France. For reasons she never articulated, she did not like the idea of travelling abroad. It was not a real problem for her though, and she organised her life around it.
One day, Sara was promoted. Part of her new responsibilities included travelling abroad. Before her first trip, anxieties mounted to an almost unbearable level. When the day came though, her business trip web very smoothly, and she came back relaxed and satisfied.
This episode triggered some self reflexion: why was it initially such a problem for her ? She remembered that as a yound adult, she travelled to North Africa with a few other friends. The whole time, the group of girls had been harrassed by unsolicited, insistent and intrusive male attention. Some nights, it was impossible to sleep because of the never ending ringing at their doors. Sara realised that her anxiety at the idea of travelling appeared after this unfortunate first experience.
I’m Laura, and as a young adult I experienced serious difficulties. My self esteem was shot. I was feeling terrible most of the time. I was battling depression and addictions. The capacity for connecting comfortably with other people seemed to elude me.
Worst of all, I did not have a clue as to why I was feeling this way: I had a good job with a promising professional future. I was in a committed relationship with a smart, kind and loving guy. I had friends.
What was wrong with me ? Why was it impossible for me to have a comfortable life ? Why did I have the impression of looking at me life behind a pane of glass, without really participating ? I reached out for help, and over time I understood my difficulties were caused by the sexual violence I experienced as a child.
Sexual violence can take many forms. Sometimes, it is experienced as a child, sometimes, as an adult. In some instances, the perpetrator is a loved one, in and in some instances it is a stranger. It can involve physical contact, or not. It happens once, or lasts for years. It is not linked with gender neither for victims, nor for perpetrators. The extent of the damage varies greatly.
But even if, like in Sara’s case, it happened while she was an adult, coming from strangers, and with no physical contact, it was still sexual violence. It wounded her, and limited her life. It probably would not hold in front of a court, but it is still intolerable.
Sexual violence is trying to impose sexual activities to someone who did not give her or his informed consent.
By definition, it involves all sexual activities with children or young teens: they are unable to provide informed consent. Most of the time they don’t know what sexuality is anyway. And they certainly cannot imagine what the damaging consequences will be for them.
In order to qualify as violence, the attempt does not need to lead to actual sexual activity. As Sara can attest, forceful attempts are enough to instill fear. It is precisely what these men were looking for: sexual violence is mostly a power trip.
The importance of explicit consent
Lastly, even if the victim did not protest, it is still violence: the absence of explicit consent if enough.
Let’s take an analogy: imagine someone decides that your house would be better off with enhancements and turns it into a small gothic castle. Would you need to convince people that you did oppose vehemently the change ? That you shouted, that you fought, that you have bruises to prove it ? Would you need to provide testimony and evidences that your taste does not go to gothic style ? That yes, you do dress in black and wear burgundy lipstick, but it does not mean you want to live in a gothic castle ?
Of course not. When it comes to property, you don’t have to prove that you did not consent. They other person has to prove that you did. It makes a world of difference.
Why is it true for our house, our car, and not our own bodies and minds? Are material things more important than us ?
It’s easy enough to obtain informed consent: all you have to do is ask, with a willingness to hear the answer. And leave kids alone. Nothing complicated.