I don’t know what it is about me that compels total strangers to approach me. I’ve often joked that it might be because my resting face isn’t ‘bitchy’ enough, that I must have some kind of sign flashing above above my head that draws people in.
It’s tough to describe the feeling that washes over me when I realize that someone I don’t know is coming up to me to say something – more often than not, this person is a man. I experience a myriad of emotions, typically leaning toward the side of dread – but this is also because I’m not sure what to expect, not sure how the interaction is going to go.
There are about a million thoughts I have, all in the span of a few seconds. I don’t want to be rude. I also don’t want to be approached in a way I’m not comfortable with. As a person, as a human being, I feel as though I should be entitled to signal somehow that I’m not prepared to engage, not willing to interact with anyone if I don’t want to. There should be some universal sign I can flip down over my eyes like the low brim of a hat, like shutters being drawn down over a storefront.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
This quote, originally credited to Margaret Atwood and recently repurposed by Gillian Anderson’s character on the BBC crime drama The Fall, is one that I’ve been mulling over and over in my head lately. I’ve been living in New York City for the past two years, but I’ve only just started to notice the truth in the statement. As a woman walking alone at night, I have different fears than a man would. I can’t be out too late in a poorly lit area. I can’t have the music in my earbuds playing too loudly, as that would lower my defenses – but if I have my earbuds in, I’ll be able to avoid any potential interaction. I have to be aware of my surroundings at all times.
The other day I actually considered buying one of these keychains, the ones that look like a cat with the ears that point outward. It’s cute, but slightly dangerous – and it’s a modified way of sticking your keys between your knuckles like they used to show you on Oprah.
I have never been sexually assaulted. I have never been raped. I am not among those on the other side, the terrifying side, the all-too-real side of the statistic. The times that my personal space have been violated are few and far in between, but the one I remember the most vividly happened right after I moved to New York.
Afterwards, I tried to rationalize the situation. He was clearly a man with some mental problems – disabled in some way. It could have been much worse. I was fortunate that it had happened on the train, during the morning commute, in full view of others.
I rationalize, and then I remember looking up in the midst of things and noticing the averted gazes, the expressions of people engrossed in their smart phones, trying to mind their own business. In that moment, I was more severely uncomfortable than I have ever been, and it was like I was trapped in a bubble, screaming silently, just hoping someone would look up and give me an out so that I could exit the situation quietly. He asked for my phone number, for the name of the company where I worked. I mumbled something about having a boyfriend. I remember him putting an arm around my shoulders in an attempt to embrace me in some way, and I think he tried to kiss me on the cheek at one point. It ended when he got off at the next stop, but the fear that I would run into him again led me to take a different train line to work for the next several months.
Sometimes I think about it, and sometimes I get angry. Why do I have to worry about these things? Why do I have to resist the urge to go on the defensive when a man I don’t know comes up to me? Why should I care about how a man will react if I rebuff him? Why should I be thinking about how many people are in my vicinity in case something happens to me?
It happens to the most careful of us, the most aware. We can be as mindful as we want, but that doesn’t prevent the threat. But it also doesn’t excuse it, either. It’s difficult not to feel helpless, to feel like all efforts are in vain.
As women, what we can do is support other women. When someone speaks up about their experience we can listen first, and act second. We can be there for women who have experienced the trauma of sexual assault, and we can be there for women who haven’t. We can share our stories, and we can help one another heal. We can refuse to be silent, and we can refuse to be ignored.