(A version of this article was first published in the Magdalene, which is a great magazine that we love, but we thought some things were missing in their English translation and so we have published our own here.)
(Versi bahasa Indonesia di sini.)
When I was in college in the US, I found that my classmates on campus had a clear idea on how to prevent unwanted sexual encounters. If you’ve said no, and the other person continues to force a sexual act with you, then that’s sexual assault, or rape. So if you don’t want anything sexual to happen to you, just say no and you will have made yourself clear.
This concept was imprinted in my brain through every lecture about sexual harassment. Before I returned to Indonesia, I thought I was prepared. I thought I would be able to sail through the ocean of adulthood by depending on the word no to reject uninvited sailors. I was wrong.
Back in Jakarta, I lived in a rented room that did not have strict rules. In the living room, sitting on deflated sofas, long-haired young dudes with heavy metal t-shirts would hang out often.
One afternoon, one of them greeted me. “You new here?”
“Just got back from work?”
“Do you like metal?”
“Can I have your phone number? You should watch our band practice sometimes.”
As he said the last sentence, he stroked my cheek with the back of his hand. It made me recoil. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore. But I wasn’t sure how to say no, so I gave him my number, went to my room and locked the door. I was hungry, but I didn’t get out of the room until the next morning, after I made sure the dude and his friends were no longer there.
A similar thing happened in the office. Our boss liked to flirt with pretty employees, which I thought was harmless as it was mere talk. But I felt uncomfortable when he drove me home from a meeting outside the office and asked if I would like to go someplace with him.
My mind raced, Aren’t you ashamed of behaving like this in front of your own employee? How can I respect you as my boss?
Yet I didn’t say anything except, “It’s still working hours. We should go back to the office.”
To which he replied, “Don’t worry about the office.”
A few days later, he dropped by my cubicle and gave me a bottle of perfume. “For you,” he said. And like the metal dude, he stroked my cheek before leaving.
After he left, I growled and threw stuff at the wall. My colleagues grinned and shook their heads, “Look, boss is acting up again.”
Another time, when I had coffee with my friends, one of them (let’s call her Nandra) told us a story.
“I met ‘A’ at a club last night. He kept buying me drinks even though I said I didn’t want any. He dared me in front of my friends. ‘Nandra said she’s a party girl, but she won’t drink.’ So, I got very drunk. It was 2 a.m. and ‘A’ said he would drive me home. I lay down on the back seat of his car, but a few minutes later I realized the car wasn’t moving. Instead, ‘A’ moved to the back seat and then… he had sex with me.”
I wanted to ask Nandra if she felt she had been violated, but I felt it was too heavy a question at that time. So I said, “I don’t like him making you drunk and pretended to drive you home with the intention of sleeping with you.”
Jovyna, our friend, said, “’A’ only did that kind of thing with Nandra. If she wasn’t that kind of girl, he wouldn’t have done that.”
I asked Jovyna to repeat her words, and she said, “If she wasn’t that kind of girl ….”
“What kind of girl do you think Nandra is?” I asked.
“The kind that you can have sex with. A girl like you.” Like me.
From those experiences, I feel that the word no, which I thought was enough to be my talisman, would not necessary work in this culture. As it would not necessarily work in the US as well. I realized that even though I could be forward with the men I want to sleep with, I don’t always have the guts to reject those I don’t want to sleep with. None of my friends suspect this of me. If something happened to me and I told my friends, I’m sure they wouldn’t believe me as they would think I would’ve been brave enough to defend myself. Or they would think I deserved it because I am “a girl like Nandra.”
I feel that people’s imagination and understanding about how sexual assault can happen, about who can be the victims or the perpetrators, are still limited. We find it hard to imagine that victims could still be texting with their attackers, many still think they would only cry, break down, go to the police, or take showers. We find it hard to grasp that coercion doesn’t come only in physical form, but also through threats (of getting fired from work, of harming their loved ones), or by breaking someone’s spirit. We find it hard to accept that it may take a long time for a victim to acknowledge that she has been assaulted, let alone to tell other people. To freeze, in addition to fight or to flee, is also a natural reaction when we feel threatened–like standing still in the middle of the road instead of running for safety as we’re seeing a truck speeding towards us.
In the beginning of my own sexual adventures, due to my lack of experience, I made a set of rules to ensure that my actions wouldn’t inflict harm on others and myself. Rules such as: go home right after sex, if you have to stay over, sleep facing away from him, never lie about your intentions, don’t lead him on into thinking you want anything more than a hook-up, don’t let your feelings get involved, always use condoms, etc. The rules didn’t always work, because life is messy and I found out that there was no one-size-fits-all. Now, I look at the person I’m with, I ask myself what the consequences of our having sex might be, whether he and I could handle it, if I respect him and vice versa, do we both understand what each other wants. I think these considerations, more than love, give dignity to what others may see as a vulgar relationship.
Of course, we can’t always see the situation clearly, but we must always try. Because even though we have rejected the norms that we consider shallow or hypocritical, there is a whole entity that we cannot violate: Other people.
On the other hand, to be responsible towards ourselves, we can start by being honest with ourselves and our partners regarding what we want or do not want, what we are and are not able to handle, and how we see the situation.
For me, the courage to defend myself and show my true colors is not something that comes naturally. It grows slowly as I read more, as I age, and as I find someone who loves me. My sympathy goes for others who, like me, are still nurturing that courage.
(Versi bahasa Indonesia di sini.)