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Consent, Assault, and Crossing the Line

A large portion of Penn State students hail from hometowns much larger and more intimidating than sweet old Happy Valley. I’m not even necessarily talking about somewhere notably sketchy like North Philly, but places where we know to be careful who we speak to and how we carry ourselves. We aren’t usually in that mindset while we’re away at school, because State College feels like it’s our own safe little bubble. There’s a reason that we’re comfortable gallivanting around downtown at 2 a.m. while moderately inebriated. Even females, scantily clad as they often seen to be, seem content stumbling home alone for several blocks.

But maybe they shouldn’t be.

Since the beginning of the semester (less than two months ago) 11 sexual assaults have been reported to the State College Police Department. Not 11 sexual assaults “have occurred,” not 11 sexual assaults “have been discussed.” 11 separate victims — three of them in the past week — have actually chosen to pick up their phones and call the police after being sexually violated right here in State College.

According to statistics collected by the NCDSV (National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence), only 16% of rapes or instances of sexual assault are reported to the police. Frightening as it may seem, take a step back and apply that percentage to the instances reported this semester. That would mean that since August 27, statistically speaking, a horrifying 69 sexual assaults have taken place in State College.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti suggests that based on our knowledge of the possibility of this kind of crime, maybe we’re not as comfortable in our surroundings as we pretend to be:

“When I was in college, a teacher once said that all women live by a ‘rape schedule.’ I was baffled by the term, but as she went on to explain, I got really freaked out. Because I realized that I knew exactly what she was talking about. And you do, too. Because of their constant fear of rape (conscious or not), women do things throughout the day to protect themselves. Whether it’s carrying our keys in our hands as we walk home, locking our car doors as soon as we get in the car, or not walking down certain streets, we take precautions. While taking precautions is certainly not a bad idea, the fact that certain things women do are so ingrained into our daily routines is truly disturbing. It’s essentially like living in a prison all the time. We can’t assume that we’re safe anywhere. Not on the streets, not in our homes. And we’re so used to feeling unsafe that we don’t even see that there’s something seriously fucked up about it.”

And she’s right. We’re constantly preparing for that possibility, the seemingly inevitable onslaught of sexual violence that we’ve been taught to fear from such a young age, but we don’t even realize that we’re preparing for it.

We think we’re comfortable frolicking around Happy Valley, but we don’t realize that we’re walking with our cell phone in our hand, ready to dial at any given second. We don’t consider why we’re clutching our cross-body bags tightly to our chests. We’re not aware. The worries are buried under a few deep layers of…well, whatever you’d like to call it — optimism, naivety, hope, faith. But the fears are there, and thankfully they’re dictating our actions, otherwise that number we talked about earlier might be significantly higher.

And that’s the thing that guys don’t usually understand — that innate, reflexive response that females have to any type of sexual threat. There’s a reason that guys get dirty looks when they shout out things like “Hey baby!” and “Nice ass!” when they see attractive girls walking down the street, and so often they respond angrily to that dirty look. “What? I was just trying to give you a compliment! Bitch.” 

They’re not, though, and it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I know a lot of men love it when women go out of their way to hit on them, because it’s a little rarer an occasion than vice versa, but the women on this campus have pretty much heard it all before. Nothing that you can yell at them from the sidewalk is going to impress them. Neither is coming up behind them at the bar, placing your hand on the small of their back, and feeding them some cheesy line. This is not how you try and woo a lady into your loving arms. It makes you come off as a creep and, as we discussed (and as we are totally justified to, given the number of sexual assaults occurring on campus) women are prone to react negatively to people they perceive to be creeps, or sexual threats.

I think maybe guys just aren’t in the know. For instance, when I’m having a talk with one of my guy friends on this very topic, and I tell them that almost every female I know has been sexually harassed, abused, and/or raped, they look shocked to the core and even a little nauseous. But if I say the same thing to a female in conversation, she nods understandingly. Women know that this is happening. They understand how common it is for some guy to come up to you and — either with his words or his actions — violate your personal space, degrade you, and hurt you.

When I spoke with one of the Onward State editors about writing this post, he urged me to consider my own experiences with the Overheard posts that I write each week, and I just stared at him blankly in confusion. “Well… you’ve had some experiences with sexual harassment, haven’t you?” he pointed out. I looked back at my posts to verify, and found some examples:

Random blonde creep: “So what are you doing?”
Me: “Recording the dumb things drunk people say.”
Random blonde creep, nodding: “Oh, cool… So, you wanna fuck?”
Me: “No.”
Random blonde creep, surprised: “No?”
Me: “Yeah, no. Not even a little. Thanks, though. Flattering.”
Random blonde creep: “Sooo… You DON’T wanna come home with me right now?”
Me: “No. *pause* Are you drunk or stoned?”
Random blonde creep: *blinks several times*
Me: ”Or stupid?”
Random blonde creep: “Are those all of my options?”
Me: “So stupid, then.”

Weird guy: “Do you mind if I stand here with you guys?”
Me: “Sure, that’s fine.”
Weird guy: *takes a drag from his cigarette and exhales the smoke in my direction*
Me: “Can you not blow that in my face though? That’s my only request.”
Weird guy: “Do you say that to every guy, or just me?”

Not only did I experience these things, I actually recorded and published them, and it still didn’t register to me that I had experienced a (to be fair, a pretty mild) case of street harassment. Hearing inappropriate comments like this from guys on campus is so common that I and the majority of my female peers here at Penn State are used to simply brushing it off and going on with our days.

That’s not okay.

There is no valid reason for us to put up with these comments, and unless we realize and act on that fact, the guys on campus have no way to understand their boundaries. They will continue to say these things. They’ll continue to come up behind you at Indigo and grind all over you without asking or, Jesus, at least introducing themselves. They’ll continue to corner you into conversations you don’t want to have, into places you don’t want to be, and into things you don’t want to do.

Girls can say no to guys in a lot of different ways:

“I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” means no.

“You’ve been drinking” means no.

“I’d rather be alone” means no.

“Not now” means no.

“I’d rather go to sleep” means no.

“Maybe later” means no.

“I can’t” means no.

“I don’t want to” means no.

“Don’t touch me” means no.

“Fuck off” means no.

Silence means no.

No doesn’t mean “convince me.” It means no. So if a girl utters any of these phrases, or literally anything that isn’t “yes,” then she said no. And you should back off. This isn’t just talking about rape or physical assault — if you’re hitting on a girl and she says any of these things, it’s time for you to back away. You have no right to make her feel uncomfortable or to invade her personal space, so don’t get bitter when she turns you away. She’s not automatically something that is yours for the taking. Don’t call her a bitch. Don’t try and justify yourself. Just go. Respect her enough for that.

On the same note, girls shouldn’t use those alternative phrases. Girls should legitimately say no. Firmly, loudly, and clearly. Guys are bound to misinterpret and to continue pushing otherwise, so be assertive. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll stop, by any means, but it’s a start.

There’s no “answer” to this sexual assault debacle. Terrifying as it is, it will continue to happen. But you can’t walk around with that knowledge buried somewhere deep within your subconscious. Be aware of the fact that you have your keys and phone in your hands, that you’re clutching your purse tightly to your body, and that you’re avoiding dark alleys at night. Those are good things. You’re being safe. But be aware of the sexual harassment that you’re encountering on a daily basis, too, and stand up to it. Hopefully, raising the awareness will lower the frequency with which these acts are occurring. If we’re remotely able to keep sexual assault from happening to innocent students on campus, it’s our responsibility to do whatever it takes to do so.

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About the Author

Alicia Thomas

Alicia is a senior with majors in Print Journalism and Spanish and a minor in International Studies. Chances are that she's somewhere talking about her semester abroad or ranting about sexual assault prevention right now. She can be reached via Twitter (@aliciarthomas) or email ([email protected]).

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