We Need to Talk about Acquaintance Abuse: It’s My Turn

by Kohleun

I don’t like talking about this. And I don’t like reading about it either. Because it has happened to me, and to thousands of other people. But many women have been coming out, sharing their experiences of acquaintance sexual abuse, and we need to support each other. We’ve just gotta.

As I write this, I can think of a very long list of reasons why I don’t want to be doing this. I mean, I have resumes to submit and dresses to sew, really truly-awful pop songs to critique, and my weekly day-off-soak-away-the-world bath to take. But I’ve realized that the list of reasons not to write about acquaintance abuse is the same as the Why I Must Write About Acquaintance Abuse list.

Before I start, let me lay some ground rules. I’m not seeking to mudsling and my “agenda” is to further this conversation and to challenge notions about sex, consent, and intimacy. Nothing more. No “steamy” details here, because that’s the point: sexual abuse isn’t steamy. This is really hard to write about, and this is also not a self-counseling, still-in-process, session. Even still, I don’t want to debate abstract issues, as much as share my story and help to explain what I’ve learned about myself, and the ways my empathy has grown because of it.

Reason One: It is still stupidly shameful for a woman to admit someone took advantage of her sexually.

I am the captain of my own castle. Or some mixed metaphor like that. My body is my own. I respect myself and take care of myself. I am employed, and I have creative hobbies to keep my mind sharp. I’m well educated about consent, healthy relationships, and the vast history of sexual politics. Heck, my master’s thesis was on contemporary portrayals of young women’s sexual agency. So it’s easy to think that maybe when that guy who used to be my friend touched me in ways I didn’t want to be touched and kissed me and verbally and physically pressured me for sex, that I was the one with poor judgment, and therefore still the captain of that situation.

But that’s not true. Because I said no. Saying no should always be enough, as should the absence of a yes. And guess what: the question, “What was she wearing?” is entirely superfluous in sexual abuse situations. As if a woman wearing a miniskirt could have prevented her attack by wearing a muumuu instead. I was wearing a long, baggy, high-neckline, ugly but cozy nightshirt.

Here’s the clincher. Things happened, and technically in scenarios like these, we let things happen. If by “let” you mean “didn’t shoot the douchebag or call the cops.” But let me tell you why. Read closely. When you’re in that situation, you are completely vulnerable. Maybe you still have clothes on; maybe they have manipulated you out of every last physical barrier. Whatever the case, you just hope that each thing they ask or demand of you is the last, and that if you do it, they will stop and not try to hurt you. That’s why many of us go along with things we don’t want to do. It’s not because we want to give this person what they want. It’s because we want to survive.

That ex-friend said to me, “I’ve always had a crush on you and I feel like you’ve been teasing me with your sexuality. Won’t you just give [sex] to me, as a gift? It’s not like I’m going to rape you.”

So glad for that clarification, because at the time, the prognosis was bleak. And if “teasing with sexuality” were a thing one could do without explicitly verbally offering and then withholding sex, maybe he would have a toe to stand on. I told him, “Fuck no, you dumb cunt. Sex isn’t a gift to give away.”

A while later he tried again, “Oh, come on. This has to be doing something for you. Or am I repulsive to you?”

He finally touched me for the last time in a year now when I said, “Okay, so it’s not like I don’t ever want my boobs to be touched in the great span of time between now and eternity, but you are on the really long Short List of people who I actively do not want to touch my boobs. Ever.”

Reason Two: I can’t and don’t want to press charges, so what’s the point?

The point, dear readers, is that gray coercive situations are still coercive situations and talking about them can help us come to a more concrete understanding of how this crime affects people. I do believe that sexual abusers should face consequences for their actions, but unfortunately a so-called friend manipulating you into something you didn’t call the police about has little traction in court. No one hit me or explicitly threatened me with a deadly weapon. Instead, my right to consent or not consent was abused; it was smashed. He did whittle away at my sense of security, and that, too, should be seen as a crime. You see, as long as that acquaintance can use their relationship with us to get a coercive edge and make it sound like we wanted this to happen, then it’s really, really difficult to be taken seriously. And that’s not okay.

In all honesty, that guy has nothing lasting of mine (insert pregnancy/STD one-liner here?). My value is neither increased nor depleted by the number of people whom I have or have not made out with or even had sex with. He didn’t steal a moment or anything special from me, because I choose when and with whom to invest emotional significance. There are people who carry a piece of me with them, and that has nothing to do with sex, absolutely nothing. The people with whom I have shared myself are family members and dear friends, including significant others—people who carry my heart. And those people carry my heart when others try to take things from me. Like a roommate who confronted the jerk, friends who have listened to my stories over meals, male friends who respect my boundaries, a partner who has said of my numerous harassers, “I hate the world when I hear about people harassing you. I want people to be better than that.” I want people to be better than that, too.

Reason Three: I want to move on.

I’ve moved a lot. In the past 9 years, I have lived in 14 different residences in 3 different countries. And I still think moving is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Besides all the material and logistical mess of moving, there is the emotional bundle that comes with it, like “free” Internet when you sign up for unlimited data. And like I said from the beginning, I don’t want a debate. And I certainly don’t want to initiate communication or legal proceedings with the guy. And yes, I have cried about that night at surprising times, not because it was emotionally traumatic at the time but because I hate feeling powerless, and when I am feeling particularly vulnerable I remember that moment and how I never want to be in that situation again. So I haven’t shared this story when, on a few occasions, I’ve felt like I should.

But truly moving on from something like acquaintance abuse entails helping our culture to move on. To be done with it. To get out of this cycle. Because too many women and men are being disrespected and hurt and disregarded by people close to them. One person equals too many. So, for others who aren’t comfortable sharing their story of acquaintance abuse, here’s mine.