Please note, this story contains details about incidents of sexual assault.
I want to tell you two stories about times when I was either sexually assaulted, or when it was attempted at me. I have been toying with the idea about whether or not to write about this for some time, especially given recent events in my life. It is difficult to write about this still, even after so many years have passed. However, now, I feel the time is right, and I am learning to trust my instincts more when writing about such things.
The reason why I am sharing these stories is because I am becoming horrified at what is often now being classified as ‘sexual harassment’. This morning, a friend from the USA messaged me to tell me that he had lost his job due to an accusation of sexual harassment. The specific thing that he was “guilty” of was that 'giving off bad vibes' to another person. That’s it. He didn't touch anyone or say or do anything. It was just a feeling someone had. His permanent record has been labelled, and it could potentially affect his entire future now. Over nothing.
The reason why I feel that this is important is because every time such a minor offense or non-offense is over-blown, it undermines, diminishes and invalidates the real and traumatic experiences that others have been through. I have close friends who have undergone such severe sexual trauma, they are unlikely to ever fully recover. Both of my sisters too have been the victims of such horrible sexual crimes that I would never wish upon other people. When I see such minor offenses like the way someone looks at someone else classified in the same way, it makes me feel a little bit sick.
With this in mind, here are two stories for context to help illustrate why I feel this way. My apologies in advance if this is too much for some readers, and I hope you see that my intention here is not to cause any distress.
Several years ago, I was on a research visit in mainland Europe. I won’t say where or when, as it might give away details of others involved. One evening, I was out at a bar, and ran into some people from the institute where I was visiting. I remember chatting away with them, and there was some dancing involved with all of us. One of the women there was clearly hitting on me, but I was not interested and ignored her advances. Towards the end of the night, I was pretty drunk. I remember well, because it was my favourite beer, Salvator, that I was drinking, and it is a strong and lethal drink.
I remember leaving the bar, and wobbling all over the place like a drunken idiot, trying to work out where I was. I remember falling over a few times and cutting my legs on the ground. It was a small town, and I was looking for a taxi to get back to my hotel. The next thing I remember was that same woman from the bar had presumably followed me, and given that I could barely stand, she helped walk me back to her place nearby. I was in no state to resist, as I could not even walk without support.
The next thing I remember is regaining consciousness a bit, with her naked on top of me in her bed. Apparently, we were having sex (without my consent), but I had no idea how it had transpired. I remember asking her what she was doing, as I had no idea what was happening. She told me that I didn’t need to worry as she was enjoying herself enough without me getting involved. I was so wasted and could barely move, that I just sort of let her get on with it.
The next morning, I woke up, and had no idea where I was. I did not even know the other person’s name, and had no recollection of the night before besides those few seconds of consciousness. This woman had made me breakfast, but seeing as I had no idea who she was, where I was, and the events of the night before, I had no intention of staying. I felt totally sick, and left. Not sick physically because of the alcohol, but sick like my whole self had been violated. I wandered around until I could find a taxi, went back to my hotel, ordered a pizza, and got into bed and watched Disney movies all day to try and forget about it. I remember that day well, as it was the first time I ended up chatting online to someone who would become my girlfriend one day in the future. The distraction from someone who was at the time, a random stranger, really helped.
After this, nothing relevant happened for a while. I just sort of ignored it, and continued with life as normal. Then, one day at a conference sometime later, someone introduced me to this person again. I pretended that I had never met them before, and made an excuse to leave and walked off, hoping that I would never see them again. I never did.
I did not report this story to the police. And I never will. I have never really talked about it in public either, and very few people know about the story. I don’t think my family even know. Why? Because the fear of being ridiculed for it. Do you know how difficult it is for women to be believed when they are raped? Well, it’s probably just as difficult for guys, because we are told it is physically impossible. “Guys cannot be raped, you were clearly enjoying it.” A number of women in my past have told me I am clearly "Up for it" due to physical reflexes that I should not have to describe in detail, when I have not actually wanted to have sex. Consent is a complicated issue.
So, I have always just ignored this incident, and got on with my life. It has always been there in the back of my mind though. Those few seconds of consciousness I have during that night are just emblazoned into my memory. But yeah, since I have always been super aware of being followed home after a night out.
One time many years ago, at a house party in London, someone spiked my drink with the infamous ‘date rape’ drug GHB. It was a friend’s party, and there were mostly homosexual men there. It was definitely a party where most people were there with the intentions of having sex. They were taking all sorts of drugs recreationally, and that I did not mind as I was fairly used to the scene and those sorts of parties. I used to come along as the ‘token straight guy’, because I liked hanging out with my friends and usually it was harmless fun.
At one point during the night though, my head started to feel dizzy and I began to lose my balance. Strangely, this was not the first time I had experienced my drink being spiked, and I recognised what it was right away. I had experienced the feeling several times before, usually when out clubbing in the UK. One minute, you are feeling totally normal, and then the next all control seems to disappear.
I quickly told my friend, and he was furious. He took me to his bedroom upstairs and helped me inside to lie down while I recovered. I had to get into his bed, and wait for about two hours before the drug wore off. The experience of being on GHB is pretty awful, and you find it difficult to identify what is real. My friend stood guard outside the door the whole time to stop people from coming in and taking advantage of me while I drifted in and out of the strange half-consciousness associated with that drug. I remember a few people still managing to break in while I was there, I think, but the memory is all a huge blur.
After I had recovered later that night, while still at the party, two guys actually came over and admitted that they had put something in my drink with the hopes of ‘loosening me up’, thinking that I was gay and would be okay with it and up for having sex with them. Obviously, that was not the case. I explained it to them, and they apologised. I remember thinking “Oh you, silly boys..” at the time, as there had been no real harm done and I simply chalked it up as an experience. But looking back now, it was a pretty horrific thing to have done. If my friend was not there to protect me, I do not want to think about what would have happened.
Putting these stories in context
Now, I want you to consider these stories all together. I have been a victim of rape, and attempted rape. I have other stories too, but these are the main ones that stick in my mind right now. Both of these stories affected me quite deeply, and I have had to live with them over the years. I am now super careful about keeping an eye on my drinks, to make sure they don’t get spiked. You never know.
Recently, people have accused me of being a “sexual predator”, and just about every variant of that term. It is now a matter of public record what these baseless accusations refer to. I have no problems in admitting that sometimes in the past when dancing with people, I could get a bit too 'handsy' as a form of playful 'flirting'. Most of the time, this has never been a problem, but on isolated occasions, it can be an issue with some people. Dancing with friends and colleagues has always been a fairly common thing for me, my friendship groups, and others who I associate with – both men and women. It is never intended sexually, and more something we all do for fun as friends. It has always been common for my friends in open science, palaeontology, and outside of academic communities too. However, often this can be inappropriate at professional events, and I recognise that it can be difficult to tell where boundaries between professional and personal lie at some events. I can understand that sometimes certain actions might be interpreted in ways beyond their intentions, and if a boundary should be crossed, I do what any responsible adult should do and apologise and seek amends where possible. I expect the same from anyone else.
My problem comes when actions like this, or the way someone looks at another person, is labelled with the same brush as violent, intentional sexual offenses, like those I and others have been a victim of. By diluting these definitions, their precision decreases and renders them essentially meaningless and useless. If looking at someone or dancing with someone is “sexual harassment”, then pretty much everyone I know is guilty of it, both men and women.
In my case, the opposite is almost true. Many women I have ever dated or been with have complained that I am not forward or direct enough with them. Precisely because over the years, I have learned that boundaries are difficult to know all the time, and I always now err on the side of caution. My default setting is also to assume that everyone thinks I am physically unattractive, so there is no point on making advances towards them. Which is why I only ever do these things playfully and with friends. Thanks, low self-esteem. Seriously, it sucks, and has been something I have been trying to work on internally over time.
This is why these accusations hurt so much - because I feel that they invalidate my experiences, the experiences of others, and mischaracterise the reality in such a horrific way.
Now, I have been so traumatised by the events of the last few months, that I have shut down all emotional and physical connection with women. And men too. I am not going to joke about this, it really fucking hurts. Why? Because I am terrified of being falsely accused of something again. The labels are so harmful, and they stick. As I indicated in my last post on this topic, it hurt me so much that I had to stop my latest relationship as the effect this had on my heart and mind was devastating.
My hope is that I can recover from all of this, and I am really focusing on recovering. But at the moment I feel that the actions of OpenCon and others has permanently damaged all my future relationships. I am really hoping this is not the case, but at the moment it is difficult to see otherwise.