How Do You Deal With a Breach of Consent When It Comes from a Same-Sex Friend?

Gender

How Do You Deal With a Breach of Consent When It Comes from a Same-Sex Friend?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

F

rom the start, we had an inexplicable, hypnotic, thoroughly enjoyable sexual chemistry. It was thrilling, because it rekindled something in me that I thought had packed up and left the building. It had been a while since I had been attracted to a girl, and there was no doubting my attraction to her. She knew it. She was drawn to me too, and I was keenly aware of it. I suspect part of the charm of that tingling mating dance we were doing came from the glow that comes with knowing that you make someone’s stomach flip. 

Neither of us identified as lesbians, or even bi-sexual. She’d been attracted to women before, but it had been too fleeting to merit an examination of her sexual identity. And she’d never acted on the impulse. I had been intimate with women before, but the lure had never been emotional. Those pleasures were heady and intoxicating, but always short-lived. My past contained women who had successfully made butterflies flutter in my stomach, but they had been few and far in between, and never accompanied by the giddy agony that heralds romantic entanglements. As far as I was concerned, eating a pussy every now and then does not a queer identity make. And I knew that I was boringly straight in much the same way I knew that my pet cat is not a panther, no matter how much he crouches or glares at me menacingly. 

I enjoyed the attention and sexual banter immensely. And maybe if things had been allowed to run their natural course, we’d end up having a mutually fulfilling sexual encounter or relationship… but I never really got the chance to find out. We did have something that resembled sex, but can it be called sex in the absence of affirmative consent? Was it sexual assault? 

Instinctively, my mind recoils from those harsh characterisations. My best guess is that it was something that exists within the gaps of my assumptions about consent and sexual assault and abuse

She’d been attracted to women before, but it had been too fleeting to merit an examination of her sexual identity.

At some point during our undefined courtship, her attentions went from playful to predatory. Our “dates” started ending in rough, almost animalistic, one-sided make-out sessions that left me nursing bruises — both literal and metaphorical. On more than one occasion, I was grabbed, pushed against the wall, and touched in places I didn’t want to be touched. All the behaviour that would earn a male friend several swift kicks in the nads, possibly even a police complaint. But in the absence of a penis poking my anatomy, I didn’t know how to qualify my experiences as violations. And due to the lack of a vocabulary that could help me define my discomfort and dread, the violations continued, and escalated. 

I reached my breaking point about two months in, when I found myself leaving her apartment in the middle of the night, after making a feeble, unbelievable excuse. She had breached yet another boundary. And I knew I had to get out and protect myself, without understanding the true nature of the danger my senses were reacting to. Sexual assault is a bewildering and thoroughly traumatising experience even when you know how to read all the signs and recognise the predator. 

But what do you do when your violator comes in an avatar you were never taught to fear? 

For all intents and purposes, our “relationship” ended that night. Her phone calls tapered after a few weeks of me claiming to be too busy to meet. We existed on the periphery of each other’s lives, exchanging polite greetings at parties and events. She fell in love with a man and married him. I fell in love and moved in with another. Two straight women doing exactly what was expected of them. I filed away our time together in the category of puzzlingly unpleasant sexual encounters, the question of consent and its violation never once raising its disconcerting head. I would go on to write extensively about sexual abuse and power dynamics, an exercise that would make me re-examine my own experiences through the years. All experiences, except this one. 

A couple of months ago, Aziz Ansari performed in India. As luck would have it, she and I found ourselves among a large group of women, all of whom really wanted to know how he was going to address the sexual assault allegations against him in his set. The annoyance was palpable when he didn’t. She was among the most offended, the most savagely critical of his inability — or unwillingness — to heed his accuser’s reluctance, and the many non-verbal, but deafeningly loud, signs of “no” she claimed to have thrown his way. And she waxed eloquently for the better part of the night about her profound disgust for men who believe they’re above reproach. 

I was reading the details of the infamous account later that night, when the penny dropped, at long last. My hints were not unlike the ones Ansari’s accuser had dropped: We’d both moved around the apartment in a desperate attempt to avoid intimacy, and had pulled away repeatedly to discourage it going down that path further. Short of a loud, unequivocal “no”, we’d done everything we could to avoid sexual contact. And we’d both found it so difficult to extricate ourselves from the situation, and so muddled, because we’d never imagined a violator to look like this. 

As a woman, I would imagine she’d be more acutely cued into the art of understanding unspoken signals than any man could ever hope to be.

When it comes to matters of sexual autonomy, the balance of power has a crucial role to play. Aggressors typically enjoy significant social or professional sway over their victims. But I’ve wondered — endlessly and obsessively — about what it means when the balance of power is equal, like it was between me and her. I could have said “no”, without any social, physical, or material fear, and yet, for some reason that still eludes me, I didn’t. Does that make me complicit in my own violation? 

As a woman, I would imagine she’d be more acutely cued into the art of understanding unspoken signals than any man could ever hope to be. It is, after all, a universal language of the sisterhood, and we’ve all used it at some point to communicate our distress. And yet, she ignored them with the same alacrity that a man would. Amid all her outrage and ire (and there’s been a lot of it over the years) on matters of sexual assault and abuse, does she ever find herself startled by the similarities between her own behaviour and the ones she so verbosely criticises? Would she know how to, even if she were so inclined? 

Which brings me to the deeply troubling conundrum I’ve been grappling with over the last two months: Are we, as women, so comfortable in the identity of victims and survivors, and activists and allies, that we’re incapable of seeing ourselves as aggressors? And if so, are we all that much different from woke dudebros like the Aziz Ansaris of our world? Perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves these awful, uncomfortable questions. 

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