My best friend came to visit me when I was studying abroad in London. It was a few days after my 21st birthday and a few days before hers, so naturally we wanted to celebrate. We were both in relationships, so when we decided to go out to Soho, we had no intentions to do anything other than get dressed up and dance.

We chose a bar-turned-dance-party known for its student nights and waited in line for over an hour amongst hoards of 20-somethings looking for a similar night out. Once inside, we rejoiced at the perfect mix of ’90s pop, and, after heading to the bar, hit the dance floor. Most other individuals around us looked like college students enjoying the weekend with their friends or sports teams, but two older men kept eyeing us across the crowd. Although we tried to avoid eye contact, the men decided to come over and talk with us.

Of course, strangers approach one another in bars all the time; sometimes the strangers share mutual interest in one another, and sometimes one person has to let the other down tactfully. But this encounter was different. Not only were these men well above the average age of every other person in the club, but they also immediately asserted a desire for a physical connection. They tried to sip from our straws, caress our arms, and even after I asserted on multiple occasions that I had a boyfriend and was not interested, one man reached out and tried to start kissing my neck. My “no,” to him, simply meant, “try harder.” The other man had pulled my friend away so she could not see the sort of harassment I was experiencing, but I pushed the man away, grabbed her, and left the club fuming.

What I find most disturbing about the incident is not the sense of harassment and objectification I felt in this particular instance (although the image of two middle-aged drunk men preying on drunk 20-year-old girls will haunt me forever), but rather the fact that within the following year, I would experience a similar sense of fear and violation multiple times, twice from people I considered my friends, and both at times when I was completely sober. Furthermore, upon describing any of these scenarios to multiple girlfriends, every single one of them had a similar story. Sometimes the physical contact breached involves a more “sexual” body part, but sometimes it exists as a caress on the cheek from an unwelcome stranger. Regardless of the details of these scenarios, the fact remains that, from my personal experience and the conversations I’ve had with women across the country and the world, many women have had at least one experience like this in their lives.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not think every flirtation or hit-on attempt demands reproach, but the scenarios remain prevalent in which the consent of the woman remains largely out of the question and women are grabbed at or touched unwillingly as if they are an object in a toy store to be “picked up” and played with at a man’s will. This is not to suggest that men cannot be harassed, but this particular instance that I encountered, that I describe, and that my female friends understand all too well remains an issue absorbed in patriarchy, in the objectification of women, and in a society that believes that people actually deserve sex from one another.

This is not O.K. I know multiple men on this campus who will have their friends clear out of a house while a girl is in the bathroom just so that they can be alone with her when she emerges. He corners her and puts her in a position in which her resources and support systems do not exist should she feel uncomfortable and want help. I know men who define themselves as “nice guys” but exhibit extreme anger when women do not want to sleep with them because they feel that by being polite they have paid their dues and deserve sex.

This, in fact, is the root of sexual assault: the idea that people deserve sex. The term “deserve” implies an obligation on the part of the other individual, often a woman, and a lack of autonomy over her body and what she does with it. This notion that women do not hold a right over their bodies is only intensified when they have consumed alcohol. This is exactly the same discourse that characterizes the debates over abortion and contraception, and all of these dialogues involve men making choices about women’s bodies.

In the conversation about abortion, people argue that women should not have spread their legs in the first place, thus blaming them for needing abortions; in the discourse about sexual assault, they claim that women should not get blackout drunk or dance in an explicit manner. Why, then, can men do these things? If there is something inherently dirty or morally reprehensible about this behavior, why do the same men that throw the parties and pass out unconscious weekend after weekend assert that women should not have the right to do the same—or at least the right not to fear that their bodies will be violated?

Furthermore, not every instance of sexual harassment, assault, or objectification occurs when a woman is blackout drunk, or has even consumed any alcohol in the first place. In three of my most vivid experiences of sexual harassment, I was perfectly sober. Multiple times, the men that exhibited the behavior were blackout drunk. Two of the situations involved close friends.

If I am to properly “protect” myself from sexual harassment in these scenarios, what do I do? Do I choose not to enter any spaces with men or avoid trying to develop male friendships? Do I not only avoid drinking, but also stay home at night? My fears of sexual assault are not merely “feelings” or “emotions”—which, by the way, if they were, would be completely justified by virtue of the fact that someone is acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable—they are a part of my way of life, they are part of my experience, daily, as a woman.

And this, in my perspective as a girl who has experienced the consequences of the lack of sexual assault education way too many times—at home in Texas, at Wesleyan, and abroad—is the root of our debate. I do not argue that frats, by their nature, cause sexual assault. I do, however, argue that sexual assault is inherently a gendered issue and a power issue. Fraternities are inherently male-dominated spaces and, by nature and tradition, exclusively male societies. Instances of sexual assault, furthermore, do occur in many of them. Therefore, whether we disband frats, make them co-ed, implement bystander training, or try to offer an intervention, they are a good place to start creating change. Men and women can absolutely work together to effect that change, but the change we are looking for cannot simply be about public relations or appearances. It needs to be an aggressive change of attitude, a change in perceptions of entitlement to sex and the bodies of women, and a change that recognizes that this is not a few legal cases, or the “irrational emotions” of a few feminists, but the reality of women, period.

  • Actual Nice Guy

    Just throwing this out there as I know the type of guys you’re talking about all too well. When dealing with them in public…you need to know how to not put yourself in the situation where you can be singled out and handled without anyone around you seeing what’s going on. Sometimes you will need to make it a bigger problem than you are because the guys are banking on you not wanting to make a scene. This does not mean you can’t go out and have fun…this is just common sense like not walking down a dark alley at night to avoid being mugged. As for your so called “friends” that have done this to you…get better friends! This is no different than wives staying with husbands who beat them. You’ve surrounded yourself by guys who act this way and then post online about why all guys think they deserve sex. You’re just surrounding yourself with assholes. Another way to say it is…don’t be surprised if your friends are thieves and something of yours ends up stolen. Now don’t take this the wrong way…because I completely agree with you. A lot of guys out there do these things and that in itself is wrong, but take some responsibility for putting yourself in the situations in the first place. I wouldn’t get aggravated at someone who got mugged in the alley, but if they keep walking down the same alley and get mugged multiple times its hard to continue to feel sorry for them =P

    • Really?

      Ok “actual nice guy”…there are a lot of reasons why people stay in physically/emotionally/sexually abusive relationships, and to say that wives who stay with their abusive husbands could just go “get better [husbands]” is absolutely absurd and extremely offensive. You don’t seem to nice to me. And if you are, maybe you need to do a little bit of research about domestic violence before you use that as an example.

      • Actual Nice Guy

        Then by all means, stay in you’re “sex deserved” world because you obviously have a “lot of reasons” for keeping those friends around after such behavior. Just because I didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear doesn’t make me a mean guy. I’ve been in plenty of bars where I’ve seen guys put girls in the exact situations you’re describing. Myself and the people I decide to have in my life would never do such things and in fact stop such things when we see them happening. I have on multiple occasions walked up to a girl in the exact situation you’re describing and given them a simple generic excuse to get away from the guy. Telling them their friend asked them to meet them at the bar or something along those lines. Some reason for her to get away from him without causing a big problem. Sometimes the guy will get aggressive even with another guy so it has to be handled calmly but that’s what comes with dealing with guys like that. I understand you’re trying to get the world around you to change and that’s noble of you…but don’t get so defensive when someone tells you to take a little bit of responsibility for your actions. You’re a smart girl and I know you understand my comparisons enough to realize that yes a husband and friend are different but that is obviously not what I was getting at. It is in no way your fault for being mugged but stop walking down the alley. Take the part of this conflict that is in your control and your responsibility and work on that as well as continue trying to change everyone else. Don’t try and shove all the blame off on guys because they aren’t all like that.

      • Kirby Sokolow

        While I wholeheartedly agree with what “Really?” had to say, that was not me — I have no issue with putting my name on my thoughts about sexual assault.

        You have made assumptions in your comment. I no longer spend time with the men who I once considered good friends. And, if you read my article clearly, I actively pushed the man in the club away and left the space. Furthermore, one of these people was in Texas and the other was from Wesleyan — they are in no way part of my small group of friends, but instead two men in the larger world that I inhabit. These two friends had never exhibited signs of this sort of aggressive behavior other than either making a few jokes about women or even just spending time with people who do, which I, mistakenly, probably wrote off as not dangerous behavior. However, this is characteristic of many men who sexually harass and assault women. Furthermore, none of this changes the fact that these people see women as sexual objects and they will continue to treat other women like this throughout their lives — unless they begin to understand their actions in the context of power, privilege and gender.

        To be honest, I have said all that I can — not to evoke some sort of sympathy — but to possibly add my personal insights and experience to the discourse on this topic, which I personally feel very passionately about. However, I encourage you to look at blogs, opinions, and articles by women far more educated in this issue than I am and to please take an FGSS class if you truly want to engage in the conversation.

      • Actual Nice Guy

        My mistake, I took “Really?” as the author. I apologize and am very glad to hear you have moved on from those so called friends. This was not a bash at what you are trying to accomplish…but just some minor suggestions for quicker fixes. I do want to point out that I never said women are part of the problem just as I would never blame a person for being mugged. Just that if you keep getting mugged maybe you should take a look at your habits as well…which you did…and I was very impressed you said “which I, mistakenly, probably wrote off as not dangerous behavior” because that is exactly my point right there…noticing the signs and learning to adapt and protect yourself. If you are doing things like that people are much more willing to listen and believe your views. Issues like this have so many roots that are hard to see at first glance. Its very easy to place blame on the guys..and those guys absolutely deserve it…but to fix it becomes more difficult be? After talking to a few of them it’s pretty obvious that they’re just playing the numbers game. They go out…attempt what they did with you 4-5 times with different girls and 90% of the time will hook up with someone….there’s no consequences. Not that you did the wrong thing at all but a little shove isn’t going to teach a guy anything. So the real question becomes how do you teach a guy that type of behavior is wrong when 90% of the time it gets him what he wants with no consequences. That’s the discussion I’d like to hear.

      • Natalie

        The point is that men should be taking responsibility for their actions. It shouldn’t be on women to educate men on how to be decent people. So if you’re actually a nice guy who would never do anything like this (although I think that’s pretty bold to say because many perpetrators have no idea they’ve assaulted someone) then you should be spending your time and energy talking to your male peers instead of giving advice to women on how to handle themselves. This is one of those moments where as a person of privileged, as a male, you recognize that you have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in these compromising situations and you have no idea what you would do in that position. When men come into a conversation about sexual assault and harassment, they need to recognize that they don’t really have advice to give. You don’t know what it’s like to walk into a bar as a young woman. Part of what Wesleyan women have been trying to get across in these debates is that men have to be part of the solution, but mostly they need to listen. So please try, and hear what people are saying. I suggest you read this article again and try to take it in without judgement. Recognize that you are in a position of learning, not teaching. That’s what an actually nice guy would do.

      • Bastion

        Unless a person has given express consent to be treated like a sexual object, no one, not a man or woman, should be treated as one. It doesn’t matter if she was being irresponsible; that’s really just an excuse. By telling women that they are part of problem, you place blame on their shoulders while absolving the individuals of their inappropriate behavior. “Hey, look at the way she was dressed. She was asking for it.” No one is wearing a shirt that says “Treat me like walking sex parts.” And being mugged is different than being sexually harassed. People will mug out of greed, for fun or necessity and none of those apply to why a person feels the need to objectify another. People shouldn’t have to have battle plan to go out with their friends.

    • Really?

      If you’re interested in making a transition to an ACTUAL “actual nice guy” maybe you should take a look at this article:

      • Actual Nice Guy

        Friendzoned again… *puts le fedora back on*

    • Really?

      and dont stick your tongue out at me. this is a serious issue and does not call for emoticons.

    • You are the problem

      How about, rather than asking women to “know how to not put yourself in the situation,” we just ask men not to assault people?

      • Actual Nice Guy

        Because you’re trying to control things out of your control…you can protect yourself…but do you really believe asking men not to assault is going to make them stop. Obviously not..that’s what this whole thing is about. You do know the definition of insanity right? That’s all I’m trying to say is stop doing the same things over and over expecting different results. The author has taken 1 step we know about that she probably hasn’t tried before..which is voicing her opinion online like this which I wholeheartedly hopes makes a difference. I doubt it…because until you make the guys have consequences for their actions they aren’t going to stop…and that’s just being realistic. As long as they continue to do what they are doing and they keep getting what they want why would you expect them to stop…guilt? If these guys felt guilt they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. I’m just going to throw this out there also…If you keep talking to guys out there like you’re talking to me, because they are the ones who would NEVER do anything like this and would honestly put their life on the line for strangers because of situations like this, then you are never going to be taken seriously.

      • JD

        You and “actual nice guy” are both right and wrong. Are there women who go out with their friends just to have a good time and do not want to be hit on by a creepy guy? Yes. Are their women who take advantage of the situation by flirting back to get free drinks, then when a guy makes a move she screams harassment? Yes. Are there guys who can accept a “no?” Yes. Are there guys who take things too far when it is so very clear the woman whom he is hitting on is not interested? Yes. Both men, women, and every other gender in between can use some education on the subject. The problem is never going to be any closer to being solved as long as both sides continue to complain about how the other should do something about it and they themselves are the victims.

        If anyone is to blame, it would be the bystanders, regardless of gender, who do nothing to stop things like this from happening. In the article, the author asks what is she to do to avoid these situations. Well if she does not want to live a boring life at home surrounded by cats, i would not know what to say to her. The scenario of the alley is flawed in the cense that the person is alone. It is clearly stated in the article that this happens in public places with people around. Yet no one did anything. I do not expect her to fight back especially since men, by nature, are stronger than women.

        I go to a small state school in New Jersey and upon transferring in, I had to complete a video series titled “unless theres consent.” In the series, it depicts multiple scenarios in which woman AND men are being taken advantage of sexually. One particular two part scene stood out to me. In version A of scene, which is staged at a frat house, a guy begins to take a woman, who is clearly drunk, upstairs to his bed room. On the way to his bed room the man and woman pass a group on stairs. The group does not pay any mind to what is happening and the woman is taken upstairs. Now in part B of the scene, the man and woman are stopped at the bottom of the stairs by the group. One member of the group asks the woman if she is ok and tells her to stay with them while they contact her friends. Another member of the group takes the guy aside and informs him that if they did anything it would be considered rape. All it took to keep that woman from possibly being rapped or the man from possibly being chastised as a rapist, was a third party’s intervention. (This is an assumption based on the fact you the scene ends when they reach the top of the stairs)

        Lets revisit the author’s originally situation of the two men aggressively flirting with her and her friend. She may correct me if I am wrong, but i believe if someone had intervened and told those guys, for lack of a better phrase, to f**k off, she may not have left the bar that night. She may have felt some sense that she was in a safe environment.

        Through all the misspelled words and grammar errors, I hope i got my point across. Notice I did not tell men not to rape nor did i tell women they should not put them selves in “dangerous” situations. Deciding who to blame will not make the parties, bars, clubs or what have you, any safer for anyone. Educating people on how to stop it when they see it is the way to go.

  • Amy Lindland

    Really well written article, Kirby. Thanks for sharing. “It needs to be an aggressive change of attitude, a change in perceptions of entitlement to sex and the bodies of women, and a change that recognizes that this is not a few legal cases, or the “irrational emotions” of a few feminists, but the reality of women, period.” Hits the nail on the head.

  • Anonymous female

    I agree with the fact that this is an issue. However, I think it also really matters who your guy friends are as individuals. I have never been harassed by my male friends, and I know they would stand up for me if I were at a bar and some random creepy old guy was harassing me. Not all men harass women; men who are mature enough to empathize with how women may feel in certain situations are the ones you want to hang out with. And thankfully there are other forms of entertainment besides going out to a bar or hanging at a frat house (which, in my opinion, are two very likely places you will be harassed).