This is an essay I wrote in July 2013. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the exact moment when my world imploded. I’m happy to report that I have since rebuilt my life with the help of family, friends, medication, and extensive therapy, and I am stronger and better for it.
The first step in that process was finally acknowledging and opening up about my experiences with sexual assault. In sharing this essay with an increasingly wide net of friends, I have learned that almost every other woman in my life has had to deal with sexual harassment and violence in some measure, but almost none of them talks about it. That is why I am publishing this essay at long last.
I believe that as a society, we need to hear the voices of more survivors of sexual violence. The taboo surrounding discussion of sexual assault, rape, and abuse is too strong to prevent it from happening, and it is too strong to help victims heal. If I had felt more comfortable talking about my own history, I don’t think I would have become as sick as I did. But I also believe that no individual survivor owes it to a single person to talk about their experiences. So that leaves me. My own voice.
The names in this essay have been changed. This is partly to protect the identity of my friends, who are good, wonderful, loving, supportive people who have helped me transform from victim to survivor. But the anonymity also to serves as a reminder that it could have been anyone saying these things. No matter how progressive and enlightened each of us may or may not be, we are all complicit in perpetuating rape culture. I unequivocally include myself in that statement.I’m 26. I’m walking home from town on a sunny day, and the entire world seems to be in line outside Jannetta’s. A group of four or five men is walking behind me, talking loudly to one another. They quicken their pace, which makes me quicken my pace, which only prolongs the time in which they get closer and closer, until they finally split around me and keep going. I’m trying not to panic, to keep my feet moving one in front of the other because I know this is a completely irrational reaction. I know that nothing bad is going to happen in the middle of the afternoon in broad daylight. These men are harmless; they just went a little too far over the limits of my personal space, moving around me as if I was nothing more than a postbox, carrying on their conversation over my head. But it’s too much for me today, and my heart is racing now, and it’s all I can do to keep it together as I’m reliving a thousand other moments right here, in the middle of South Street.
I’m 20. I’m living in Paris, but it’s Thanksgiving and I’m on my way to a dinner out with my American classmates. As usual, there’s a transport strike on, and the metro is packed. Somebody grabs my crotch, but I can’t tell who because there are too many people. I try to shift away, but there is nowhere to go, so I just stand there, with this disembodied hand fingering me, unable to move. I make my escape at the next stop, and as I turn to step onto the platform, I meet his cold eyes, daring me to say something. But I do nothing, just as he predicted I would, except shuffle to the next car. When I get to the restaurant and tell my friends what happened, they listen in appropriately rapt horror. Sophie is in disbelief that I didn’t react, she would have punched him she says. I try to defend myself to them, but I feel stupid, like it’s my responsibility to stop someone else from putting his hand on my crotch. Anne wonders what it is about me that attracts so many creepers, because she’s never been harassed like I have. Amanda suggests that it’s my hair, which has grown past my elbows at this point. I take my coat off and I’m wearing a low-cut dress. Jamie jokes that who wouldn’t want to molest me, look at how great my boobs look tonight, but then he folds me into a reassuring hug that makes me feel a little less like I’ve somehow brought this on myself.
I’m 25. I log onto Facebook and discover that Veronika has posted an inflammatory comment directed at an anonymous student who has used university-sanctioned channels of feedback to complain about a professor rather than approaching him openly. Though nobody knows the specifics, it is widely presumed that the complaints are of a sexual harassment nature. In the ensuing debate that I rouse, it becomes apparent that not only Veronika, but also several of my other female classmates, seem to think that it’s a victim’s responsibility to not be sexually harassed, that if she has a issue with the way a man is acting towards her, it is her problem to confront him directly, regardless of his relationship to or position of authority over her, or else shut up and deal with it. I feel hurt and enraged, but mostly sad at the state of the world that so many women still think this, especially when a small part of me still blames myself for the things that happen to me.
I’m 21. I’m wearing the white dress with grey polka dots that I love, even if it maybe shows a little too much skin. I’m visiting friends who are working in DC for the summer, and as we’re waiting to exit the metro, a man stands a tiny bit too close behind me. I don’t see it, but apparently he reaches out for my ass but misses, just getting a swish of cotton through his fingers as I step onto the platform. For the first time since I’ve come back from France, I feel like my clothes are too revealing. I put the dress in the back of the closet and bring it out less and less often from now on.
I’m 22. It’s the middle of winter, and because of some recent snowstorms, I’m wearing bulky clothes. I haven’t washed my hair in three days, I’m sleep deprived, and I’m not wearing any makeup. I decide to take a mid-morning bagel break, and in the two blocks between my office and the bagel shop, I am catcalled three times. When I get there, the man at the cash register leers at me as I give my order. He applies some arbitrary discount and winks. I return to work and give my coworker the bagel, which I don’t want anymore. He wishes that he could get a bagel discount, he says.
I’m 24. I walk to a different job this time, and there is literally not a day that goes by that I don’t get wolf-whistled, shouted at, or undressed by some creepy stranger’s eyes. It’s mid-morning and I’m getting coffee with Anne when a group of fratty dudes behind us makes some stupid comment. Anne wheels around and tells them to go fuck themselves, with a level of rage that both seems unwarranted, and I’m also a little impressed by. Then she tells me, without a hint of jealousy or resentment, just matter-of-fact, that this only happens to her when she’s with me. And there it is again, that lingering doubt, that while obviously this isn’t my fault, I mean, obviously, the scientific, hyper-rational part of my mind is trying to parse out the variables and identify what’s different about me that this keeps happening, and figure out which of those variables can I control, even though I shouldn’t have to, because I didn’t do anything wrong. But it’s an exercise in futility, because I can never figure out why Anne is a less desirable target, because we’re the same size, and she’s really pretty, and maybe Amanda is right and it is the hair, because even though I love Anne’s auburn bob, maybe that’s not what creepy dudes go for, like there’s some creepy dude checklist and I tick all the boxes.
I’m 20. Colleen is coming home from work when a man calls her into his shop and hands her a letter for me. We’re the only white women in Dharamsala who wear Tibetan dress, so I guess everyone knows who we are. Colleen tells me to meet her in town for dinner, and when I do, she presents me with the letter. It’s a profession of love from the local bookseller in poorly worded, unpunctuated English; I’ve been in his shop once, maybe twice. I’m mortified and do nothing; he passes two similar letters to Colleen in the coming weeks. I stop going down the street with his shop, which is difficult, since there are only three streets to choose from. One day, my friends convince me to go to dinner at a restaurant past the bookstore, I mean, what are the odds that I’ll see him? I agree, and everything is fine until the return trip, when I’m walking on the opposite side of the street with my raincoat zipped up to obscure my face, even though it is sunny right now, and I can’t see where I’m going with my hood like that, which is how I run straight into him. And I have to turn him down, after weeks of ignoring his love letters, with my friends right there trying not to laugh. It makes a funny story, but the real punchline is just a punch to the gut, filled with shame and self-loathing.
I’m 25. I’m in Paris again, sitting in the Galerie de grands formats at the Louvre, recalling what I remember from art history class to Caroline. An American tourist comes by and tries to chat me up, and although he is completely non-scary, even a little doofy, and my friend is right there and it’s the middle of the Louvre so what could possibly happen, I am awkward and uncomfortable and I just want him to leave me alone. He’s not even acknowledging Caroline and I can feel the hostility emanating from her entire person. When we rejoin our friends and she recounts the story of how this guy tried to talk to me while totally ignoring her, she tells it like it’s a joke, but I can see that she is offended and maybe a little bit jealous. I laugh like it’s a joke, but I’m actually really upset and embarrassed and I just want her to drop it, and maybe it’s just because we’re in France and the resurfacing of all those bad memories and the fact I’ve been street harassed here more in the past two days than I have the whole time I’ve been in Scotland, but something about the way she tells her story makes me feel again like it’s my fault, like I’m doing something wrong to attract this attention.
I’m 18. I’m in the MFA for College Night, and we are people watching as this douchey-looking guy proceeds to hit on no less than seven different women. As we follow him around the galleries, tallying his conquests, somebody else keeps appearing where we are. One of my friends notices that he is sketching us, or more particularly, he is sketching me. It’s a little bit flattering but more so discomforting; I don’t like being singled out. Angelica is sitting right next to me looking like Julia Freaking Roberts; why can’t he draw her instead? But we just laugh about it and move on, until a few galleries later he approaches and thanks me for being his subject, that I was perfect for his sketches, and I just wish he wouldn’t have said anything and we both could have gone on pretending like I didn’t know that he was drawing me.
I’m 20. I’m coming home from Sophie’s twenty-first birthday party and I’m listening to my iPod. I always have headphones on in the metro, even when nothing is playing, so that I can pretend not to hear when someone harasses me. But tonight I am listening to music, and even though I probably shouldn’t, I leave it on for the walk home because it’s not that late, and I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris, so it seems pretty safe. Something from the High School Musical soundtrack comes on, and I’m smiling to myself, because I’m thinking about Jamie, and how he brought a poster of Zac Efron with him to France, which is too ridiculous not be smiling about. So I don’t notice the man who is walking a few steps behind me, whom I’ve never seen before, and who definitely does not live in my building, until I open the locked gate into the courtyard and see him catch it behind me. And now I’m uneasy but I don’t want to panic or look scared, so I just quicken my pace a little, and then he quickens his pace a little, which I can tell because his shadow is coming closer and closer until it completely envelops mine. Suddenly, he’s behind me, and he reaches underneath, dragging his hand from front to back, lingering on my ass for a fraction of a second longer. When I turn to shout at him not to touch me, he backs off for a moment, long enough for me to run towards my locked door on the other side of the courtyard. But as I’m climbing the steps, he catches up and grabs me again, this time more forcefully, and all the lights in the apartment building are off. It is Thanksgiving again and Anne is telling me that if you’re being attacked, people are more likely to respond to you screaming obscenities than you screaming for help, so now I am swearing as loudly as I can in every language I know, while I fumble with my keys in the door, and he keeps grabbing me, he’s tearing at my clothes, and I’m trying to shake him off, but not a single light turns on, nobody comes to my rescue. Now I’ve got the door open and I’m inside, but so is he, at least partially, but I manage to force his foot back from the jam and slam his left hand in the door over and over, until finally he removes that, too, hopefully with every bone in every finger shattered. But while I’m locking the door from the inside, I can’t help but see through the warped glass that he has his penis in his right hand, that he’s masturbating now, and I turn and run up to the first landing and let myself into my host family’s apartment. But nobody’s awake, so I just sit on the couch alone for the next hour and text Anne and Samantha and Amanda; I don’t want to ruin Sophie’s birthday so I’ll tell her tomorrow. It never even occurs to me to call the police. Instead, I look up the word “rape” in a French-English dictionary. Violer. Quelqu’un a essayé de me violer. It sounds too pretty, too smooth, too ambiguous, that can’t be right. Eventually I find the courage to move to my solitary eighth-floor walkup, and it’s the six scariest flights I’ve ever climbed, because I’m convinced he’s somehow found his way back in, is waiting for me in my apartment. But he’s not. So I just lock the door and lie in bed, awake for hours, the adrenaline still coursing through my body.
I’m 23. I’m coming back from a run and I still have my headphones in, listening to music. As a joke, Alexis comes up from behind and seizes me by the waist. And as she does, I see her shadow, and I’m back in Paris on Sophie’s birthday, and now I’m falling to the ground in the fetal position, crying, shaking on the pavement. Eventually I pull myself together and get back up, but Alexis seems annoyed with my melodramatic response. My panic has turned to anger, at Alexis, at myself, at that man in Paris, at everyone in that apartment building who sleeps silently while I am screaming for help, at Sophie and Caroline and Anne and Veronika and the white dress with the grey polka dots and everyone who makes this feel like my responsibility, my fault, that I could have done something differently, even when they don’t believe it themselves. We’re only a couple of blocks from home, but it seems like an eternity as we walk back in silence.
I’m 22. I have just gotten off the metro in Columbia Heights and I’m heading to Target, when a man I’ve never seen before looks livid, like, homicidal rage levels of anger, and then he grabs my crotch. It’s a busy street and there are people all around, but nobody notices, or at least, everyone pretends not to see, and I run into Target as fast as I can, but I don’t find anyone, I don’t tell anyone, I’m too paralyzed by panic and fear, but my body keeps moving on its own accord, wandering through the racks of clothing like a zombie, and why are there even bathing suits on sale when there is still snow melting outside, and when I exhaust the aisles of terrycloth rompers and maternity bras, I head across to Bed Bath & Beyond and look at blenders or whatever, I don’t actually know because I’m not really looking, I’m too busy asking myself why this always happens to me and never to any of my friends, not that I would wish it on them. And mostly I’m thinking about how I definitely cannot go back outside, because what if he’s still there? I don’t leave for two hours, and I don’t even buy anything, because I can’t remember what it is I came here for.
I’m 25. I’m walking to class with the new messenger bag I stole from my dad just before moving to Scotland. As I walk, the clasps slap against the bottom of the bag, sounding the illusion of footsteps close behind me. A soft and rhythmic clack, clack, clack, just out of time with my own steps. Even though I know there’s nobody there, I can’t stop looking over my shoulder, or watching the ground in front of me for a shadow. But it’s morning and the sun is already high in the sky, and I can’t see my shadow anyway, so I put in headphones, crank up the volume, and drown out the phantom footsteps.
I’m 24. I’m at The Reef, sitting on the roofdeck. It’s the only decent part of the bar. Downstairs feels a little dark and creepy and has fish tanks everywhere. I’m with a large group, and I strategically place myself in a buffer zone of rambunctious loud-talkers so as to avoid sitting near Greg, the sweet but humorless guy who is vaguely pursuing me, even though everyone except him can see we’d be terrible together. My suspicions are confirmed; he is too timid to try and talk to me with so much energy around, so instead I am engaged in a bizarrely heated debate about botanical taxonomy with Ben, who is so drunk that he will later piss himself in line for Napoleon, but will nevertheless stop for empanadas before Rachel finds him and takes her urine-steeped boyfriend home. We are laughing at the absurdity of it all when a man from another party comes over and says, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that you’re really beautiful.” Just like that. Like he’s a fucking One Direction song, except it doesn’t seem cheesy, and I don’t even know that One Direction exists yet, and then he walks off and rejoins his friends without another word or even a glance. Michelle encourages me to go talk to him, since he’s kind of cute, but in the end I stay where I am because the toggle sweater he’s wearing narrowly loses to the cigarette that’s dangling from the corner of his mouth. So I just keep laughing at Drunk Ben with most of my attention, while a little part of my brain registers that this is the only time, ever, that I can remember being approached by an unknown man and not feeling at least a little bit threatened.And I’m 26 again. I’m walking back from town, trying to calm myself down from my panic attack. I am crying, for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I’m so frustrated with myself for losing it, even though it is 5pm on a busy street in summer, and they aren’t even noticing me, really, this is a crazy overreaction. I realize that nothing has changed, that years later, I’m still afraid of shadows and footsteps and men on the sidewalk, and a tiny part of me that I hate is still asking what did I do, what did I wear, why did he pick me?
And I wonder if this is how it’s always going to be, for the rest of my life.