When I was 16 years old, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I believed they’d blame me. Hell, I blamed me. So after I went on a camping trip in my friend’s parents' backyard, the one where my boyfriend tried to force himself on me while everyone else slept, I stayed quiet. I was the one who crawled into his sleeping bag after my friend’s parents had told us to sleep in separate tents. I broke the rules, so I felt that to some degree, I must have been asking for it.
That wasn’t the first (or the last) time I chose to stay silent. Assault became a part of our relationship, which started when I was 15 years old and lasted until I finally grew the courage to leave him two years later when I was 17. It felt as if leaning my body against his while watching a movie, or sitting on his lap while browsing the web, were somehow signals to him that I wanted something more. Even with my hands moving his to keep them away from my body, even though I told him no — it was like I was giving physical signals in a language completely foreign to him — and I was lost in translation.
But I kept quiet because he was my boyfriend, and he loved me. This must have been happening to me because I was sending him the wrong indications. Right?
What I didn't realize back then was that my body language didn't mean anything to him. It didn't matter if I was rigid and silent or pushed his hands away and continually said, "No, I don't want to." He was going to take what he wanted from me anyway. Nearly 20 years later, I still don't publicly name him. So many people saw him as "such a good guy," so I know very few people will believe me. I wish I was brave, but I don't tell them because I feel like I already know what they'll say. "No, it couldn't have been him. Are you sure you didn't do something to make him think you were into it?"
What I can't face is the victim-blaming, and I'm not alone. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), two out of three survivors don’t report their assaults to the police. That’s because — among many other reasons women may choose not to report — many are afraid that they’ll be blamed for their own assault, says the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Julie Medina, law judge for the State of Iowa Department of Corrections, tells Elite Daily that blaming the victim for their body language during a sexual encounter can be pretty standard in cases of date and acquaintance rape. As a prosecutor specializing in domestic violence cases, she frequently witnesses this phenomenon firsthand. “Well, she was 'flirting with him,' she was 'hanging all over him,' they were making out, she was 'acting like she was into him,'” Medina tells Elite Daily. It's not uncommon for victims to feel as if they are on trial instead of their accused perpetrators, although rape shield laws have now made it illegal to bring up the past sexual histories of assault victims.
If you can't stop and have a conversation about consent, you shouldn't be having sex.
Victim-blaming is a technique defense attorneys sometimes use to try and create doubt, Mike Domitrz, founder of The DATE SAFE Project and author of Can I Kiss You?, tells Elite Daily. “If someone on the jury has been raised in a culture that blames survivors instead of perpetrators, then the defense attorney is hoping that person on the jury will not vote guilty.” Many perpetrators will leverage that doubt in order to further distance themselves from what they’ve done by trying to “manipulate the survivor’s sense of reality of the assault,” explains body language expert Blanca Cobb.
This is oftentimes seen in high-profile sexual assault cases, an example of which would be Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's allegations of sexual assault (which Kavanaugh has denied) against then-Supreme Court nominee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Once Ford came forward and alleged that Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her when they were teenagers, Ford's account was put under intense scrutiny by both the Senate Judicial committee and the media. Ford has since had to leave her home because of harassment and death threats, says USA Today. Kavanaugh has since taken a seat on the highest court in the nation, confirmed as supreme court justice.
Less public cases, however, can be equally as damaging. In the late '90s, before Medina started prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault, Medina alleges that she herself was sexually harassed and raped by her then-boss. Medina filed a complaint with the company, and was fired soon after. In response, Medina hired a lawyer and entered mediation, during which her testimony of the encounter faced similar scrutiny. “I was constantly asked, ‘How were you behaving? Could he have misinterpreted what you did? Your signals?’ Even worse, I took it,” says Medina.
Although Medina claims her lawyer and mediator believed that she was telling the truth, she says they were concerned that a jury wouldn't believe her — at the time, "rape culture" wasn’t even in the public vernacular. Medina’s attorney gave her a piece of advice that she'd find hard to forget: “Julie, people just don't want to believe that we can be so awful to each other.”
Medina decided to settle out of court, although sometimes she still wishes she’d had the chance to face her alleged rapist in court. When asked if she would go back and change the past if she could, Medina says that her past, no matter how traumatic, made her who she is today. “Some days it’s still hard,” says Medina. “But I am stronger and more empowered then I ever have been. I wouldn’t be a lawyer and now a judge [if it hadn’t happened].”
So why are survivors often blamed for what’s done to them? According to body language expert Patti Wood, people often question a survivor’s behavior after an assault because nonverbal communication is so complex. When clear verbal consent isn't given, room is left for misinterpretation. Domitrz agrees. “The top body language experts in the world reinforce that there is no one way to read body language,” he says. However, these body language experts emphasize that body language can never excuse harassment or assault.
The "gray area" of consent is, in fact, a myth.
“Assuming what someone’s body language is telling you in a sexual situation is foolish and can become dangerous if you take actions based on those assumptions,” says Domitrz. This is especially important when it comes to having sex with new partners. Don’t assume anything, just ask. Never assume that your sexual partner is "asking for it."
But Wood says women are more likely to communicate with nonverbal cues than men are. This means that while a woman may believe that she is communicating her discomfort clearly through nonverbal cues, her sexual partner may not be picking up on their subtle language. The solution? Clear, two-way communication must take place before women reach what Wood refers to as the “freeze, flight, fight, fall, or faint.” If you can't stop and have a conversation about consent, you shouldn't be having sex.
However, Cobb says that the "gray area" of consent is, in fact, a myth. “Flirtatious body language doesn’t cause harassment or assault,” says Cobb. “Perpetrators cause sexual assault. It’s that simple. They might use flirtatious body language to justify their behavior, but there’s no cause and effect between the two.”
For Alicia Ragaller, 33, an SEO strategist at a digital marketing firm in Madison, sexual harassment and assault were part of everyday life when she was growing up. “I think it’s a reality that a lot of women have to face and have to navigate,” says Ragaller. “Not ‘if’ it’s going to happen but ‘when.’ Because it’s going to. It’s just a matter of time.”
Ragaller says toxic masculinity and the “machismo” attitude — or highly sexualized form of male bravado — that is so widely accepted in today's society creates an environment where she says men can often “take advantage of women,” with little-to-no repercussions. According to statistics obtained by RAINN, out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free, though RAINN does not specify the gender of the perpetrators.
When she was only 14 years old, Ragaller claims her own uncle accused her of trying to seduce her male cousins because she was hanging out with them and laughing at their jokes. “[He said] it was the way I dressed, the amount of makeup I wore, that I was comfortable hanging out with guys,” says Ragaller. “It really made me feel bad, like I can’t act this way in front of my cousins because it makes me a hoe.” Ragaller says those experiences taught her from an early age that she would need to learn to protect herself. She adjusted her behavior, dress, and body language accordingly.
Similarly to Medina, it took me years to fully recount and attempt to understand what had happened to me. It began when I started getting sick — headaches, followed by migraines. Than I began experience anxiety attacks, a common symptom of PTSD seen in survivors of sexual assault. I struggle with depression, but have finally come to some level of comprehension. My experience is fairly common, too. According to RAINN, 94 percent of people who are raped experience symptoms of PTSD.
As a survivor, I know my journey towards healing will never completely be over, because experiencing rape and/or sexual harassment and/or sexual assault can take away a part of you that you can never get back. Perhaps it's innocence, or the privilege of feeling safe and cared for. But healing is a process, and there are ways to begin to move forward. RAINN suggests that one way that survivors can start to heal after an assault is by participating in different forms of self-care, such as surrounding yourself with supportive people, finding ways to relax, getting enough sleep, and eating foods that make you feel healthy. Some survivors might choose to seek support from a therapist, but it’s not a step that every survivor needs to take right away — do what makes you feel most comfortable, in your own time.
Cobb says misreading body language doesn’t lead to harassment or sexual assault because a “perpetrator chooses to control their victim through sexual assault or harassment.” I know that in my case, I had my ability to make a choice about my body and what I wanted taken away from me time and time again. I now know I didn't signal my sexual assault. I now understand that my rape was in no way my fault. I've reclaimed my body and the language it speaks, and every day, I'm growing more and more fluent in the dialect of self-love.