By the time I realized what was going on, she already had one hand wrapped up in his hair and the other to his throat. She was winning, but he kept coming for her with punches and wrist grabs, despite her repeated cries to “stop attacking me!”
I hustled to her side of the table, ready to defend Maya* in case things got uglier. For the eternity of seconds that makes up every fight, the two of us maintained a “you OK sis?” conversation through the silent, sacred medium of eye-contact checkins. His sons, our age, tugged at my hands that were rising to chest level on the hot air balloon of adrenaline and instinct.
“You need to relax,” they told me, “they’re just playing. This is how we play here.” Maya is a martial artist and self-defense instructor, the father a martial artist. He was testing her, apparently, by surprise. I looked at Maya’s wide eyes, heard her loud and forceful demands to stop. She so clearly wasn’t playing.
She was fine, though. When he stopped attacking her, and she felt safe enough to let go, he was bleeding, and she was shaken but uninjured. We edged towards the friends we had come with and the car, ready to leave. He followed her, pressing close, grasping her wrists even while she twisted herself free. He grabbed her wrists and her arms and her shoulders, telling her she “passed his test.” The boys crowded around her, praising her abilities.
“You’re so much hotter to me now,” one said.
“Can I be next?” asked the uncle.
“It’s really hot when women are tough like that,” said another.
Maya kept a strained smile on her face, twisting and twisting her wrist out of his encroaching grasp. “You really need to relax,” one of the boys insisted to me. I was still on guard, watching the man who attacked Maya without consent continue to touch her. We left promptly amidst a male chorus urging us not to worry or overreact, that he would never have hurt Maya. On the ride home we were afforded the opportunity to stare, wide-eyed at each other and wonder:
1. What the fuck just happened, and why?
2. How could so many of the men present think what happened was play, when Maya and the rest of us clearly experienced and witnessed an assault?
When Only One Person Is “Just Playing”
Even though this man assaulted my friend, it is also true that, for him, he was “just playing.” It is doubtful that he had any intention to seriously harm Maya. But he was the only one playing. He physically attacked my unprepared friend who was forced to defend herself with the seriousness of any real assault. At one point, she was scared. The whole time, she yelled repeatedly for him to stop. There was nothing playful about her demeanor or tone. And he just wouldn’t stop.
This all gets more gross when you look at it through the lens of the sexual element that was definitely present.
We had spent the day by the pool, a handful of twenty-somethings plus the father and the uncle. Maya lounged, fully clothed, by the pool while the rest of us dove in. The uncle hovered over her, sprawling drunkenly out on her yoga mat. He disclosed his desire to have a woman beat him up, implying that Maya, the martial artist, should do so.
“What I do isn’t for that,” she responded calmly, “you’re gonna have to find another woman for that.”
“Is that you?” He looked down at me, one of her new students.
“No, it isn’t.”
Maya and I snorted at each other, but dismissed the conversation as run-of-the-mill, drunk-uncle creep-talk. And then his brother assaulted Maya, and she beat him up, and he and the sons drooled over how sexy it was. He forced her to defend herself in a way that directly catered to the sexual fantasies of the men present.
Physically attacking an unaware person is assault. But when you add male sexual arousal to the equation, along with the explicit non-consent that had been issued—what does that start to sound like?
She Smiled And Said Thank You
Still high on adrenaline, Maya smiled graciously and thanked our hosts who were still cheerfully crowding her and grabbing her wrists. We walked backwards towards the truck, waving and nodding and mmhmming as the boys continued to insist that we not worry, that it was all just play.
It was important not to make a scene. No matter what consent boundaries had been crossed, no matter what transgressions had been made, it was easier and safer for us to nod and smile demurely as we left their property, a farm in the countryside, from which we needed to be driven via dirt road in a truck and tractor to our own cars up the way.
Making a fuss about assault or harassment often doesn’t bode well for the women involved. Women are routinely shot, stabbed, or otherwise subjected to violence and harassment just for turning down men’s romantic advances. Many women learn that it is safer to be friendly with inappropriate, violent, or scary men than to tell them to fuck off.
Especially once you’ve learned that the men in question think it’s sexy when women fight back.
“But they’re such nice guys!”
Our male friends who were present and alarmed couldn’t believe what had happened. They really just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The men in that family are all “such nice guys.” They “never would have thought” they’d do something like that.
The night before, I had been driven home late by one of the brothers, Aaron*. He asked repeatedly if it was possible to spend the night, despite my unambiguous “no”s. Later, my friends explained that Aaron is used to getting girls without even trying—to being pursued without pursuing. He’s a girl magnet, they said, in the same way his father is: kind-hearted, long-haired, mixed race hippie types, beloved to many. The car ride with Aaron—mostly nonthreatening, clumsy and kind of sweet in its way—seems like such a small thing on it’s own, without the context of what happened between his father and Maya. In hindsight, though, it’s all part of the same problem: I had to say no so many times for it to be understood.
I’m nearly certain that neither Aaron nor his father would have hurt myself or Maya, and that it can all be broken down to a misinterpretation of boundaries. That’s the thing, though. The capacity to “misinterpret” clearly verbalized consent boundaries is extremely frightening. But it’s certainly not uncommon.
Fuck Your Intentions
You can have perfectly good intentions and still assault women if you (deliberately or otherwise) misinterpret boundaries. Nice guys do it all the time. In fact, it’s nearly always nice guys who women trust that harm us in the places we feel safe.
In 2010, a full three-quarters of all female victims of rape or sexual violence were victimized by people they knew. The majority of all female homicide victims are killed by family members or lovers. In 2011, more than half of all homicide victims (of any gender) were killed by a someone they knew (acquaintance, neighbor, friend, etc) while another 25% were killed by family members. And this is just for incidents where the victim/offender relationship is known.
Our allies swear that they don’t know anyone that would ever assault a woman. But they were also astonished that these particular nice guys would have assaulted Maya. If one in every five woman will be a victim of sexual violence in her lifetime, and 1 in 3 will be a victim of intimate partner violence, and this violence is inflicted predominantly by the “nice guys” that women trust, the chances that you don’t know anyone who would ever assault a woman are extremely low.
All those men who participated, as attacker or spectator, in Maya’s assault probably woke up the next morning thinking they’d never assault a woman, and that they don’t know anyone else who would either. But Maya felt assaulted, and I watched an assault, and three of our friends who were present did too. So there are two narratives here, which is both frightening and informative. It is likely that there are many, many more women walking away from encounters feeling violated than there are men who feel as though they violated anyone.
Why Nice Guys Don’t Understand Consent
When I told this story to a male friend, his very first question was about the distinction between “serious no”s and “playful no”s–“no”s with and without consent. I can’t stop thinking about Maya’s face, frightened and focused and determined and so full of “NO.” Her shouting replays in my head just like it did that night. I think about how clearly, and how many times, I turned Aaron down, and how he never really seemed to take it seriously. I think about women who say no, and men who hear yes, who hear maybe, who hear playful.
I think about entitlement, the idea of “not taking no for an answer,” the times when that represents ambitious determination rather than threat or transgression. Of course I understand playfulness and flirtation and hard-to-get, of course there are nos that are yeses. But women are frequently harmed when they are not taken seriously. It happens in hospitals, where the consequences can be dire. It happens in offices, in dorm rooms, at barbeques and bars. It happened in a small way when Aaron drove me home, and then in a more dramatic form when his father attacked Maya.
We live in a world that doesn’t listen to women, or take us seriously when we ask for what we want or don’t want. So why wouldn’t nice guys be astonished that this happens, when other nice guys can so dramatically misinterpret consent boundaries? When nice guys so easily hear “play” when someone screams “stop” and keep asking and pushing when someone says “no”? And why shouldn’t I be terrified that more nice guys are astonished that this happens?
So the next time a man tells me not to worry because “this is how we play,” I’ll say, “I know” and keep my fists up.
*Names have been changed