Trigger warning - this article contains descriptions of sexual assault and may be distressing for some readers.
Do you know what sexual assault looks like? I thought I did.
I thought it was confrontational, loud and bleeding obvious. I never thought about it happening in a crowded place, with ten people just an arm’s reach away. I never thought it could happen as I made eye contact with friends, silently hoping for someone to see it and understand it and stop it. I never thought I’d freeze and try to laugh, and de-escalate and wait for it to stop. I never imagined the moment of exquisite panic when your arms are pinned by a person who feels almost twice your size and you can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t do anything but close your eyes and keep your mouth firmly shut until it stops. And, I didn’t think it could happen at a Nationals party.
For almost a full year, I didn’t label that moment as sexual assault. It didn’t seem to count because so many people saw it and either didn’t think anything was wrong or chose not to intervene. I decided it was just an uncomfortable episode.
But, this didn’t explain why I was sobbing uncontrollably as my teammates drove me home. It didn’t explain why I went straight to the bathroom and brushed my teeth until my gums bled, and then sat under the shower wanting to rip the skin off my body. Or why I still feel sickened when I go to put on the pair of shorts I was wearing (which is a crying shame because they used to be my favourites).
In ultimate, we pride ourselves on cultivating a safe and inclusive community. It’s time we held ourselves to those standards in how we conduct ourselves at tournament parties. It’s time to begin the conversation, get informed around consent, and to prevent this from ever happening in our community again.
Here’s the three things you should take away from this article: a working knowledge of consent, the ability to recognise sexual assault, and knowing how to look after your mates.
What is consent?
Let’s start with the tea video (how good is tea?!)
This explains the bare bones of consent, but clearly doesn’t cover all scenarios. What if they don’t say anything but seem okay with it? What if you’re both drunk? What if the other person is more drunk than you, and initiates? Does this mean that nobody should ever make out with people at parties?
Nope. It’s totally possible to navigate safe and consensual interactions at parties.
Here’s the question: given that people will not always be articulate or unambiguous with their language and actions, how do you differentiate between someone who is comfortable and having a good time and someone who is having a freeze or de-escalation response (like smiling or laughing)?
Picking up on subtle cues that a person isn’t interested, afraid, or uneasy can be hard—especially with alcohol involved. For this reason, waiting for people to say “no” is inadequate. A lack of resistance to an advance or silence does not equal consent. Consent is an active and ongoing process. Here’s a checklist of the basic components:
Ask. This can be as simple as a “Do you want to… (dance/have sex/make out etc.)” Bluntness is great and trust me, the more you get used to asking the easier it becomes.
Make it easy for people to refuse. Go slowly, keep checking in, make sure you’re not physically trapping them (e.g. holding them, boxing them in a corner), especially if you’re bigger.
Don’t hit on drunk people. Their decision-making is impaired, so everything is simplified if you steer clear of people who aren’t able to consent.
Accept and listen when someone says “no”. We should all be able to respond graciously to a simple “no” rejection. The same goes for when someone tries to deflect an advance more subtly e.g. “I’m going to the bathroom” or “I need to find my friend”.
In order to look after our teammates at parties, we have to be able to recognise when they need help and when they are crossing boundaries with other people. So, what does it look like?
In my case, it looked like someone being kissed who didn’t want to be. Someone who was turning their head away and laughing awkwardly, and saying “no” as many times as possible. This doesn’t fit with the image in most of our heads of sexual assault, and the reality is that it can take a multitude of forms.
If your teammate looks uncomfortable or is trying to avoid an interaction (and this could be as subtle as turning their head or shrinking away), it’s not normal and it’s not okay. If your teammate is eliciting that kind of response from someone else, it’s not normal and it’s not okay.
Looking after your teammates
It is uncomfortable to intervene when you think something is wrong, and there is a chance that you’ll be interrupting two people who are having a great, consensual time. I can assure you that checking in with friends is always a good idea and always worth it. The cost of speaking up is sometimes a little awkwardness, whilst the cost of not speaking up can be devastating.
If you think someone is uncomfortable or is at risk of assault, these are some things that you can ask to help get them out of that situation and safe:
Are you okay?
Hey, can I get you some water?
We’re taking a team selfie, get over here!
Let’s go home and drink tea like the geriatrics we are!
If your teammate is the one perpetrating the behaviour, call them out on it. If they’re not sober enough for an intelligent conversation about your concerns, call an Uber.
There are plenty more great resources available, like these fact sheets from Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia on common myths surrounding sexual assault and providing care and support for survivors.
Our community is what we make it. Let’s look out for each other and nurture the culture of respect and care that we’re proud of.
If you or anyone you know needs support regarding sexual assault, the telephone counselling services 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) and Lifeline (13 11 14) are available 24 hours.