"You're Not Pretty Enough To Assault"
This is an essay I’m embarrassed to write. Not because its a story of assault (it isn’t quite) or because it makes me seem insecure (it might and I might be), but because I’m still afraid that a judgement made against me more than 5 years ago will be taken as true. I’m afraid that after everything else I write here, the first half of this essay’s title will stick in your head (“you’re not pretty enough”) while the second fades out of your mind (“to assault”). I think I’m ready to accept that risk — to risk validating a cruel statement about me, in the hope that something more meaningful might ring true.
In 2012, I was a college freshman, and I was entirely inexperienced in the world of boys and men. I had sheltered myself with television shows and books, and chose male friends who preferred The Little Mermaid to Grand Theft Auto and starring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat to going on dates.
When I arrived to Vermont, I was scared. I think certain men could sense that. I lived in a co-ed dorm and one of my hall mates quickly developed a reputation across campus for the high number of girls that he slept with. We later met, but it was nothing memorable. All I remember is that as we began to run into each other in halls and around campus, I began to sense that he was giving me attention that I’d never received before. A very specific kind of male attention. I knew his reputation, but I couldn’t help it. It felt nice.
That spring, the college put on a concert, and every student on campus was in attendance. In the chaos of hundreds of drunken college students, I noticed my hall mate dancing towards me. He managed to get behind me and pull me against his body. The action wasn’t invited nor uninvited either. It existed in that nebulous haze of drunkeness where there are no questions or answers, just bodies moving from one to the next.
At some point, my conscious mind took control of my body, and I pulled his hands off me, disappearing into the crowd as my stomach began to turn.
I should point out here, that this is not a story of assault. Not really. What I felt was taken advantage of. And that made me furious.
I saw him later sandwiched between two other girls and, in my drunken anger, pulled him aside and said something to the effect of, “So you think you can just run around, assaulting me and other girls?” It was an incendiary comment to be sure, but not altogether inaccurate. And nothing compared to his response:
“You’re not pretty enough to assault”
The implication was clear: that I should be grateful to any man who bothered to look my direction; and that my relative safety from men was a virtue of my unattractiveness.
I honestly doubt he would remember saying this to me. That makes me even angrier. It seems like it’s always the person who inflicts the wounds who gets to emerge unscathed.
I realize now this was a sexual manipulation — one that I’m ashamed to say eventually worked out in his favor. Even so, as far as negging goes, this was uniquely damaging.
Uniquely damaging, but not a unique cultural sentiment. Despite literature that proves that sexual assault is about power not sex, cultural commentators continue the victim-blaming actions of dissecting the ways in which a woman’s clothing, sexual history or demeanor invite risk.
Donald Trump shrugged off Natasha Stoynoff’s harassment accusations at one of his rallies in 2016, declaring, “You take a look. Look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so.” America was told by Trump that Stoynoff wasn’t pretty enough to be assaulted, and America agreed.
In equating a woman’s attractiveness to her likelihood of being sexually assaulted, all the blame is placed on the woman and men get to distance themselves from the crime. She was asking for it, and she is the reason the assault happened.
And, in this logic, the blame is also extended to those who are not assaulted. You are not assaulted because you’re not worthy of it.
These are such fundamentally damaging ideas, yet men hand them without care, using them as fodder for jokes, power, and manipulation.
It is truly the most self-loathing cycle. I read these incredibly brave stories from sexual assault and rape survivors coming out of the #metoo movement, and the thought begins to creep in: “You’ve never been assaulted because you’re short. You're not womanly. You’re not pretty. There’s something wrong with you.” I try to claw my way out of this self-esteem crushing spiral, reminding myself that this is not about me. That I’m incredibly lucky. That I love myself and the way I look. That I don’t want to be sexually assaulted.
Having to contend with these thoughts makes me feel sick. It is as if my brain no longer belongs to me — it sabotaging my very being, screaming at me that to be assaulted is to be worthy, and to not be pretty enough to assault is the ultimate embarrassment.
I hate that I’ve internalized these thoughts. I hate that even as a feminist, bisexual woman, I put so much stock in men. I hate that it has made me feel unworthy of consensual sexual experiences.
To me, it is an ultimate indicator of the psychological control that men hold over women. Whether an act of sexual aggression has happened or not, we are victims.
I want to be very clear. I in no way mean to compare my experiences to those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or rape. I only mean to point out that, as long as we continue to normalize sexual assault, no woman will escape unharmed.
A few months ago, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Julia Roberts spoke out in support of victims of sexual assault, admitting that her luck in avoiding this treatment makes her "feel bad." That she doesn't know why she was "spared" from the same treatment her fellow women have been subjected to.
I don't know why I was spared either. But I do know that I'm not going to live in shame for that fact. I'm going to live in praise and in joy. And I'm going to take that luck and channel it into something better for the countless women who haven't had my good fortune.
On each of us, there is a mark. But in the wake of so many in brave women coming forward with their stories, I realize we don’t have to be resigned to victimhood. We can fight, rage, and destroy the forces that victimize us. For ourselves and for each other. Together, let’s raze the earth that has made us; then, we can begin to heal.