Trigger Warning: This post talks about sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Several years ago I did a summer internship in Washington, DC, and I rode the metro to and from work. It was amazing to read on my commute and not sit in stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes it was overcrowded, and that was unpleasant, but for the most part I really enjoyed it.
Then one day that summer I read an article where a woman described her experience of being sexually harassed on a subway. It was late, and she was the last person in the car. She was reading, and a man got on, and started asking her questions about the book. She answered briefly and went back to reading. He didn’t like that, so he got up in her space. He got loud. He started making threats, very explicit sexual threats. She was terrified. She managed to get off the car and thanked God that he didn’t follow her. She was shaken and felt sick and powerless.
This story had a big impact on me. Nothing that drastic had ever happened to me before, but I knew it was a possibility. The next day on the metro I looked around me, wondering if anyone on the train would behave like that. I knew I wasn’t likely in danger--it was broad daylight in a crowded train. But then I had also heard stories of women being groped on trains, and this was more likely to happen when it was crowded. I was standing with my hand on the bar, people packed in around me. I adjusted my stance to put as much distance between me and the other passengers as possible.
Then I thought: if someone did grope me, what would I do? And I realized that I would probably freeze, and try and ignore it. I knew I should say or do something make them stop, but then the awful truth hit me: the idea of confronting the person assaulting me terrified me, not because they were assaulting me, but because it was a confrontation. I was more afraid of making a scene than I was afraid of being groped by a stranger.
The fact of that fear baffled me even then. Why was I so afraid of being loud and drawing attention to myself? I thought about it. I was raised to be polite and considerate and mindful of being loud in public places. Those are all good things! There is nothing wrong with being polite! Also, I am a very compliant and rule-following person by nature. But somewhere along the way I internalized the belief that it was THE MOST IMPORTANT thing for me to be polite, to be small, to not cause a disturbance. Even if someone was sexually assaulting me, it was somehow my job to keep things civil.
That is obviously RIDICULOUS, but somehow it got ingrained in my instincts. To retrain my instincts, I started practicing throwing fits in public--in my mind. I imagined someone assaulting me, and then I imagined yelling at them to STOP, and then progressively getting louder and more aggressive if they didn’t. Now, this isn’t the answer in every situation. Sometimes the safest thing to do is stay quiet. But I didn’t want my terror of confrontation to stop me from defending myself if defense were possible.
I need to say here that if you have been sexually assaulted, and you froze, or you didn’t freak out, there is absolutely no blame for you. The person who attacked you bears full responsibility for what they did. And even with all my practice, I could very well freeze up if it came to it. These are terrifying situations, and no one can say for sure how they will respond, or even know what the best response is in the moment.
But it helps to be aware that we live in a society that is pretty cool with the sexual assault of women (Trump is still a presidential candidate) and we also live in a society that tells women that it is very important to be quiet and accommodating. That is a garbage system. We can fight it by knowing that if someone is threatening our safety, it is GOOD for us to be loud and unaccommodating.
And we shouldn’t be afraid of making scenes for other people. If you see someone being harassed STEP UP. It’s weird. It’s awkward. Situations don’t always look clear cut. But at least ask if the person is OK. I was once briefly harassed on the streets of Los Angeles. I got out of the situation quickly, but a woman asked if I was ok and told me that she had seen what happened. That helped immensely, and I knew that if I had really been in danger that I had an ally. Being harassed makes us feel alone and defenseless, but we can help each other be less alone.