Why Sexual Assault Doesn't Always Involve Sex

Shatterbox Anthology's latest feature, Pinky, doesn't shy away from the precarious dynamics of adolescent friends groups. The film, a short from acclaimed directing duo Roja Gashtili and Julia Lerman, delivers a fearless portrait of teenage friendships — that volatile blend of competitiveness and fragile longing immediately relatable to anyone who's struggled to fit in. Yet, while it calls back the anxious excitement of those first steps into early adulthood, Pinky also serves as an uncomfortable look at how peer pressure can quickly turn a casual hangout toxic.
Pinky's pastel-colored universe feels like an embodiment of placid, suburban childhood. But once the girls have sent a few playfully raunchy texts and flirtatiously swayed through a dance session, the mood turns vicious when Cecelia — the group's seemingly most self-conscious member — is shamed for asking to borrow a pad. Adults, her friend teases, use tampons. Despite Cecelia's embarrassed protests, the teens' ruthless goading becomes suddenly physical, as they force her onto her back and insert the tampon.
It's a shocking scene to watch — and it's one that churns up all those old urges to jibe with a pushy crew while making your own boundaries clear. "We loved the idea of really being immersed in the moment," Lerman says. "Oftentimes, we think about violence and it’s a physical violence with teenage boys, and of course that happens sometimes with girls, but there’s also a lot of emotional violence and tension." And though Cecelia seems to end the movie on a high, glad to be able to join everyone else in the pool, the film's deeply fraught tampon incident raises questions about sexual assault when the violation takes shape beyond textbook rape. So, we spoke to two experts from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to get some answers.

How should we define sexual assault?

"Sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact. This can include words and actions of a sexual nature," explains Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "In that particular scene, it was very creepy to me that the words and language being used by the aggressive girls mirrored the language deployed by child perpetrators — how they try to sanitize or normalize their behavior." According to Houser, Pinky's tampon scene absolutely meets the definition of sexual assault.
If you've only imagined sexual assault to mean the non-consensual penetration of a woman by a male perpetrator, you're certainly not alone. Houser's colleague, Laura Palumbo, points to a recent study that underscores how misleadingly narrow our definition of violent sexual behavior really is. In the survey, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that just 48% of the male respondents viewed verbal harassment as sexual assault, and only 67% of men (and 79% of women) considered "sexual intercourse where one of the partners is pressured to give their consent" sexual assault. Misconceptions like these make it more difficult for survivors to defend themselves against attacks, and they can dissuade survivors from seeking emotional or legal counsel in the aftermath of an attack.
The crisis of consent lies at the center of all sexual assault discussions. But, as Pinky shows, gauging a participant’s comfort level is often far more complex than a simple "yes" or "no." The film makes it painfully clear how the power dynamics within the group ultimately coerce Cecelia to reluctantly submit to the older girls, silenced by her obvious fear of their ongoing cruelty, not to mention her enduring desire for their approval.
"When we think about consent, we have to take into account power, control, and agency. In situations where there is a power differential between parities, the person who holds more power can coerce someone into saying 'yes' because saying 'no' may result in even more harm," says Leah Soule, the communications coordinator at Know Your IX — a resource center dedicated to helping students end sexual violence on high school and college campuses. "In Pinky, we see the the main character coerced into 'allowing' her friends to do something to her body that she isn't okay with," Soule says. "Because of the social pressure the character is facing, her agency is limited."

And how should we talk about consent?

When our definition of sexual assault encompasses a wide-ranging list of behaviors and power dynamics, it follows that conversations around consent should also embrace more nuanced emotional and physical boundaries. Above all, discussions should shift the obligation from people (generally women) to "make themselves heard," to potential perpetrators to hear and understand their partner's voice, particularly when they're saying anything other than an enthusiastic "yes." Underscoring consent in all scenarios, platonic or sexual, creates a wider precedent of respect and self-esteem that might discourage attacks from occurring in the first place — especially the types of attacks that Pinky demonstrates.
And here's the thing: A lot of this starts long before a person even considers sex. "We need to teach and reinforce that our children – boys and girls – have a right to set the limits and boundaries about what happens to their bodies from a very early age," Houser says, stressing that young children should have a say in to whether or not they want to be hugged or picked up. "Instilling the belief and skills to communicate what you want from an early age sets the tone for being able to do so later."
Because we live in a world where young women's sexuality is traded like a commodity, it can be difficult to safeguard a peer's autonomy if you don't first understand your own. By honoring consent as the central pillar of all of our interactions, we may slowly undo that pattern and encourage a broader tradition of advocating for one's boundaries, and, thus, everyone else's. "If girls are able to talk with their friends about how they each have the right to choose what to do with their own body, they’ll be less likely to face this type of violence from each other, and better able to fight against all types of attacks," Soule says.
If that sounds like an overwhelmingly project, it's not. Protecting everyone's autonomy is often a matter of just having the courage to change the tone — whether that's with your entire squad, or just with that soft-spoken member who never felt quite at home. By stepping in when a situation starts to turn, you're affirming every person's right to set their own limits. Is there any greater act of friendship than that?
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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