“What if a guy is way bigger than me ― how could I make him stop?”
I was standing in front of a group of 13-year-old girls in a sex-ed class, trying to find the words to answer Samantha’s question about how she could avoid rape.
I thought of being in that position, one year ago. I paused, “You may not be physically stronger, but you can show strength with your words.”
I acknowledge this response and scenario does not apply to all rapes, but it applies to mine. I am sharing it now after a year of silence, during which I was terrified to speak up.
I was silenced by the shame I was expected to feel. By the stigmas around the words “victim” and “rape.” By the anticipated judgement and tears from friends and family. By the questions I would be asked. By the fear of being looked at differently. Today, I am letting go of these expectations, stigmas, judgements, questions, and fears.
I was sexually assaulted last summer and my rapist still doesn’t know.
He was blacked out and I was sober. I remember saying no five times. He remembers getting laid. He clearly did not understand the meaning of consent. To him, my “no’s” translated as “she’s playing hard to get.” I was not playing.
If I were back in that bed, I wouldn’t have changed my actions ― I would have changed my words. Instead of just saying “no” over and over. I would have said: “If we have sex now, it is rape.”
If he still thought I was playing, I would have said, “I will drive to the police to compile a rape kit, bring you to court and make sure you live in jail.” If this man had heard these words, I am confident he would have drunkenly buckled his belt and left me alone.
I didn’t say this because I was never taught what qualified as consent. I only had positive sexual experiences until that point and had always naturally expressed enthusiastic consent. But when I was confronted with a situation where “no” wasn’t working, I froze.
Imagine you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You politely decline the chicken dish, because you aren’t in the mood for it tonight. Instead of letting you happily eat the veggies, your friend insists you eat chicken. You smile and say “no thank you” while explaining yourself. But they do not care or listen to you. They continue insisting you eat the chicken that they worked all day to cook. Now, they are looking at you angrily and insulting you for not eating a bite of their dish. You just want them to stop. To freeze time and go home - but you can’t do that. You have no idea what to say or do to get them to stop pressuring you because the word “no” is not working. You feel like you have no choice.
You meekly eat the chicken in silence.
You feel sick to your stomach. You feel like you never want to eat chicken again.
My frame of reference for sexual assault came from terrifying news headlines and movies. They convinced me that if I were ever to be raped, it would happen because I was wearing a short black dress. They made me fear being attacked in an alley by a scary, masked man and beaten until I had no choice. The night of my assault, I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, exhausted from an all-day music festival. I was not walking home in an alley. We happily took an Uber home to my apartment in SF.
I thought assault only happened on college campuses to roofied freshmen girls in frat houses. I had been the responsible, “party mom” a million times to protect myself and my best friends. I never blacked out or threw up, I always had a buddy, and I wouldn’t dare leave my drink unattended. I did all the things I was told.
I was not told that a friend of a friend could sexually coerce and manipulate me.
I never imagined a rapist could share similar passions or characteristics with me, like working at a startup or being obsessed with typography. I would have never guessed that a rapist could seem like a nice guy. I was blinded by the myth of the big, bad, rapist.
In America, 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted. In fact, 80 percent of assaults are committed by someone that the victim knows. Why didn’t I learn this statistic until after I was assaulted?
As of 2013, only 13 states had mandatory sexual health education.
Teachers have Common Core standards for math, english and science but when you Google “lesson plans for consent,” there are less than a handful of results. For example, the school I spoke at in New York informed me that there is not enough time in an eight-week sex ed class to cover consent. So consent is taught by the movies through a blurred scene of kissing that jumps immediately to the bedroom. Or rather, not taught at all.
The night of my assault changed me forever. It stretched me, pulled me around the world and tore me up. But I put myself back together piece by piece. Now my puzzle looks like determination because it was forged by strength. I am committed to changing how our society talks about sex.
The conversation around consent has too many blurry lines. It’s time to change that. Being dressed inappropriately does not give consent. Being drunk does not give consent. Silence does not give consent. Going home with someone does not give consent. Consent earlier in the night does not give consent for later in the night. Agreeing to have sex under duress does not give consent.
Consent needs to be given enthusiastically. Otherwise, it is rape.
I’m sharing my experience for all the people reading this and thinking back to a drunken night with a blurred line. I’m sharing this for all the people on the other side of that line. I’m sharing this to form a coalition of these men and women. I’m sharing this to ensure that in 10 years, my rapist teaches his daughter or son about consent. So that one day he says to his children, “Remember kids: Yes means yes. No means rape.”
Towards the end of the 8th grade sex ed class, one of the girls asked, “If a lesbian has sex with a straight girl, is that rape?”
I asked the question back to the class to see what they thought. The whole room raised their hands, eager to answer.
“Well,” one girl started, “did the straight girl give enthusiastic consent?”
After being sexually assaulted, Nicole Kelner created Lemonaid, an online community for women empowering women. Nicole is now the COO for The Coding Space, an after school program to help kids learn to code and inspire young girls to become leaders in the world of technology.
To get in touch with Nicole, you can send her an email at email@example.com or tweet @nicolekelner. If you are still confused about what defines consent or would like to learn more, here is a list of Nicole’s favorite resources that explain what consent is in playful and educational terms.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.