She Came Here to Dance: A Journey Towards Understanding the Effects of Sexual Violence

Content warning: This article includes words and themes surrounding sexual violence.

 

The night sky swoons and dances around the mob of dazed college kids, all swaying in a motion preceded by a prism of intoxication.

She’s a young woman, a small woman, with skin red hot and eyes blurred by the smoke-filled air. Her lips mime the rhythm of the music absorbing her body. Her arms shoot up into the air and she spins like a pointed gem on the tip of your finger until her legs fall back into stillness and the beat picks her up again.

He watches from a distance. His hands sour with a lustful claim, his mind rejecting the boundaries encasing her figure. What he sees is not a being but a thing in need of ownership. Her waist, an unchallenged target. His grip, the musket needed to make the kill.

Paintings by Owen Gent. 

She knows this feeling. The gaze swallowing her whole and marking her. She just wants to dance. But every dance floor is a jungle and every move she makes is for survival.

He snakes his arm around her stomach and drags her body close to his. His breath tells her, you are not your own. His fingers slither up her chest until they reach her breasts and squeeze. His hips narrating his dominance. The bones of his back slump into the empty spaces between them; she begins to disappear.

This is not the first time she has been taught to sink into a man’s will. This will not be the last. She unlocks her body from his chain. The hair on her neck shivering against his voice laced with venom. She fights. Her nails dig into the porcelain goosebumps prickling his skin, her voice tears through the room, “No.”

She’s said this word before, she understands its power, its fragility. This time she screams it until his face distorts into a mirage of anger.

“F*ck you, B*tch”. He walks away.

They don’t always walk away.

Her heart is no longer a stallion, it begins to graze the fields of her soul again. She takes a deep breath. And waits for the beat to pick her up again. To take her away and back into the world of endlessness and freedom. She only came here to dance.

***

For many years, discussions surrounding gender-based sexual violence, specifically against women, made me extremely uncomfortable. It felt like an issue that almost every woman I knew held a deeply intimate and scarring relationship with. Yet, I felt so disconnected from the idea of my body being desirable as well as my claim to its existence. My body and I were separate beings and I learned to dissociate myself from it as a young girl. Walking home from school and being cat-called by men who could have their own daughters, being undressed and displaced by the sharp tongues of passing voices tearing at my skin, slicing open wounds not yet healed, I learned to fear my body and the suffering it might bring me. So, I spent years attempting to understanding and conceptualize sexual violence. I learned to define assault as a physical act and forced the perspective of sexual assault as only existing within the bounds of rape instead of on a spectrum of sexual violence. Emotional and mental sexual brutality became a normalized tribulation of womanhood. Having young men grab me as I danced became a trait of university parties and nightlife.

There was a time when I once felt guilty, shameful even, when speaking out against being harassed by men in the streets or at work. I would tell myself that I was minimizing the trauma of women who had been through more, who had experienced worse. I ranked my relationship with sexual violence as less important and impactful on the scale of sexual violence, rendering my pain and trauma excusable because I had not suffered the worst and not enough.

The thing about being raised within an oppressive system like the patriarchy is that you are built to be broken down and to have your humanity compromised without question. As a young girl, I was somewhat aware of the problems with associating suffering with my body. Somewhere in my head, it felt wrong to quiet myself. To hush my mind into numbness every time I thought about having to walk into that bodega with the three men who encircled my sister and I days, weeks, months, a year or two before. Was I irrational, or crazy every time I held my breath as I passed by that store? Nothing happened, really. And yet I was so terrified, so traumatized that I could never go back in there again. But nothing happened.

It was nothing because we’ve been taught to lessen our pain by demonizing our fears and molding our minds to shame us. If the scar isn’t physical it's not there, if your wound isn’t bleeding it doesn’t hurt, and if he doesn’t touch you, the trauma, the nightmares, the fear that comes afterward isn’t real.

But how was I to be an ally, a safe haven, a believer for my sister, for my friends, for victims of sexual violence across the globe and in my own home if I continued to deny my own trauma and diminish its impact on my life? Because to deny myself of the right to be in pain to be enraged would also mean the denial of every other victim’s suffering that matched my own. How could I say “I believe you” to everyone but myself?

Looking back at the night on the dance floor, with the strobe lights, my mesh top and tight jeans, my bright red hair and red-hot skin, and his hands, I still want to say it was nothing. Because if it was, why didn’t I just say no? Why didn’t I brush his hands away from my stomach, move my hips from his hips, why didn’t I just go dance somewhere else?

Why didn’t I just say no? I just came here to dance. That’s all. Did he come for the same thing? And why am I even thinking about him? Do I feel guilty for not wanting what he wanted, was I being a buzzkill?

What if he had just come here to dance, too?

And, I was overthinking?

And when his hands grabbed my breasts, was that just dancing too? When the air began to feel so hot and my heart began to race so quickly, and when I just wanted to scream, was I just naive?

When I caught eyes with my friend and when she knew exactly what I was thinking before I had to ask, “can we go”, was that nothing too?

When he danced close the rest of the night and found me on Instagram the next day, without even knowing my name and when I began to feel scared, that same type of fear that I felt in the bodega, was that crazy?

And it's really all just a series of questions afterward, isn’t it? You’ll interrogate and deconstruct yourself until it really feels like it was just nothing. But the evidence of sexual violence rarely reveals itself in a tangible form. According to the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, 9/10 reported victims are women. Of those reports, half of those victims are between the ages of 15 - 24. Women are being raised in a culture that normalizes sexual violence and these assaults don’t just exist in that one moment but instead may haunt a victim for the rest of their life. In fact, studies show that sexual violence has “long-term effects on women’s mental health and well-being…[leading to] fear, guilt, shame, depression, anger, and low self-esteem”.

It is time to stop raising boys to be social and sexual predators. It is time to reconstruct the education systems to accurately prepare and match the world we live in today, providing a well-rounded, complex, and representative discussion on sex, relationships, and consent.  It is time for restorative justice and for healing. And for abusers? Time’s up.