Five years ago, I was violated after a night out for drinks. The perpetrator was a close friend.
The evening had started out uneventfully enough – it was the opening of another friend’s bar. All the drinks were on the house. We knew everyone who attended.
I had been too busy to eat much all day, and alcohol was not the best idea. At the end of the night, I remember hanging around the bar with three friends, who had decided to stay with me to make sure I was alright.
I’d thrown up a couple of times in the toilet at this point, and someone had the idea of heading for supper.
As I put my head down on the table, Jan (not his real name) told the other two that he would send me home as I lived near him at the time. They agreed – they knew he and I were close and often hung out together, so nothing bad would happen, right?
I woke up disoriented and unsure where I was or what had woken me, but it became clear soon enough – someone was touching my chest in a very inappropriate way. As if that wasn’t enough, this person’s hand began to venture lower.
Part of me watched on, or rather, experienced, in helpless horror, as the hand disappeared under my skirt.
It was a surreal moment – I was so out of it I did not understand why I was so horrified, or who this person was, but somehow some part of me told me that it was extremely wrong.
It felt like an out-of-body experience, except I was suffering through my own violation without being able to do anything about it. I was too dazed, and my arms and legs felt heavy and leaden.
My assailant paused and called out my name softly. In hindsight, I believe he was just checking to see how conscious I was, and if my survival instinct hadn’t kicked in right at that moment, he would have gone ahead and raped me.
Instead, I forced myself to let out a groan – the only sound I could make because I was still feeling so addled. It felt like an enormous effort just to put my thoughts in order.
Alarm bells were clanging dully in my head, but I didn’t know the exact reason for that growing panic, or how I was supposed to react beyond showing signs of being somewhat conscious.
I made another broken sound in my throat, as all the jumbled thoughts fell into place – I was being sexually assaulted! By a person I considered one of my closest friends!
For a moment my brain wanted to deny it, but the conviction that all this was NOT a nightmare hit me like a speeding train – I could no longer ignore the fact that this was actually happening.
As I began to slowly move my arms and legs, I felt him shift away from me guiltily. There was a pause, and he managed to compose himself. He began telling me in comforting tones that I had gotten drunk, and he had volunteered to send me home.
For the first time, I realised that we were parked outside the front gate of my parents’ house, out in the dark.
HOW DARE HE!?
I was suddenly overcome by anger. He had sexually assaulted me just a few feet away from my front door, as my parents slept peacefully inside the house, unaware that their daughter had just been violated.
I stumbled out of the passenger seat. Realising that I didn’t have my house-keys, I somehow managed to scale the fence despite being in such an inebriated state. I guess the adrenaline coursing through my system must have helped.
Once safely in my house compound, I found the spare keys and stumbled onto my living room floor.
I sobbed. The gravity of what had just happened began to sink in, and I was extremely traumatised.
I felt incredibly guilty and afraid following the incident. I replayed my interactions with Jan a million times over, asking myself, Did I lead him on in any way? If not, why would he think that was an OK thing to do?
I guess I got away from the experience relatively unscathed, physically speaking. However, in the following days and weeks, many well-meaning friends said things to me which caused even more distress than the assault itself.
Guys, here are things you shouldn’t say to your female friends who have just been assaulted.
“If you were my girlfriend I’d keep you locked up for your safety! I would never allow you to drink again!”
One of the first people I mentioned about the assault to was an older friend. I was taken aback when he responded that way. It caused wounds which cut deeper than the assault itself did.
I’m sure he meant well, but that statement just made me feel even more dehumanised than I already was – I felt even more like property or chattel. Not a living, breathing, human being with my own thoughts and personal agency.
Also, why was the assault to be attributed fully to my drinking (or being out late at night)? Should Jan not be faulted for acting inappropriately towards me instead?
“Why are you still not reporting it to the police? You’re letting him get off scot-free!”
The next friend to confided in was no better. He got extremely agitated, and as a friend of Jan’s, he was extremely shocked and horrified by what happened.
I’d not gone to the authorities because I didn’t want to go through the additional trauma of an intrusive medical examination. I also didn’t want to burden myself with all the protocol involved with filing a formal report against him.
I also knew and loved his family and many of his cousins. In my small community, it didn’t seem like something worth pursuing.
I’m not saying that my choice is the best option for all victims of sexual assault. However, it was the best one I could choose for myself, after thinking through all the consequences of all the possible actions I could take.
I had made my decision, and only wanted some time to heal, with the support of my loved ones.
Instead of doing so, I found myself having to assuage my friend’s emotions of outrage and being forced to explain my choices over and over again to him while he tried to pressure me into making a police report.
“What were you wearing when that happened?”
This one didn’t hurt as much as the other two comments because I was already expecting it. Slut-shaming and victim-blaming – of course, that would happen.
It was still pretty shitty though because it reflects the attitudes society still has towards sex crimes – that the woman was courting trouble.
For the record, I was wearing a MAN’s camo top, with a knee-length denim skirt that wasn’t even tightly-fitted. This was back in the days when I often dressed rather androgynously, so blaming my choice of dress seemed a little redundant.
“I’m going to beat the shit out of him when I see him. No? OH HELL, I’m calling his parents RIGHT NOW!”
This one filled with even more horror than the actual attack. This is quite a common reaction in the wake of sexual violence against a woman.
“So, what’s wrong with that?”, you might ask.
I was hurting and my head was still reeling from all that had happened. I was having nightmares of the assault on most nights. When one of my best friends – who unfortunately had a bit of an anger issue – began ranting and raving about inflicting violence upon Jan, I flinched inwardly and began crying.
He did not listen to my desperate pleading to not do anything to Jan and began antagonising him anytime he saw him.
After that, I retreated from most of my social interactions and stopped replying to all messages from my hot-tempered associate.
I didn’t want it to be blown so wildly out of proportion, and I didn’t want to see more people in pain. Even if two wrongs did make a right, and even if Jan deserved to be hurt – his family and loved ones did not.
I just wanted to work on dealing with the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) I was obviously suffering. I just wanted to come to terms with the fear, guilt, self-doubt and the shame.
The last thing I needed was to have to deal with even more destructive behaviour from another man, who had once again breached my consent by disrespecting my wishes on how to handle the matter.
Patriarchal culture enforces very unequal and sexist standards on women. The idea of women engaging in any sexual contact, whether willingly or unwillingly, still is taboo.
The blame often falls on the woman, even if she is the victim – most of us unconsciously penalise a victim of sexual assault in a myriad of ways. One of the most harmful ways that occurs is in the form of well-meaning, but extremely uninformed comments.
This must change.
When sex crimes happen, the physical damage to the victim is often incomparable to the emotional damage that occurs during and after the attack. It’s hard for people to know if what they’re saying is hurtful or harmful when patriarchal culture normalises inconsiderate and sexist remarks all the time.
After the attack, I realised how destructive all the responses from my friends were. To my horror and revulsion, I realised that I had been guilty of saying and doing the same thing in the past.
It took me over a year to get over the assault, but it took years for me to get over all the comments I got in the aftermath.
Some of my friendships were never the same again, even though I didn’t blame my friends for their knee-jerk reactions. I just couldn’t bring myself to hang out with them anymore.
They were well-meaning but their seemingly innocuous remarks felt even more wrong than what Jan had done.
I hope this article will at least help you avoid doing the same things, should you ever be in a similar situation of having to comfort a victim of an assault.
Reassure her (or him, because sexual assault isn’t just limited to women!) that they have your support. Be empathetic rather than reactive. Don’t take away their freedom to make their own choices – they were just so recently robbed of that.
Make effort to actively listen, to really hear what they have to say. Do not attempt to impose your own emotions upon them – try to remain as objective as possible. They are in too fragile a state to handle your strong negative feelings.
For someone to simply just listen non-judgementally is already a great relief for those suffering through any sexual assault crisis.
Once they begin to heal, they will thank you for being the person who gave them the strong, undemanding support that they really needed.
Trust us – we truly appreciate you comforting us without judgement, and just being the objective voice of reason.
For more articles by Irene, read Guys, We Actually Hate It When You Send Us *Those* Pictures – Sincerely, Malaysian Women, and I Was Self-Harming for 15 Years. Here’s How I Managed to Stop.