I recently met up with an old friend who I very rarely see, and the conversation eventually came round to her boyfriend. Imogen* is a very beautiful Californian scientist, and almost always has a boyfriend.
"Oh, Derek* is great," she said. "He treats me so well. Although he always wants to have butt sex."
I laughed. "Oh, dear. What do you tell him?"
"Well if I say no he does it anyway, which is annoying. I've tried telling him, like, Derek, I don't like doing it, I don't get off on it, it ruins it for me, and he's just like 'Imogen; you have to'."
I stared at her.
"It's not as bad as it sounds," she said, returning with vigour to her salad.
"I mean. It sounds like sexual assault," I said.
"I guess. He's very sweet though. One time he had so much sex with me that I passed out and then he fed me crackers!"
I stared at her.
"It's not as bad as it sounds."
"It's not as bad as it sounds" is something that I have heard a lot of girls say. It's usually prefaced with something like "A friend of mine spiked my drink and made me have a threesome with him and another friend of mine", or "my boyfriend's father felt up my thigh under the dinner table", or "my boyfriend peed in my mouth after I gave him head". "It's not as bad as it sounds" is what girls say when someone they liked and trusted does something objectively unacceptable, and they don't know how to deal with it. If a stranger were to feel you up on a train, you would not hesitate in damning him as a creep, but when a man who is supposed to respect you treats you like a sexual object, it is far easier to belittle the mishap and tell yourself that it wasn't a big deal. This is a common happening in today's victim-shaming society, and it makes sexual assault a much trickier thing to deal with, because its victims are unwilling to identify it even to themselves.
In the UK, the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 defines something as sexual assault if
a) intentionally touches another person (B)
b) the touching is sexual,
c) B does not consent to the touching, and
d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
By this definition, if I'm on a crowded bus and a man feels up my bum, as has many a time happened - I guess because my tank top makes it impossible for men to control themselves - it is sexual assault. By this definition, I suspect most of my friends have been sexually assaulted, at least once. What complicates this matter is that if a girl was felt up inappropriately by someone she likes or feels respect for, she is very likely to think of it as "not as bad as it sounds", and therefore write it off as " not counting". What is particularly unhelpful is when the "It's not as bad as it sounds" message is spread amongst her male friends, who then internalize this entirely artificial normalization of what is legally sexual assault. Your poor nice normal guy friends are getting a very confusing message when this happens. If you're a nice normal guy, who doesn't shout "sugar tits" at women in the street or take pictures up their skirts as they go up stairs, you probably have no idea of how often this happens to your female friends. And they probably don't tell you because they've told themselves that it wasn't a big deal, that it wasn't as bad as it sounds, or, as my friend who was drugged into having a threesome said, that "if that's the sexual assault I have to have, it wasn't the worst it could be".
It is not surprising, then, that they are taken aback by feminist rants, and are less likely to listen to them. They don't know how many of the women they love have been sexually assaulted.
When someone touches you sexually without your consent, or makes you do something sexual that you told them you didn't want to do, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. I know that it isn't easy to say that to the person in question, and although ideally you should, that's not really the issue I'm pressing for here. What I'm saying is that it is important that you don't change the narrative of your objectification to make it sound okay. I'm saying you should tell your guy friends when someone wanks onto your coat in the tube. It isn't happening to them the way it's happening to you, and if they don't know about it they cannot be expected to understand why you are angry - and you should be angry, because that coat was expensive.
*Names have been changed.