I was recently talking to a fellow writer and friend of mine about his travels. I was telling him I was envious of his travels and how I’d love to be able to live my life that way but that its more dangerous for a woman to travel alone than for a man. His answer was that it’s not as dangerous as I think. My response was that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman. We must be ever vigilant for our own self-preservation. I think that most men make assumptions and judgements on how they see the world as they are unable to see it from a female perspective. They are often dismissive of the dangers we face because they’ve never faced them. Unfortunately, I think the only way for them to truly see it is for them to see it first hand with someone they care about. And even then, they can’t fully appreciate the impact of these experiences.
Women are constantly exposed to the possibility of being assaulted any time and under any circumstances outside of being locked up in their own homes. And even then, there is the possibility that someone will compromise their protections to get at them. And their clothing is not a factor in that in most circumstances. That’s a misogynistic idea at best. If a man decides he wants a woman despite it being against her will, he will act. Many think they’re entitled and are taught that not only by society but often by religion.
When I was in New York City with a group of people on a college trip, I was sexually assaulted. It wasn’t a brutal assault but it made me feel just as violated. Knowing myself and knowing how I react to things and how I best handle them, I redirected my mind to the protection of someone else.
The assault happened on the subway in broad daylight (or as daylight as the subway can be). It happened on a crowded train. The perpetrator took advantage of the crowded train to press his body against mine from the backs of my knees to my shoulders. When the train stopped and some people got off, he didn’t move. I turned and realized he was taking advantage and I told him firmly, I AM MOVING NOW, as to discourage him from following. I didn’t say anything about his assault as I was surrounded by younger women and I felt that I could take this assault better than they could. Had I moved sooner, he might have turned on one of them. As it happened, He had attempted to assault one of the girls, a 15 or 16 year old girl that was with us, by holding his hand opened in the general vicinity of her genitals in the hopes that a bump or shift would allow him to cop a feel. Once we left the train, I made my way to her father and notified him that he needed to check on his daughter. I remained close by because, knowing how I am, focusing on her well-being allowed me not to crumble to my own emotional panic. As a mother, I focused on the child’s well-being. Her father noticed my hovering and snapped at me, adding insult to injury. He unknowingly shattered my resolve.
Upon leaving the subway, I was shaking in the knees. I went to the nearest wall of the building and watched as the rest of my group ascend the stairs as I tried to hold it together. I wasn’t completely together when the last of us emerged so I followed despite feeling on the edge of panic. I at least had the presence of mind to know that if they left me, I’d be alone and in a panic in the middle of New York City. We were headed to The Guggenheim where I knew I could sit and calm down safely. I had been there before so I was comfortable with it. I knew that we’d be there a while. I told two close friends what happened but that was it for that day. Later that week, I did tell one of the professors what happened. I distanced myself from the father. It destroyed my ability to concentrate, affecting my ability to stay with working on my thesis. I ended up completing my thesis the next semester. While the father did apologize for snapping at me, I doubt he fully realized the impact of what he’d said. And I was not about to clue him in on how truly vulnerable I felt. I was angry at not only the perpetrator, but at him for his lack of insight and at myself for feeling so weak and vulnerable.
While the perpetrator did me no serious harm physically, I emotionally went to pieces. I had a panic attack in the middle of New York City. When men dismiss sexual assault as not harmful, they’re wrong. Until they experience it themselves or witness someone they love experience it, they cannot fully understand its impact. That was not the first sexual assault I’ve experienced. The first was at age 4 and was perpetrated by a family member. I’ve also experienced sex with someone because I felt it was safer to submit and survive than to fight. You don’t know what women face if you are not a woman. And you can never fully appreciate it even when a woman or girl you love is assaulted. So what right do you have to judge us in these matters? None.