In the Margins: A Perspective on Sexual Assault Conversations

The author has chosen to publish anonymously due to the sensitive nature of this piece.

Author’s Note:  

1. This article deals explicitly with issues of both penetrative and non-penetrative sexual assault. It may be triggering for some readers.  

2. While this is written from my own personal experiences, they still do not represent all kinds of sexual assault experiences. My article is meant to bring attention to other kinds of sexual assault and promote the inclusion of these experiences in assault conversations and survivor advocacy.

You know. You’re writing up something and realize you forgot to add a few words—so you stick them in the margins and draw an arrow pointing to where they belong. And then you move on. Sometimes when you read back what you’ve written, you forget to add in the words in the margins. But that’s all right, the gist is still there.

Forms of intimacy that are not penetrative or oral are just as legitimate as penetrative and oral sexual intimacy. But we don’t legitimize those other forms enough, and that’s where the problems begin. When asked, almost all advocates for survivors will agree that nonconsensual sexual touching and penetration are forms of sexual assault. But because we don’t legitimize non-penetrative and non-oral forms of intimacy, the “nonconsensual sexual touching” part is often overlooked in conversations about assault. Rather, it’s written in the margins.

When it comes to conversations on sexual assault and rape, I’m those words in the margins. Relevant, but the show will still go on without me.

You see, I’m not the typical survivor you hear about in the news or hear described in the vast majority of public conversations about assault. I wasn’t at a party. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t drugged. I wasn’t in a dark alley. It wasn’t a violent attack. I have no scars or bruises. And I wasn’t penetrated.

Wait, what? Why are you even writing this? It wasn’t a legitimate sexual assault, right? I started to believe it wasn’t, and sometimes I still doubt myself. But that’s not because it wasn’t a sexual assault; it’s because the people around me, the people who are supposed to be there for me, don’t believe it was — they don’t believe me.

The following is something a good friend recently said to me: “Molestation is only taken seriously—for the most part—when there is an underage party. It seems we as women are to expect being felt up, and expected to view it as a trifle, as a couple steps behind sexual assault.” Molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on another person, regardless of age. Moreover, when the act is sudden, short in duration, and/or is infrequent in occurrence, it is called sexual assault (and when it is the opposite of those three characteristics, it is called sexual abuse).

Despite this definition, which is recognized by advocacy groups everywhere, every conversation (there were only a handful) with a sexual assault and rape counselor or a health professional went something like this:

Me: *awkwardly say that I was sexually assaulted by someone I know, because honestly I don’t think there’s a way not to feel uncomfortable recounting such an experience*

Them: Do you think you could be pregnant? Do you need medical attention? Can I see and assess your injuries?

Me: No, I’m not pregnant. No, I don’t need medical attention. No, I don’t have physical injuries, because it wasn’t violent. And I wasn’t penetrated.

Them: *bewildered look* Huh? What happened then? Are you sure this happened? *suddenly doesn’t know what to say to help me*

As you can imagine, that’s a pretty uncomfortable position to be in. Because I wasn’t raped, people find it hard to understand why I was traumatized in the first place, why I still am. And it wasn’t limited to just the counselors and health professionals—friends and family questioned me, too. You could be making this whole thing up. Tell me EXACTLY what happened (so, you, with your “expertise,” can assess whether I should be traumatized, right? Regardless of what my peers think, the tears and screams of my breakdowns were perfectly founded). You weren’t even raped, and you’re reacting this way. Imagine if you had been raped. You need to talk to grown women who actually were raped; that’ll help you realize what happened to you isn’t so bad.

I don’t think any victim of a sexual assault or rape can “see it coming”. For me, what started as a consensual act suddenly turned nonconsensual for an extended period, and then back again before the encounter quickly ended. How does that even logically happen? I don’t know, but it did. While I lay there as it was happening, I remember thinking in my head, this must be what being sexually assaulted feels like. And it was what it felt like, because that’s exactly what was happening to me. And when I confided in friends afterwards, I got responses like ohhh girl, you need to talk to him about that, that’s not okay. And that was it. I tried to move on, and successfully did so for a couple of months. But moving on doesn’t mean ignoring what happened, pretending it wasn’t what it really was in order to protect yourself from the emotional, psychological pain. I had never fully understood the “nonconsensual sexual touching” part of sexual assault, because sexual assault conversations focus almost exclusively on the “penetration” part. I now understand loud and clear.

In case it’s not clear to anyone, nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault. Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault. Sexual assaults and rapes are more common than we feel comfortable acknowledging.  Statistics provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) show that in America, 1 of every 6 women and 1 of every 33 men is a survivor of an attempted or completed rape, ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and there are over 207,000 new survivors age 12 and older every year. Unsurprisingly, seventy-three percent of sexual assaults and 66% of rapes are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows. These facts are not as commonly known as they should be, but are necessary knowledge regardless of one’s own experiences.

So where does this all leave me? And people who have gone through similar experiences?

I don’t feel comfortable participating in survivor conversations, because I don’t feel like the ‘right kind’ of survivor. I don’t feel as though I can truly relate to other survivors with experiences different from my own, “worse” than my own. I even feel guilty, because, hey, what am I crying for? I wasn’t even raped.  

Yeah, I get it. It takes effort to extend dialogue to include as many people as possible. But we need to make that effort, in order to make it clear that penetrative sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual assault, and that one is not objectively less traumatizing than another. And not just as an addendum; this needs to be an important part of the conversation. People like me need to be important parts of these conversations, just like rape survivors are.

Not getting the attention and support that others get is daunting. Isolating. If anything, it’s made me more independent, more perseverant. I’ve learned to put myself first more often, to take care of myself. Everyone around me will move on. Everyone. It is and forever will be my experience, not theirs. It will also forever be his experience, regardless of how he chooses to interpret it. They can be sad, furious, or apathetic all they want. But every time it gets easier to talk about. Not because I’ve numbed myself, but because it’s a part of my healing process, learning how to make myself a little uncomfortable if that will educate others, or if that will make other survivors realize that they aren’t as alone as they thought (and that they did in fact ‘survive’ something).

We need to respect each other’s different experiences as legitimate. Once we do that, we’ll see that we’re more alike than we thought. Like I’m sure it does for many rape survivors, the incident still plays over and over in my head. I still figuratively kick myself when I think of what I should’ve done before, during, after. My hopeless pleading, No, please stop, please, will always haunt me. His responses (over the Internet) to an article I released, which was also based on this incident: Girl, sit down. All my brothers be careful, there are some manipulators out there, also haunt meSome of the most revolting of his opinions, which he also expressed online, make me sick: As unfortunate as something may seem, it happens for a reason. Think about benefits after something “unfortunate” happens and why God planned it.


It’s lonely in the margins. Not knowing when or if another margin-dweller will appear. Not knowing if they’ll be written too far away to reach.

One response to “In the Margins: A Perspective on Sexual Assault Conversations

  1. Pingback: 27 Survivors Of Sexual Assault Quoting The People Who Attacked Them | R.B.Bailey Jr·

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