The Fear of Offending

What men get wrong about sexual assault, as told by a man who has been sexually assaulted.

Illustration by Jing Wei.

Before I share these stories, you should know that sexual assault might not be what you think it is. I write this piece as someone whose perspective on sexual assault and rape has changed drastically. It has changed mostly because of the brave words by many women speaking up about it but also recognising and reflecting on my experiences. I write this piece to someone who might be a younger version of myself, who cannot recognise what sexual assault looks like. Something I encourage everyone to do is reflect on how they may have contributed to sexual assault minimisation. Hopefully these stories might help you do that.

I’ve been sexually assaulted three times in my life. Three times. I’m an athletic and confident straight male and even I haven’t managed to avoid being assaulted.

The first two times I mostly chalk up as misunderstandings or at least a clumsy coming-of-age.

The first was when I was 15 when an older boy at school who was over 18 sent me unsolicited dick pictures and offered to pay me $1000 if he could give me oral sex. I had been exploring my sexuality and found another boy cute and had flirted with him. The older boy found out, took this as a sign I was gay and starting texting me. He leveraged my secret over me. We spoke for a while but I was not interested yet over time it kept going. This man stalked my bus rides and messaged me online constantly. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and you talk to your parents, even though you absolutely can. Once he graduated I had to change my phone number to escape him.

The second occurred when I was 21. I moved to Sydney to start a graduate job where the company put me up in a serviced apartment. I felt blessed to be given such an opportunity. The apartment building even had a pool and sauna which I was keen to enjoy, and so I did. One night I went down, did a few laps and relaxed in the spa. A short while later an older man, around 35–40 joined me. We chatted for a while, he told me he was a model at my age, about Sydney, it was all very normal until he reminded me the pool closed at 9pm and that we should change. This event occurred 15 years ago but what I remember distinctly is how I could not say no. I didn’t want to shower in the facilities. I wanted to go up and shower in my apartment but some how this guy convinced me not to with nothing other than social coercion.

Many years later I came to recognise this feeling and the one that accommodated chatting to the older boy in high school in the 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the climax of the film Daniel Craig is lulled into a serial killers house even though he knows he’s a serial killer and it’s a mistake simply because the serial killer offers him a drink. Stellan Skarsgård reflects, ‘it’s hard to believe the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what? It is.’

In the shower stall, the man said ‘I’m out of soap. Can I borrow some?’

‘Yeh sure.’ Even today I can’t explain why I said yes.

He came in to my stall. He reached for the soap and touched my skin. To his credit, I think he noticed my discomfort and left. As I became wiser I learned this experience might be common for gay men but how would you know as an inexperienced 21 year old?

Can you still call this assault? Can’t you just call this an awkward situation, the plot of a Seinfeld episode? Yes, you can, but only because the man in this story sensed the moment. It is still assault. It’d take me a full decade to appreciate the decision of this man who touched my skin, to stop touching it without my verbal prompting.

4 years ago I went out with a woman I met on Tinder. We shared a drink and we even shared a kiss before I ended the evening to resume another day. Chivalrous you might say? Hardly, by then this is how I liked to approach dates. I didn’t like to be overbearing. I didn’t like one night stands. I want my space and I want to give the person I am getting to know space. In the realm of modern dating, with many failures to your name where intentions can be hard to gauge knowing clearly what you want is key and what I wanted was to get to know someone.

The following Friday night I was awoke by a 2am phone call.

‘Heyyyy. Where are you?’ The trademark yells of a 2am drunk phone call. You might choose not to believe this but given the parameters of what I just explained the best course of action, I thought, for a young woman, alone, unable to get home she explained, drunk, all things considered, is to sleep off her intoxication in a safe space. My space. My couch. Downstairs. Or, she can use the bed and I’ll use the couch.

Is this foolish? It is clear to most reading that this sounds like a booty call and what unfurled made that obvious, but here I am trying to do the right thing by someone in a state. Here I am trying to do the right thing by me. I’m not so foolish by the way. I knew what the intention was. I knew what I needed to do. Before all this swirling debate and before I fully understood it, what I did was provide consent. Or in this case non consent.

‘You can come, but please nothing can happen. I have a footy game early tomorrow so I have to sleep. You can sleep on the couch or I can and you can have the bed, but nothing can happen.’

‘Suresure, thank-you.’

She arrived, wasted, smelling of liquor and the stuffy smoke of a bar. Loud and abrasive she dispelled the quiet and stammered through the door holding her shoes. ‘Heyyyyy.’ There’s that yelling again.

In a worse retelling of the incident in Sydney, I accommodated her. She grabbed me by my hand. She wanted to talk. She led me upstairs promising she just wants to lie down. She just needed me to get her some water. She just needed me to hug her. She was just going to fall asleep. ‘Kiss me.’ she said.

And you do. You kiss them because how bad can that be? She’ll stop and that’ll be the end. But it doesn’t stop. She kisses my neck. She gets on top and straddles either side. She takes her clothes off. She takes off my clothes.

‘You have to sleep’ I say. ‘Stop.’ I say. ‘No.’ I say.

I was not turned on by this. I was repulsed but I found myself in it. Swirling in a whirlpool looking for a handle to grab on to and get out. You do not want to be raped, and weirdly you don’t want to have raped you but isn’t that whats happening?

The fear of offending.

When she gave me oral I was not hard.

After a few minutes of this she said ‘What are you? Gay?’

I can’t really describe much further how devastating that night was. I was suffering depression at the time because of a bad job and a break up. Her final question to me that night marked a moment in my life I dreaded ever being asked.

Not because I am straight or homophobic. That absolutely isn’t it. What I deeply dreaded was how unordinary those words made me feel. How despite being naked and vulnerable, I wasn’t seen.

‘If this could happen to me…’ I thought.

When I told a few people about what happened a worse reality arose. People blamed me for being in that situation. ‘Of course that’s what she wanted, you idiot.’ For a long time and still today I play this story off with a laissez-faire, surrender, a privilege afforded to me and after all, I guarantee you’ve thought it. How do men get raped?

Men get raped the same way women do.

If you replace me with a woman and the woman in my story with a male, could you honestly say it is story of pure fiction, impossible to occur? My story is a horrifying reality for woman everywhere. Woman grow up thinking surrender is better, no, safer than offending.

What a lot of men get wrong about rape and sexual assault is actually how ordinary it is. How it plays out in the day to day interactions we think are ordinary. Rape does not only occur in a dirty alley. Sexual assault is not just being rubbed up against on train. Harassment is not just cat calls by the tradies.

Rape and sexual assault is ordinary and therein lies the problem.

I don’t present a solution in this article for two reasons. One, I don’t have one. Even with hindsight I’m not sure how I would have acted differently at the time. I believe we’re talking about far more profound questions about society than I think we’re able to recognise while living in it. How do we deal with issues of consent? How do we deal with personal responsibility? What role does justice, education and culture have to play? Any solution, I believe, will take many different forms which is the second reason I don’t present one. There are hundreds of women speaking up now, sharing their stories about what rape and assault looks like and they should be heard.

This topic has been distressing for me. I don’t write it seeking pity which is the last thing I want. The events that have played out in Canberra have left me dismayed purely because of how grossly inadequate peoples understanding has been. As a male I’ve felt conflicted about sharing my voice to the story. Would it amplify the voice of women subjected to the torturous debacle we’re enduring right now, or would it be just another male voice asserting their experience where it’s not needed or wanted?

I leave all that for you to decide. What I recognise now only having experienced it profoundly is that it occurs so much easier than I think most men appreciate. How quickly you are experiencing it. That despite what I thought might be acts of chivalry or nobility in my own past that it might have made someone I’m interested in uncomfortable. I know that because I used to be dismissive of it, even when I had lived it. Woman are pleading for men to see their own nescience. Things are confusing right now, but listen to Brittany Higgins considering what I’ve shared and hear what she is actually saying in the way she means it.

Carey is an Australian Photographer and hobbyist writer. He enjoys finding solitude and peaceful moments in a loud world.