He asked if I wanted to go back to his room, ‘It’ll be quieter.’ Aged 19, I jumped at the chance. No one had ever noticed me the way he did. Always rushing to sit next to me at dinner. Compliments. ‘You look prettier with your hair up.’ I thought we were just going to chat, like we always had.
He came up behind me in the middle of the room. His hands on my stomach. His cheek on my neck. I froze. I’d never been this close to a guy before. Never held a guy’s hand. Never been kissed.
‘It’ll be more comfortable on the bed,’ he said. I sat on his lap, impassive. His hands stayed on my stomach. He didn’t kiss me. He didn’t try anything further. He had a girlfriend and he knew that I knew. I didn’t move for fear of leading him on.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t dress like this,’ I looked down at my skirt.
‘That’d help,’ he replied. ‘I can’t help liking pretty things.’
He didn’t “force” me to do anything. I didn’t tell him to stop. I didn’t say no. I brushed it off as just another experience. Nothing happened. No need to make a big deal about it.
‘You’ll meet someone better than me,’ he said.
I bit my tongue. For close to five years.
‘Dare you to turn the lights off,’ I whispered.
The chandeliers swayed to the music. He inched towards the table lamp and the room plunged into shocked darkness. I clapped my hands in glee. ‘Where have you been? I thought you left.’
‘I wasn’t feeling well,’ he mumbled, grasping for me. I should have told him no.
should have… shouldn’t have… should have…
I kept dancing, arms stretched above my head. Part of me was flattered but my skin crawled. His hands ran from my stomach to my cardigan. I was his mannequin.
‘I’m not sure you’re enjoying this.’
‘It’s fine,’ I lied.
Two weeks later, I bumped into him while out. I’m drunk and not at all attracted to him. Never was.
The next evening, I sat alone in emergency.
‘Was it your first time?’
‘Was it consensual?’
As I waited for a bed, I watched The Voice and re-read The Bell Jar. I’d just reached the part where Esther is admitted into hospital. ‘You can’t keep getting away with this,’ I thought.
I like dancing. I like flirting. And I like kissing. But it doesn’t mean I want to kiss you. Nor does it mean I want to sleep with you. I shouldn’t have to apologise for this. In the words of Clementine Ford, ‘I’m sick and tired of women being held responsible for the actions men choose to make.’
Yes, I might be sending mixed messages. But that doesn’t give you the right to do what you want.
Too many times, I’ve relented rather than telling a guy to fuck off. Even after turning away, not once but twice, thrice. ‘You’re shy… I like that.’
Consent is more than the absence of no. If someone looks away when you try to kiss them, stop. Or ask.
I once tracked down a guy on the dance-floor. Eyes locked, bodies moving in time, I asked if I could kiss him. He didn’t say no outright but he didn’t say yes either. And I respected that.
‘I shouldn’t have gone home with him.’ ‘I shouldn’t have danced with him.’ ‘I shouldn’t have accepted a lift home.’ ‘I shouldn’t have dressed the way I did.’
I’ve tried to rationalise… no one “forced” me to do anything but what he did all those years ago was wrong.
‘Other people have experienced worse. I wasn’t raped.’
‘You shouldn’t compare,’ my friend said. ‘God, I want to punch him for you.’ I laughed darkly.
Another sent me an article by Rebecca Traister about how the game is rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. It quotes a column by Reina Gattuso which frames consent not only in terms of ‘Did you or did you not say yes?’ but as a collective process of lowering barriers to empowered choice.
As Traister points out, focusing on assault and sex positivity has meant that ‘a vast expanse of bad sex… has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.’ Until I read those two articles, I didn’t know where my ‘not-rape-but-not-ok’ experiences fit.
I thought that because I didn’t say no, I deserved what happened to me. It took me years to understand that it wasn’t my fault. It was never my fault.
And I’m not going to bite my tongue any longer.
Image: Alex Jones
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer, reviewer, Noted festival 2016 Live Producer and HARDCOPY 2015 participant. She blogs at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day. Her work has appeared in BMA Magazine, The Victorian Writer, Scissors Paper Pen and Capital Letters. Shu-Ling spends her free time reading, traipsing and measures her life in playlists. You can follow her on Twitter @hellopollyanna