A Sexual Assault by Any Other Name
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
If someone had asked me if I’d ever been sexually assaulted, I would have said no. If they had asked me if I had been groped, I would have said yes.
I recently wrote a memoir about how, when I was in the ninth grade, a boy repeatedly grabbed my breasts, crotch and buttocks. How I suppressed and minimized the memory of it for thirty-four years. How, during those decades, the unresolved trauma from it wheedled its destructive way into every aspect of my life. And how, once I finally recognized the importance of what happened and took it seriously, I was able to heal.
I struggled with the title. Initial ideas were: 34 Years Later, Now is Not Then, and Maybe it Mattered. But, when I was lucky enough to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a complete unknown in the writing world, I was advised to come up with a more evocative and less generic sounding title. Almost immediately a one-word title came to mind: Groped.
My husband, Jeff, who is also a writer, didn’t like it. He found the term dated. He thought it was too ambiguous. Didn’t think it captured the seriousness of the subject matter.
“Because, you were sexually assaulted,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
But also, I didn’t know. Not then. Not when it was happening. And not during the thirty-four years after it happened. During those years, if someone had asked me if I’d ever been sexually assaulted, I would have said no. If they asked me if I had been groped, I would have said yes. The two terms were distinct in my mind and for three decades never the twain would meet.
It bears mentioning that during ten of those years I worked as a Special Constable in communications for the Saskatoon Police Service taking numerous calls from people who had experiences like mine. And during those years I explained to them that, according to the Criminal Code of Canada, what happened to them was sexual assault, a reportable crime. I never used the term grope. Because there is no code for groping. I never dispatched a police officer to a groping in progress or a groping just over. I dispatched them to sexual assaults. And still, during those years, it never once occurred to me that the term sexual assault applied to what happened to me.
The first time the boy grabbed me from behind, restrained me and groped my breasts, my crotch and my buttocks I didn’t have to tell the teacher about it. I didn’t need to describe what happened. I didn’t need a name for it. Because the teacher witnessed it. He heard me yelling for the boy to stop. He saw me kick up my feet so I could make myself heavy enough for the boy to drop me. He saw how the boy was stronger and watched as the boy continued his assault until he was done with me. What did the teacher do? Nothing. How did the teacher react when days and weeks later, after the boy continued to grab and grope me, I went to the him and begged him to get the boy to stop? He ignored me. He didn’t take it seriously. Eventually, his inaction and disregard for what was happening taught me to not take it seriously either. But he didn’t just teach me that. He taught all the other students who witnessed it that it wasn’t important. Wasn’t relevant. Wasn’t a crime.
I suspect my classmates and I are not the only people who learned that lesson in school, in the playground, at summer camp, at the pool, at a party, in their home, at their job, at a dance, watching tv and movies, listening to music, and, 32 years after my sexual assaults occurred, listening to the Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election.
In 2016, when the story broke about an Access Hollywood tape with Donald Trump bragging how, because he is a star, he “can do anything. Grab’em by the pussy…” the defense of the day was that his words were just that. Words. Locker room talk. Something men just say. That they don’t prove anything. But I think they do. I think they prove how prevalent the minimization of sexual assault is. How bragging and joking about grabbing someone by the pussy is considered funny instead of disturbing. Consider if that phrase was used in another context. A teacher bragging how she just kisses her students. A coach saying how he can just grab his players by the pussy. A youth pastor saying how the kids just let him do it. How he can do anything. To the general public I would hope all of those statements sound obviously wrong. Sound like obvious crimes. But somehow, when a child gropes another child, a teen gropes another teen, an adult gropes another adult, we are in a grey area of horseplay, fooling around, just having fun, boys will be boys and, when we talk about it, locker room talk. Somehow it doesn’t seem as much of a violation. An assault. A crime. Somehow it isn’t as serious.
I suspect that when groping isn’t taken seriously by others, we learn to not take it seriously ourselves and so a serious term like sexual assault doesn’t seem to fit even if we are willing to use it for other people in other situations.
That, I believe, is one of the reasons why, when I explained to callers what a sexual assault is and how to report it, I never considered what happened to me was a sexual assault. Not until I told a therapist about ninth grade. Until she took it seriously, suggested it might matter. Until I stopped dismissing the actions of the boy as inconsequential and unimportant. Started comparing what happened to me with the calls I took. Considered what I would tell my fourteen-year-old self if she called me at the police station and told me what had happened. Only then could I begin to imagine that what happened to me was a sexual assault.
It took a lot of mental gymnastics for me to grudgingly admit to myself that I’d been sexually assaulted. And even when I acknowledged the term sexual assault applied to what happened to me, I still felt like a fraud using it. That by telling someone I’d been sexually assaulted in the ninth grade I was misleading them. Letting them think something worse had happened than what really did. Because even though I knew the term sexual assault was technically correct, I didn’t feel like fully lived in the neighborhood of the sexually assaulted. Alongside the rape victims and molested children. But I also knew it was wrong to not use the term. To hedge people’s expectations when I used it. Because if I did, I didn’t just diminish my own sexual assault, I minimized other people’s as well.
In my memoir, once I concede what happened to me was a sexual assault, I seem to write that term with confidence. A confidence I didn’t feel when writing. A confidence I wouldn’t feel until two years later. Until now.
I credit this fledgling confidence to my new position at work in which I read and document every sexual assault that is reported to the Saskatoon Police Service. I’ve now been in the position for nine months reading and summarizing two to six sexual assault files a shift. Many of them like mine: fully clothed and non-penetrative. All of them taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by the Sex Crimes investigators in my office suite.
One man, serving his sentence in a correctional facility, reported another inmate had repeatedly touched his genitals and buttocks over his clothing. The man repeatedly said no. The perpetrator thought he was being funny. Thought it was a joke. There was no weapon involved and no threats of harm. The man’s statement was taken. The file was assigned to a sergeant in Sex Crimes. The sergeant interviewed the victim, witnesses, and the suspect. He watched security footage. He consulted the prosecutor. And then he laid charges. All for a fully clothed non-penetrative sexual assault. A sexual assault like mine.
I’ve now read and summarized over two hundred sexual assaults. And each report, no matter where on the sliding scale of sexual assault it lands, is, unless the victim requests otherwise, investigated. A statement is taken, interviews with the victims, witnesses and suspects are conducted. Available evidence is collected. Cases are built. When possible, charges are laid. Witnessing this happen over and over finally gave me the agency to confidently and without hesitation to describe what happened to me as a sexual assault.
Still, I didn’t want to put the term in my title. Because I don’t think we are all there yet. I think there are a lot of people like me six months ago, or four years ago, or thirty-eight years ago who feel that groping is somewhere on a sliding scale of wrong but doesn’t quite fit on the spectrum of sexual assault. People who can call what happened to others a sexual assault, but not think the term applies to them. People who were groped but would never pick up a book about sexual assault because they never considered what happened to them as something more than a transitory experience, something that could result in lasting affects, something that could be called a sexual assault.
I agree that groped is not accurate. That it has too many variables in meaning. Too much room for interpretation. And in the end my publisher did not agree with using it as or in the title and replaced it with sexual assault. She’s not wrong to do so. But still, I use the term grope often and interchangeably with sexual assault. I worry that by using the word grope I may be reinforcing the minimization of sexual assaults. But I also think many people’s perception about sexual assault, like mine used to be, may be narrow and not include the fully clothed non-penetrative sexual assaults. That until, as a society, we can all use the term sexual assault and use it knowing there is a broad spectrum and that all of them matter, we are left to scrabble for words and phrases that explain and clarify. We are left to grope.