On crossed boundaries, delayed response & why women don't report sexual harassment.
The other day I wrote a post about a bizarre experience I had on Solstice of being sexually harassed by a stranger.
My post provoked a lot of debate.
And one question a man asked in the comments was "why did you laugh at the time and then change your mind?"
This brings up something really important I feel to share, so that there’s a better understanding out there of boundaries and consent between men and women.
And the part both trauma and social conditioning can play in such dynamics.
I’m not going to tell the whole story again. Go to my Facebook page & have a scroll if you want to read it (it's called "Sexism on Solstice").
But the salient points for this post are that I was giving a man directions, when he asked for my number, I laughingly said “no!” and then he made a sexually aggressive remark before driving off. And then drove back alongside me to offer his number & tell me he was available for sexual “fun.”
As he drove off I laughed. As I later told a girlfriend, I also laughed.
And then a few days later, it struck me that what had actually happened was sexual harassment.
This wasn’t the result of me talking to someone or reading something.
It just gradually dawned on me in meditation and contemplation.
I wasn’t laughing anymore. I felt shaken, sad this kind of thing still happens in 2023 and curious as to how and why a man felt he had the right to speak to me in that way.
Uninvited. Unwanted. Vulgar and disrespectful.
The official definition of sexual harassment is: “violating the other person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
So why did I laugh at the time and then have this response a few days later?
And DID I actually change my mind?
There’s a lot to unpick here.
First off, laughing or smiling does NOT necessarily mean you agree with or like what is happening.
It can be a socially conditioned response, especially for women, who are taught to be pleasing and appeasing to men &/or authority figures by the patriarchal system.
It can also be a trauma response.
When we feel threatened or our trauma is triggered, the body-mind can go into one of the 4 F’s: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Since women cannot typically out-fight or out-run a man, they are far more likely to freeze (ie. go rigid & say nothing) or fawn (ie. pretend to be good and nice) so as to avoid perceived danger.
Which is why negotiating agreements and asking for verbal consent is IMPERATIVE when it comes to any kind of intimacy. Along with continually checking in and attuning to body language and other cues.
Consent is in the moment for that one thing. And it can change and be withdrawn in any moment too.
We are NEVER obliged to do something we don’t want to simply to please someone else or “complete” a sexual act that’s started.
We can like and agree to what is happening in one minute and then dislike and not agree to what is happening the next. With the same person. That is every person’s right.
But many women GO ALONG WITH things they don’t want and didn’t ask for, rather than verbalising or physically asserting their NO out of fear of rejection, violence or making a fuss.
A significant reason for this is that they’ve been socialised into sourcing their value (love even) by appealing to men and being compliant.
And if they have experienced any kind of prior sexual harassment or assault or were parented/educated in old-school authoritarian ways, this behaviour is even more likely.
As I tell people over and again, in the Sister Circles I have held space for over the past 12 years, typically 1/3 of the women present have been sexually abused. And almost 100% have known sexual harassment.
Women modify their behaviour to feel safe in public spaces. Most especially at night, in urban environments or on public transport - we are on constant alert for a potential unwanted approach or the possibility of sexual violence.
Based on recent statistics published by the ONS, every minute of the day 17 women experience harassment in public in the UK.
A 2022 report by UN Women UK “found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96% NOT REPORTING those situations because of their belief that it would not change anything.”
If these are official statistics, I imagine the real number is even higher.
I reckon it’s safe to assume that sexual harassment is going on all around us, but all too often is being silently - even smilingly - tolerated.
Left unchallenged by women who want to stay safe and men and women, who are blind to/complicit with patriarchy.
So with all of the above as context, let me now respond to that question about why I seemingly “changed my mind”?
Not in the sense of ever wanting or liking that man speaking to me in that way.
Nor in sensing that a boundary had been crossed. I knew that instantly.
But it all happened so unexpectedly and suddenly, that I felt stunned and disorientated.
And in that moment, my response was to laugh.
As much as I can be aware and honest about it, I laughed because the idea of me and him together, let alone having casual sex, was absurd and insulting.
I laughed because we had just been laughing and joking together in an atmosphere of open-ness and trust and that energy was still in my system.
His sudden shift in tone felt like being stung from behind out of the blue.
I laughed because I was relieved he was driving away.
I laughed because I have a default programming to be kind and friendly.
I laughed because no words came to mind (a freeze response of sorts).
Plus I’m crap at witty retorts or put-downs. It’s just not my thing.
And my personal backdrop…
Sexual harassment at the age of 7 or 8, and then regularly from puberty onwards. Sexual assault, harassment and bullying at work, attempted rape, narcissistic abuse.
A father who was abusive if I disagreed with him once I reached puberty.
Parents who enforced their will over mine and had no boundaries.
A school system that told me not to wear trousers “because you’re a girl”.
Normalised objectification of women all around.
Victim-blaming and gaslighting of women’s experiences (including on my FB post about this!)
Misogyny in social structures (police, the legal system, government).
Men who are blind to their power and privilege.
You get the picture?
I was a precocious, assertive young girl, but patriarchal culture clipped my wings, over-rode my boundaries and tamed my talk-back.
So when all those abuses happened, I didn’t make a fuss, shout, hit out or abuse the perpetrator in return.
My response - and that of the women sometimes with me - was to quietly get out of the way and/or to safety.
As Eri Kim, Senior Clinical Director at Safe Horizon in the US states in an online article:
"If a person — man or woman — feels, I may not be allowed to communicate that I’m not consenting, [the situation] turns into a safety planning… you’re in a moment of considering if this is safe, because a person is ignoring your space or violating your space, and feeling entitled to do so."
In other words, if someone is already disregarding your cues of a "no," your brain may begin trying to register whether or not this is a safe situation for you, and a factor in that consideration is whether or not this person can overpower you physically.
"Even people of smaller statures can use their bodies in a way that’s intimidating, that signals, I’m willing to use brute force, or that, If psychological tactics don’t work, I can also resort to force," Kim says.
Saying no, then, becomes more difficult when you feel as if your safety is at stake.
When confronted with a perceived danger or threat to survival, however, the brain can go into fight or flight mode, sending signals to the rest of the body to either resist or try to leave the situation.”
In a recent 5-day workshop about boundaries and consent, in one exercise a man over-rode the touch boundary I set him. 3x.
I didn’t say anything.
But that night I couldn’t sleep as the reality of what had happened hit me. Along with a surge of rage for all the times my boundaries have been over-ridden by men in the past.
When I shared about it in the circle the next day, I was relieved to discover that having a “delayed response” is common.
A lot of people DON’T express their no when they feel it.
And there are very valid reasons for that. Most of which I’ve elucidated above.
I noticed myself feeling some shame for not voicing my no at the time. That is common too.
I’ve shared all of this in the hope that women who’ve experienced any form of sexual harassment or abuse and didn’t say no at the time stop judging themselves.
And so that when a woman has the courage to report her experience, someone doesn’t just blithely ask “so why didn’t you just say no?”
It’s really not that simple.
My next online workshop for women JUST SAY NO (which not only teaches you techniques for authentic communication & honouring of your boundaries, but holds compassionate space for all the feelings and experiences you may have had in the past, where this did not happen) is coming up on Saturday, July 22nd, 10am-1pm UK time. Investment: £33. You can find out more here, register via this link (& email me please if your email address is different to the one linked to your PayPal account, so I can send you the Zoom link) or email me any questions here.