The gray area: Unpacking moments of ambiguity in sexual misconduct

Thoughts about #MeToo
Isabelle Doerschlag/Staff

#MeToo has been an undeniably crucial movement. Finally, a time when countless people — particularly women — are given a medium to share their experiences and voice their concerns regarding sexual violence. Finally, a time when perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault face the repercussions for the atrocities once deemed reprievable. It’s a time to gain closure with the defilements many of us were forced to endure.

But I don’t want to discuss these glaring, unambiguous #MeToo moments of mine; the times when I was blatantly violated by strangers who had no sense of morals. I will not discuss the times I was catcalled, groped or grabbed at.

I want to talk about moments within the gray areas — the ones where we feel inclined to question if it was assault because we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the situation, or we felt unsure about the exchange throughout.

I first experienced a “gray” sexual moment in high school. It was with a good friend of mine who we’ll call Frank — a person I had known since I was 12 years old and often confided in during our tumultuous, teenage years. Throughout a blur of parties, encouraged by alcohol and bursting hormones, Frank and I did what many impulsive teenagers do: had messy, unromantic hookups.

Most nights I was eager for these hookups to happen. But there were also nights when I was reluctant. Those nights I would suggest to Frank that we should stop, only to find myself entangled with him again. Perhaps I was too tired and drunk to blatantly say no. Regardless, I was left questioning if the interaction had been completely consensual.

My next gray moment happened in college. I had become good friends with a boy we’ll call Kip. Kip was the type who would walk me back to my dorm late at night and send me articles he thought I would enjoy.

One night, Kip and I were watching movies at his place when I suddenly felt him pull my head toward his, mashing his lips onto mine.

I abruptly left after I pulled myself away, saying something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think of you in that way.”

When I left, I just felt sad — sad that I had lost one of the only good friends I had made in college, sad that someone who I thought was a good person was perhaps not.

After a few days without a text or call from him with an explanation, my sadness transformed into anger. After confiding to a friend what happened, she asserted that I had been assaulted. Though I was angry, I was hesitant to agree with her.

When Kip finally did text me, he apologized, explaining that he thought that I liked him. He then expressed how embarrassed he was and how he didn’t know what to say to me, deciding it would be best to leave me alone for a few days.

There were more, hazy moments of sexual conduct — a few where acquaintances misperceived my friendliness as a cue for sex, a few where guys I dated thought I wanted to go further.

Following these murky moments of foreplay, flirtation and sex, I found myself propelled through a whirlwind of questions: Maybe I sent the wrong signals? But then am I victim-blaming myself? But did I affirmatively say no? Am I victim-blaming myself again? But then whose fault is it? The guy I was with? But he would never do that — he’s a good, caring person. But am I excusing him from bad behavior then? Has this patriarchal society brainwashed me into excusing them? These are the mental aerobics I endure as I tread on the border of what is and isn’t sexual harassment or assault.

So how do we think through these hazy areas of sexual conduct? The obvious answer would be that the responsibility lies with people of power, mostly men, to be more considerate. But maybe it’s also the responsibility of those often deemed to be of lesser power, mostly women, to be more aggressive. Or maybe it’s on all of us to learn how to be more straightforward and thoughtful. I really don’t know how we define what is and isn’t sexual misconduct under absolute terms. But I do think it involves fostering a culture of empathy and understanding.

A year after graduating high school, Frank and I were hanging out. Suddenly he said that he was sorry for pressuring me at certain times in the past. I wasn’t sure where it came from. This was before the #MeToo movement, so that didn’t prompt him to apologize. I had never even expected an apology, but I was grateful he said it; grateful because it showed me that people can reflect, learn and show remorse. Perhaps time and guidance are all that is necessary for that to happen.

Looking back at my hazy moments, I don’t believe I was violated, despite what others may believe. Let me be clear — this is not an attempt to place predators in a positive light, but rather an effort to reconcile my personal, clouded moments. It’s a chance to consider when it’s necessary to think about an individual’s intentions and to create opportunities to educate those who have made mistakes in the past.

I understand that this time is solely for victims who have been violated, shamed and ignored. They deserve all the time they need. Yet, I think many of us have encountered moments we considered gray or uncertain, and that it is necessary to start a conversation about circumstances like these. That way, we can can establish a culture of clarity and respect, without having to sacrifice our relationships with those we care about

So, I hope there will also be a day when we can address those accused in uncertain circumstances and facilitate communication about the topic of sexual assault. We need to emphasize the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct in order to rightfully arraign those who are undoubtedly wrong — not the Kips and the Franks of the world whose perspectives and decisions were muddled or misled — and teach those who are willing and capable of acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of respect and equality.

And when the time comes to consider these grayer moments, I hope we will reach an unequivocal agreement as to what it really means to say “#MeToo.”

Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.