Last night I was sexually assaulted in the street. Let me be clear on this; I wasn’t actually physically harmed in anyway, but I was put under threat for my bodily integrity (that I might be raped or beaten), which, in Australia at least (I’m not entirely familiar with the laws in the USA but I assume they are similar in this respect), qualifies as an assault. I was threatened to an extent that I felt completely unsafe, and despite how intangible such an assault might seem to law enforcers (more on that later), it’s a very real one, and one that happens far too often, especially to women (of all shapes, sizes and colours) who have had to deal with unsolicited and often explicit sexual goading in public.
Just before midnight last night, I was on my way home from dinner and drinks with the girls. I’d had all of four drinks since 6 p.m, so I was relaxed, but not drunk (i.e. I had not contributed to the situation by stumbling home in a stupor, or putting myself in a bad situation; I was completely cognizant as events played out). As I left the train station, a man approached me. He had been behind me since I exited the train and I was aware of him following me. As I came down the subway steps to the street, he got in front of me and blocked my path. He called me something like “pretty cute girl,” and began asking me about where I was from and where my house was.
I answered as flippantly as I could, all the while quickening my pace to get around him. On the street, he approached me at the lights and began asking me if I knew how pretty I was. For the first time I looked at him in the face and noticed that his eyes were bloodshot which led me to the conclusion that he was either high or drunk. I quickly realised this wasn’t a man who had his wits about him, and being that drunks can sometimes be aggressive and unpredictable, I immediately decided this was a bad situation that I had to get out of quickly.
I crossed the road against the lights and began walking down a side street, where I thought I had lost him. But as if from no where, he suddenly appeared in front of me, blocking my path. I tried to side step him but he matched me. As I was trying desperately to manoeuvre around him, he asked me if he could take me for a drink. I said no but he persisted, and even reached out his arms on either side of his body to block the path. At this point something clicked in my brain and the rest feels like a blur. I looked him straight in the eye and told him firmly that I just wanted to be left alone, then used both my hands to shove him out of the path.
As I sped off, I turned and saw him walking back to the main road. What happened next is even more of a blur. Another young woman, I think noticing my desperation (or had she been behind me all along? I wasn’t sure) had crossed to my side of the path. She fell into step several paces in front of me, which made me feel slightly calmer. However, within seconds of the first guy disappearing, two youths who were hanging out in front of a building, stepped into the path so that I had to walk between them.
I have to preface this by saying that it doesn’t matter what a girl is wearing or how she looks, we are all capable of being victimised. I was wearing full length pants, boots, a huge jacket and my hair in a ponytail. I felt inconspicuous enough, and I sincerely believe that the behaviour I’m about to describe would be no more deserved even if I were wearing a mini dress and stilettos.
The two young men began following me (yeah, I couldn’t believe my luck either) and saying both demeaning and threatening things. They were calling me sexy and describing all manner of atrocious sex acts they were going to inflict upon me, not least with some pretty foul language. I was absolutely terrified. My head was swimming. Everything felt so surreal. Here I was in a dark street at midnight, two men, both at least a foot taller and wider than me following me and describing in minute detail how they were going to “fuck me,” while my only defence was another small girl a few steps ahead of me and my house keys in my pocket, Wolverined between my fingers.
I’m not sure how long they pursued me for. I do know that in my fear I ran out into the middle of a busy main road as cars honked and swerved around me, because the only thing I could think of was to get away from them, at any cost. Once I’d crossed the road and the men were far behind me, the girl who’d been walking near me turned to me and for the first time spoke; “Jesus, and it’s not even summer yet.”
I was furious at her. I was furious that she was so flippant, that she just accepted what had just happened as normal, and even more normal in summer no less. We walked down the street together in silence until my street, where I rushed to get in the front door. Once inside I collapsed. My heart was beating faster than a trance song and I thought I might have a heart attack. I tossed and turned all night, jumping at every little sound outside my window. It was an awful night, and even when I did finally fall asleep I only woke again full of anxiety, my heart still pounding like a drum.
I thought about calling the police last night. Then what? Waiting for them to come find me in the street while I stood with my aggressors? Or scared the aggressors away with the threat of police and then spent the night trying to give detailed descriptions of two men I’d barely looked at in my desperation to evade them? It seemed nonsensical to call for the assistance of the law, especially when there would have been little or nothing that a police officer could have done for me, given the intangible nature of the attack. Why did I feel so powerless? Why should I have to feel so powerless? Why do I see no recourse to actual action when I’m put in such a vulnerable position?
It’s something that happens every day. Men threaten women in the public places regularly, and that’s not to say all men are culprits, but there is a prevailing culture that says it’s OK to speak as long as you don’t touch. I’m telling you it’s not OK. It’s not OK that I’m now afraid to walk in the streets that separate my house from the train station. It’s not OK that strangers, completely uninvited, made me feel unsafe in an environment that should be a safe place for all. It’s not OK that my womanhood was used against me in such a way as to make me feel weak and inferior. It’s not OK that my heart is still beating at a rapid pace and that I’m now struggling with this new anxiety.
So what can we do? Honestly, I don’t know; what I do know is that there needs to be a shift in attitudes. We need to look out for each other, men and women alike. Everyone reserves the right to go about their lives undisturbed. Everyone deserves the right to enjoy a level of bodily and emotional security that should not be subject to the whim of others and their selfish actions. Everyone, no matter what they look like, where they walk, or what they do, is precious, and should be treated as such. No one should ever be interfered with against their will.
I know I’m going to go back outside, maybe even today (I couldn’t even bring myself to go get a coffee this morning, my hands shook at the very thought of leaving the house), because I don’t like to let other people win. I’m the one who gets to win. But what if I couldn’t? What if I was so broken by the threatening behaviour on my doorstep that it affected my whole life, as I’m sure it has affected the lives of others? I feel intensely emotional right now, like an area of my life that I was comfortable in has forever been tainted, because I feel entirely vulnerable and at risk. I know that I’ll never walk alone down that street again, even though it’s not a bad street, or a street where anything untoward has ever happened before, in the six odd months I’ve been walking down it. It’s absurdity at it’s best; the familiar has now become the stuff of nightmares.
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