It has been over six months since Alyssa Milano popularized the #metoo hashtag and for half a year I have been ruminating about my own experiences of sexual abuse and comparing them to how those public reports of victims’ experiences are played out on the world stage, wondering if I should dip my toe in. There is no doubt that I, like many women, have remained silent of abuse experienced for fear of not being believed and most definitely, of losing work opportunities accessible only through the abuser. It is incredible how effective such concerns are, how they silence the victims and insulate the accused. Who taught us to respond that way?
There are a number of reasons I haven’t disclosed my own experiences but they are probably not what you would imagine. Yes, I worried for my work, for being believed, for being seen as a porn director which would lead to the need to double defend my position, as all those abused in the various sex industries have to endure, like a fourth shift.
But my reticence is not just practical (and let’s be honest, until recently, based on realistic concerns), mine have also been more ambivalent in nature. As someone who has spent her life researching and representing sexuality and gender, including a Masters on the philosophy of sexual consent, I am not ‘as one’ on my own position of my ‘history of abuse’ if I were to call it that.
Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: I was not sexually abused as a child and have never endured ongoing abuse either as a child or as an adult. I say this as this is the oft-assumed reason why women get into the sex industries, something I’ve had to deny in many interviews, to help reset the image of the average sex worker’s career motivations. I say this, even though I know that I have met some women who report performing in porn has actually helped them regain their sexual self-respect after childhood abuse; they took back ownership of their image and their actions. Such a causal line is by no means straightforward, porn can help victims, sometimes.
My point is this: I have always thought of myself as someone who experienced two incidents of sexual abuse. The first was when, aged twelve, alone in a Spanish hotel hallway, I was holding a key outside our family room when I was approached and touched (not intimately, but he made his desire for ‘friendship’ very clear). I ‘made my excuses’, walked hurriedly off pretending I wasn’t staying on that floor, consumed with fear that he would follow me into the room. Even at such a young age I had acquired enough skills to successfully behave defensibly in such situations. I returned to the room when the coast was clear and promptly changed into my swimming costume and back to the pool. I didn’t tell my brother or sister what had happened and felt an intense wave of shame when I realized I’d been bathing for some time with my swim suit on inside out.
I told my Mum and Dad and to this day I can remember them anxiously rowing about what to do next, my father defensibly explaining that he hadn’t been able to find a man by that description, what did she want him to do anyway, punch him on the nose? Incredibly, the next morning in a vast package holiday breakfast buffet restaurant, sat right next to us was the man and his family, a complete fluke. Waiting until he left his family, my Dad approached him and gave him a piece of his mind in a different language. The detail that remains with me was that this man initially assumed my father had wanted to shake his hand.
Today I can mostly remember a real feeling of empathy for my Dad, him having to be the one that confronted the man in order to restore the status quo, but am I allowed to do that? That was a scary contemplation for a thirteen-year-old to imagine, my never having seen my father do such a thing. Whether my memory is of him rather than my own safety is down to internalized sexism is dependent on which type of feminist you speak to. Personally, I think we are capable of multiple identifications, which causes confusion but also expands emotional intelligence in such a situation. I remember my own fear but I wasn’t the only one affected by what happened, the whole family was and I was painfully aware of that too.
Secondly, aged about 27, whilst working as a porn director, I was approached by a London theatre producer called Marc Sinden to be the feature of a one-hour documentary about my work. I met with him several times in several locations across London and then he asked me to meet him at his house in North London. I didn’t feel completely great about this but I never genuinely felt that he would do anything bad, it just seemed so ridiculous. Even someone that appeared to be untrustworthy in business, seemed unlinked to the possibility that he could be downright abusive, I just didn’t think he would actually try it on, in the late 90’s it seemed so ‘Eighties’.
I found myself sitting there with a glass of wine, I declined the dope (do I still have to defend myself that way in the current climate?). Having discussed the project for an hour or so, Marc returned from the bathroom, standing in the one exit doorway of the room, masturbating with his trousers fully open. I can’t tell you how shocked I was, even as I sat in his house. I’d given him no inclination of my interest. I was petrified.
I sobered up immediately and started to think about how I could get out of this situation without being raped. Again, the active defensive thinking kicked in, as though biologically inherited from previous generations of women, a true meme. I had to feign interest in a potential future relationship, to which ‘I wasn’t quite ready yet’, he just had to be patient. It worked, I had to kiss him in the doorway (something that internalized sexism still won’t let me stop blaming myself for) I pushed past him and I got out. I left it cordially, but he knew he had done wrong. He as a very stingy man and he offered me ten pounds for a cab to get home, most out of character.
After that I tried to keep the documentary going – as it would have meant a huge push to my career – but at arm’s length. If I could get past his behavior, why the hell couldn’t he? I found myself having to manage the situation, rooting it soundly in ways that didn’t hurt his ego. Yet still, his “contacts at Channel Four and Five were no longer interested, no idea why”, such was his inability to man up about what he had done and apologise, even though I had made plenty space for him to do so, intentionally, my female role of emotional labour producer never having been in question. This was what hurt too, that I never found if it was my lack of interest in him or his shame of what he had done that prevented the project from going ahead. Why should I have to ponder such things?
I explain to men who don’t understand women’s behavior in situations like the above, where it might seem to the man involved (not Marc though, I am convinced, after all, why didn’t he follow up my ‘potential’ relationship?, why the end of the work project that he too would financially benefit from?), that women act in obtuse ways to get them out of sexually abusive situations because of the considerable physical and social advantage men have. I said I was interested only in a future relationship, singularly as a means to avoid rape, I did not mean it at all.
I say to men who don’t get this duplicity in women: imagine you are in an aggressive position with a man who is literally twice your height, not a foot taller but six feet taller than you. You can’t fight and win. What else are you going to do? You will pretty quickly come around to other forms of behavior to defend yourself, I say this even though men’s masculinity is based around physical aggression. If you can’t ever hope to win, your imagination moves sideways, you think about getting away from the immediate situation, regardless of whether you have to lie about the future, the future being a land of envied safety in comparison far away from the abuser. Deferring and obfuscating are skills women have learned to fight off men and they have learned them because in such situations (where women’s sexual sanctity is valued) they work. It is not a slight against men’s ideas of their own masculinity for women to play a bit frigid, in fact it supports their supposed greater sexual urges under what I known in gender theory as the Male Sexual Drive Discourse (Hollway 1984), they describe themselves as ‘not as sexual’ as men (however untrue this is in fact). Men get to remain inside the culturally scaffolded version of successful masculinity when women do this, hence why women think of it and I’m sure, hence why often it works. I’m not saying it’s right.
But when I started my PhD research in 2010 I realized by the legal definition, I have actually been sexually assaulted a total of five times. The other three times include, in short: being aged 17, waking up to a 22-year-old male friend’s fingers inside me to which I didn’t initially consent but eventually did, something I felt ashamed of at the time. Secondly, in my early 20’s and being followed by a man into the porch of my parent’s home and him grabbing my chest from inside my jacket, recoiling in total shock when I screamed my dislike, such was his masculine privileged solipsism. Finally, in my late thirties, having an argument with an old guy in a public swimming pool result in him grabbing my chest underwater.
It was with some confusion that I recalled these events and tried to comprehend why they did not seem to me to be initially to be sexual abuse, or in the street stranger case – which involved a report to the police – to my labelling it such yet forgetting it completely until prompted. Was it that I was left unscathed, so no need to recall? Possibly part of it, anger has always saved me from damage, my core is a pretty tough nugget that repels most offences. Was it a psychological defense? I’m not convinced by that, after all I remembered the instances that were the most shocking so why not the lesser ones?
I think I disremember such instances for another reason, that the area of consent is grey, most of the time. We are encouraged (increasingly so, recently) to think of such assault as black and white but it isn’t, it is a spectrum, something that is hard to discuss when such established avatars such as ‘Victim’ and ‘Perpetrator’ are so ingrained, which arguably happens more at times of public investigation in a subject, such as now.
The best example of consent being grey was the professional way that Stormy Daniels described her sexual meeting with Donald Trump as ‘unwanted but consensual’, she distanced herself from it yet she still owned it. But what to think of this? Does a woman have to take responsibility of allowing herself to enter the bedroom of a powerful man and see it through? Is this not letting him off the hook? Yes, but it is also a way for her to manage the situation in a far less upsetting way than the alternative and who are we to judge her for making that personal decision? I always admire the way she presents herself, including how she manages her behavior, she is such a professional porn industry representative.
This is it, the situation is not black or white, it’s grey, we often offset slightly lesser negative experiences by consenting, we do this with sex but we also do it throughout our lives without any criticism too, we do this constantly with bosses, colleagues, children, lovers, friends and strangers. So how do we make space in our discourse on sexual assault for such mixed selves when we so easily vilify those who express experiences of them? (from both victim and perpetrator positions, I always though the song Blurred Lines had a point, especially if you consider BDSM environments…)
The reality is I am a person of many sexual experiences, a fact of which I am proud, after all you can’t be a decent porn director without doing your research. Only a few of these experiences have been negative, the two I remember, very much so. The others were different in feel and manifestation.
Starting with the waking up scenario. I did not consent, I couldn’t, having been asleep, yet I became aroused and carried on eventually. Yet, the guy doing this (his name was Richard, by the way) didn’t think I consented or at least didn’t care. I’d drunk a lot of whiskey (through his encouragement) and passed out, he perused me and went ahead. In reality, I was lucky he didn’t jump on top of me, what could I have done? Yet I never blamed him because I saw it from my own position of arousal until I became educated otherwise. Was I right then when it happened? Am I right now, a much wiser sexuality academic? Are we to ignore women’s (especially young women’s) claims to sexual authority in such cases? Is not taking their own immediate experience of consent seriously an example of a similar egregious assault women face with some regularity? The same mentality of ignoring their right to consent that the rapist exploits? As a female porn director who does not see herself as the ‘women hating male facilitator’ that anti porn feminists describe me as, this point is not in the least bit academic for me.
This teenage act was tied up in a culture that praises women’s chastity, causing the other side of the coin that made me omit the bit about eventually consenting when I recalled it to my friends (I never formally complained or even spoke to him about it). I needed to save face for eventually consenting, every teenage girl will tell you they lie about such things to appear pure. Yet at the time, importantly, I didn’t think he had done anything particularly wrong, certainly not illegal. I do now. Yet people will still see Assange as a fighter, for his political actions to which the alleged sexual assault vicitims should take their places up as collateral to his far greater deeds. But why the need for either/or? Can’t people be both good and bad, can we seriously not hold such a slightly more developed thought in our heads yet?
The experience of the guy who followed me to my parent’s house was horrendous. When he approached me, I froze and only felt the strength to scream because there were moving silhouettes inside the house, so help was at hand. My immediate thought was one of luck. Had I have been in a darkened or unpopulated place, I would have stopped at frozen.
But why was he so shocked to see me dislike his hand grabbing my breast? His face was one of genuine surprise and much as it involved male privilege of projection of one’s own fantasies onto another, I am not convinced that this is a common belief held in our society, so it can’t just be about a ‘masculinity dividend’ (as it is known in Gender Studies). The long-entrenched idea of female ‘non-sexual virtue’ is too big a bolster against such blithe confidence in men. Men experience women’s rejection of their sexual advances as part of their quotidian reality, they are born into such cultures of competition for women’s sexual availability, hence why pick up artistry was invented.
I think he was probably mentally ill but this doesn’t explain why I didn’t recall it so well. I think in this instance, it was a case of my straightforwardly blocking it out in my mind.
The last example was a strange one for me. When an aggressive old man in a swimming pool became extremely unreasonable in his behavior because he clearly felt he had greater right to the public space than I (in my 12 years of thrice-weekly swimming in public pools it’s always men who do this and nearly always the privileged older ones who can’t stand women swimming faster than them, with their now diminished abilities). He grabbed my chest, an act that was witnessed by a member of staff underwater and on video so there was no debating my side of things. He only stopped being aggressive when my 6’6” husband approached him, then his demeanor became conciliatory, something that doubly angered me because it made me feel like chattel (although my husband would never make me feel that intentionally, he’s heard too many of my feminist rants to remain so ignorant!).
So why did I not push for him to be banned from the pool, to ask for the police to be called as I knew he was often aggressive? For some reason I was convinced that his grabbing was not sexually intended, he grabbed out and I had turned away from him to continue swimming as I was no longer interested to converse. I really don’t like this about the way I responded. I SHOULD have had him banned, I wasted a concrete opportunity! He was a menace to many people and I was not convinced he would change but when asked what I wanted done I said the (very supportive) manager was to make the last decision because he knew the protocol. I consider this a complete evacuation of my sense of Self on my part and I am angry with me, not him. Although, I was angry with the old guy too until I heard gossip in the women’s changing rooms a month later that he had a heart attack and had to be carried off in a stretcher, never to be seen again, ha ha! Karma’s a bitch….
But how do I know it wasn’t sexually intended by the old man? And does it matter if it was if the act was clearly done? He grabbed my tit, that is illegal so that is it, right? His act was certainly gendered, there’s no way that he would argue or grab a man in that way, as his deferent behaviour towards my husband proved.
I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth about this last experience, more so than the others. I feel like my sense of self was somehow erased through some awful neoliberal obedience to which I consented through perceiving myself as a professional, reasonable and rational person. And as we know, reason is (irrationally, ironically) removed from emotion, I used my head but my gut took the sucker punch.
So, what to think of consent in these examples above? I sit here a fully formed, sexually realized person (or at least as much as anyone can, according to my inbox full of dreams of middle-aged porn star wannabes that never were). I don’t feel particularly damaged by any of these events, I feel more damaged by the effects of economic realities that prevented my business from growing, such as file sharing, the single phenomenon that thwarted my pornographic and therefore creative, development in the late 2000’s.
Should I feel damaged? Is there a lag, such as in the last example when I’m left feeling resentful months later? Does a person have to feel damaged for a crime to be recognized and punished? Could there have been a trial of any of the above cases where it is feasible that I could have stood up in court and sworn to acts done against me, arguing that punishment is valid, yet that I remained strong, undamaged, regardless, Camus style? Can a woman do that in our society today?
I am deeply worried about how women are encouraged to take on the victim role and men are not. Especially in this instance when stories of young gay men being abused by older men did not meet the same limelight as those of women in the #metoo coverage, as I believe they suffered just as much and deserved the same attention. I also believe strongly that the horrendous levels of rape that occur in men’s jails, that go unreported, largely due to the way that their sense of gendered selves are structured so that victims lose their own sense of successful masculinity whilst simultaneously, receiving precious little sympathy from others. We live in a fucked-up world where women aren’t allowed their own sexual voice and men are not allowed to express vulnerability either, resulting in a quagmire of myths where no one really gets to know themselves or the truth.
The #Metoo movement is great, it has allowed myself and others to finally know, name and apportion blame for our experiences. This is the power of language and of community, it is transformative – just think how easy it to name and potentially complain about a man taking up too much public space since the term ‘manspreading’ has been invented, fantastically useful.
Yet I worry (and according to at least one my feminist friends, I am not alone) that the current movement does not focus on transforming the status quo enough, it is not enough to describe ourselves as victims, we need to move language and culture forward to reflect our multi-faceted selves where such a label is relative and difficult to determine in many instances, hence why women have also been reticent to come forward. All applicable laws, references and representations of such abuse should stem from a more nuanced understanding of our consenting, or otherwise Selves. If the sensibilities and language aren’t there, we shouldn’t compromise, we should do the very important work of finding a third way to describe our realities, rather than force a survivor peg into a victim hole. We need to retain our emotional intelligence (without feeling the responsibility to do all the emotional labor as women), so that our sense of selves is not compromised, not taken from us publicly, leaving us only with a role to play, the Victim.
I’m not sure how much I was a victim in the above scenarios, after all it’s me that gets to blog about them publicly, to help change our culture. They hurt or at least perturbed me at the time but they did not define me, nor do they now. Of course, there are far worse instances of sexual assault that fundamentally change a person’s life, I would never argue against that. But I worry that the Left is encouraging conservative sexual behaviours along with the Right, yet for different reasons and some of us are left alone in the center, in Liberal Land arguing for further debate before we entrench meaning and positionings, in a tiny and diminishing echo chamber.
We are our selves but our sense of Self is also made up our nearest and dearest as well as the society we live in including everything it tells us not to be too (sexually charged teenage girls, for instance). In other words, it’s complicated.
I will continue to ponder on my experiences of sexual assault whilst simultaneously supporting much of the wider #metoo movement. It will probably take me many more years to decide how I feel about them, such a process being expedited and improved by actively considering them, which I intend to continue. I just wish our wider culture at large would do the same and open up discussion rather than closing it down, because there are indeed, some very blurred lines.
I haven’t even started talking about the variety of motivations, both clear and misunderstood, by the perpetrators as my experience interviewing men about women’s dating power has taught me. There is a whole other box of contradictions belonging to (mostly) male and female abusers we equally need to unpack, one we should be doing simultaneously and in conversation with those of the victims, were we to be approaching the difficult issue of sexual consent from a genuinely progressive perspective.