At 1:09 am, I texted my best friend. “Are you awake, by any chance?”
He wasn’t, but if he had been, I’d already imagined the conversation we would have. I would tell him, “S*** just groped me while he thought I was sleeping. It kind of weirded me out.” He would reply, “OMG, straight men are so creepy!” And we would laugh about it a little, and then I’d go back to sleep.
The imagined conversation was at odds with how I was actually feeling: panicked, disoriented, aware that it had been an hour since he’d done that and that my pulse was still racing. But these feelings didn’t make sense to me. It was just touching, right? I wasn’t a prude; I’d had plenty of casual sex in my life; and earlier on the trip I’d even idly contemplated the possibility that S*** and I might hook up. So what right did I have to feel so upset, so frightened, so confused, when all he’d done was touched me, and not even under my clothes, not even for that long?
Just a guy being kind of a creep, I tried to tell myself; go back to sleep. But my body wouldn’t listen and instead I lay awake, watching myself feel things that I felt I had no right to feel.
The first thing I remember is the weight of his hand on his thigh. In my memory it feels abnormally large, like it could cover my whole thigh or even my whole body. Maybe he rolled over accidentally in his sleep, I thought; or maybe he wants to hook up. Before I had time to decide how to react, I felt his hand moving, fondling me with heavy, almost possessive strokes up and down my body, moving from my exposed thigh to my exposed neck and back down.
If I don’t respond, he’ll think I’m asleep and stop, I told myself when it started. But he didn’t stop; he kept stroking me while I lay there motionless; and then I remember feeling frozen and scared and confused and just waiting for it to be over, until it was.
After he stopped I stayed motionless for I don’t know how long. It felt like it could have been an hour or five minutes. The imperative thing, in my mind, was to maintain the illusion of sleep. I didn’t consciously think about what I was afraid would happen if I broke the illusion; I just knew, in an unquestionable way, that I couldn’t. I tried to feign the deep breathing of someone sleeping, which was hard because my heart was racing and my breathing felt shallow; I tried to imitate the little movements people make during sleep, because being too still would be suspicious too; and I listened to the sounds his movements, trying to judge whether he was asleep or awake.
I was lying on my left side, my right leg draped outside my sleeping bag because of the heat of the night. That casually draped right leg is where the touching had started and I desperately wanted to move it away, but the need to keep feigning sleep felt more important. I could feel the humid air in the tent on the skin of my thigh, reminding me it was still exposed.
Eventually I decided it was ok to move. I looked at my phone expecting it to be maybe 4 or 5 am, thinking I could just pretend that I woke up abnormally early and decided to go for a walk around the campground. With a sense of dread I saw that it was only a few minutes after midnight.
I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t. I had a friend camping in the tent next to ours and contemplated waking her up, but whenever I actually thought I might do so, my body felt frozen to the ground. Anyway, I told myself, it would just seem hysterical; and he might deny it, or react badly, and I didn’t really want him to know he’d hurt me; and it had happened, it was over, what good would getting someone else involved do now?
So instead I lay in the tent, trying futilely to use every trick I knew to get to sleep, and trying to understand what had happened and most of all why I felt so scared by it. I remember the hot, heavy air; the characteristic hum of insects, which had been a comforting sound; the panic I felt whenever I would hear him move in his sleeping bag.
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my head:
- You need to go back to sleep; you won’t be able to climb tomorrow if you don’t.
- You’ve experienced unwanted touching before; why should this feel so much worse?
- You should feel flattered that he wanted you.
- Maybe he did it because you were on Tinder before going to bed, or because you kind of flirted when you were at the swimming hole.
- It’s over now; even if it happens again, you know what to expect, so it won’t be that bad.
- I want to cover myself in my sleeping bag, but it’s too hot. Am I sweating because it’s hot outside, or because I’m scared?
- Maybe it didn’t happen at all; maybe it was just a dream.
- Why didn’t you tell him to stop?
- Why didn’t you pretend to want it?
Sometimes I think those hours lying awake in the tent were worse than the assault itself.
I thought I probably wouldn’t tell I***, my friend and climbing partner for the trip, what had happened—because I didn’t know if I could; because I didn’t know if it was worth it; because I figured it would just ruin the rest of the trip for her and make things awkward. And for what? It had happened, and now it was over. Time to get over it and move on.
But as much as I tried to convince myself to move on, I couldn’t really. Nothing felt real, and it was as though part of myself was still in the tent, waiting for the night to be over.
I*** could tell something was wrong: as we walked to the climbing area, she looked at me and asked, “Are you ok?” I nodded and tried to think of excuses I could use if she asked again, like that I hadn’t slept well (which had the benefit of being true).
But as we began to get ready to climb, I decided to tell her, without really knowing exactly why. “I don’t really know how to say this,” I began, “but…”
When I described what he’d done, I remember that her eyes widened and she said something to indicate how unacceptable it was. “Yeah,” I replied, “It kind of really weirded me out, but anyway, it’s happened, so…” I shrugged.
She looked me in the eyes and said, in a tone that mixed firmness and gentleness: “Ok, but you do realize that’s sexual assault, right?”
I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure if I believed her.
We did a short climb, because I wanted to, also without knowing why; we went to lunch, and she listened as I told her more about how I felt; and I started maybe feeling like my reaction made some sense after all.
Two months later, I still sometimes feel like I did the day after the assault, and I am still trying to make sense of how “just touching” could have affected me so strongly. I haven’t gone camping since then, despite having wanted to; street harassment that I used to brush off startles me on a visceral level; sometimes it feels hard to concentrate or cope with the little unexpected challenges that are a part of everyday life.
Someone later told me, “Sometimes you don’t know where your limit is, or that you have one, until someone crosses it.” I certainly didn’t expect my limit to be what S*** did.
Like so many women, I grew up with the constant threat of rape looming over me; it was why, my parents told me, I couldn’t walk to middle school alone; it was a threat looming at every alleyway, every party, every bar. If I had a limit (and I wasn’t sure I did), that surely had to be it.
When female friends complained about street harassment, or went out of their way to avoid walking alone at night, I would outwardly sympathize but inwardly scoff a little, because I felt I could handle that and didn’t really understand why they might feel differently. I had conversations with friends where we talked about how of course consent is important, but plain old bad sex isn’t really rape, is it?
As for myself, I had been assaulted once before, although I didn’t think of it as that at the time. It was sometime in middle or high school. I was at the public library, and an adult man came up behind me and groped my ass. I froze, he left, and I told no one. In my mind, the experience was always marked by “see, that wasn’t that bad” and “good thing it didn’t go further.” It was evidence to myself that I was strong enough to deal with this kind of thing. Strong enough also to deal with the routine comments about my body I received from passing men, to deal with being followed and not being sure if they’d listen when I told them to leave me alone, to deal with whistles and stares and smacked lips.
The fact that I’d had a lot of casual sex also convinced me that I couldn’t have a limit there, or maybe anywhere. Some of it was fun and exciting and something I knew I wanted, but much of it was almost automatic: something I did without thinking about whether I wanted it or not, and without even thinking that that was a valid question to ask. I can remember two times that I told someone to stop, and both times I was grateful and a little surprised when they actually did so, as though they were doing me a favor that I didn’t deserve.
I think maybe I felt so certain that my boundaries wouldn’t be respected (because I am a woman, because women live under a constant threat of rape, because if you don’t want to do something with a guy it’s probably because you are frigid and a prude) that I felt it was better not to assert any at all. After all, if you don’t assert a boundary then it can’t be violated—or at least, you don’t have to face the pain of knowing that someone deliberately chose to do so.
But that night in the tent with S*** made me painfully aware that maybe this strategy didn’t protect me as much as I’d thought it did. After years of telling myself I was strong enough to deal with this shit, that it wasn’t really that bad, all it took was the touch of his hand on my skin to cross a limit I hadn’t even allowed myself to realize I had.