Let’s talk about personal agency.
Let’s pretend I was the man on a date Sunday night.
I had a nice time at a late comedy show, but lost track of time and it midnight when we got the check on our bottle of wine.
Not knowing my date too well, I of course planned to go home alone. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and boarded my train.
Trains to my neighborhood were terrible, and it was around 1:30am when I got off at my stop in Brooklyn. I knew someone was walking behind me, but that’s not uncommon–lots of people live on the other side of the BQE like I do, and it’s simply an awkward walk to make together as you avoid eye contact and try to pace a little faster or slower so you’re not in sync. I figured I was being a bit paranoid to keep my ipod in my pocket and glance behind me every few minutes, but, it was late and you have to be careful. Every time I looked behind me, the short, stocky guy in a snapback and slick, short ponytail ducked his head. I figured he was embarrassed, and I felt bad for seeming suspicious of him.
Does it matter what happened next? Can I even describe it? Is it possible to reframe the events with what I know now, when at the time, my mind just wouldn’t draw the conclusion that something was wrong, that this man was bad and wanted to hurt me?
I got a creepy feeling when we got to the intersection after crossing the highway, where the streets get really quiet. I paused. There was no traffic. He paused too.
If you’re a New Yorker, you know this is strange, because no one pauses at an empty intersection. They cross the street at the first available opportunity. I pretended at this point to get a text, to let him pass. We both crossed the street, me very slowly, then starting to walk right (thinking I could do a loop around the block, just to be safe). When I looked up, he was a few steps ahead on the main street but had come to a dead stop. I suddenly questioned my plan. Had he really stopped because I wasn’t walking with him?
The street I was headed down was dark and residential. I knew I was being paranoid, but, I decided to turn back and walk the brightly lit street, thinking if I had to confront him, my chances would be better on the main road.
I started dialing a friend and when I looked up, there he was, three feet away from me. We were face to face.
Instinctively, I backed away from him, walking in reverse to the street light.
He mumbled something about 3rd Avenue–which was on the other side of the subway we had both come out of. It was a good seven blocks away. His breath smelled like cat food. I pointed in the direction of 3rd Ave and said “excuse me, I need to call my friend.” But he kept coming closer, ignoring my obvious discomfort. He mumbled something again and reached under his shirt, rubbing his stomach. I said, “I need to call my friend, excuse me,” but he repeated himself, lowering his hand to his belt buckle, which he started undoing. This time I heard what he said: “I’m so horny.”
He was undoing his belt buckle and I just–I couldn’t react. I was in total denial of what was happening to me. I think I stammered out something about where 3rd avenue was again, and just kept backing away, clutching my phone.
We were in front of a closed car dealership. An overpass was behind us. In the distance, a block away, was a gas station. Could I make it that far? Could they hear me if I screamed?
I was totally aware that I was alone, in the middle of the night, with this man who was “horny” and undoing his belt. I was afraid if I started running, or yelled at him, or did anything extreme at all, it would escalate things into the scene that I didn’t want to believe that this was becoming: the Sunday night that I get raped three blocks from my home.
A car pulled up to the intersection. The man dropped his hands to his sides and took a step back. At this moment, I found my voice. “You need to go THAT way,” I said forcefully, and began walking backwards faster, pointing in the other direction with my whole arm. “You need to go that way, I’m calling someone,” I repeated. Like magic, he slowly turned away. I walked backward the whole block to the gas station, as he made it to the overpass, looking over his shoulder every few seconds, walking excruciatingly slowly. I heard a voice on my phone faintly say “hello?” and I burst into tears.
Were you pretending that all of this happened to a man?
Super creepy and random and unsolicited, right?
I think the general response to a story like that, from a man just walking home from a date, minding his business, would be “What the fuck?!!!”
Now let me give you a sampling of the responses I got, telling this story:
-“You just really need to be aware.” -My date from that evening, as I was on the phone with him that night in tears. Yeah no, I was aware. I was totally, horrifically aware that I was about to be assaulted. Thanks for your input! (We’re not dating anymore).
-“You should pack a pair of pants and a hat in your bag when you go out so that people will think you’re a man on the walk home.” -My dad. (He means well, and yes, in theory, this probably would prevent my being stalked on my way home. But… I need to carry a duffle bag on all my dates/outings, and cross dress to prevent my own rape? This is how I have to live my life to avoid being assaulted?).
-“What time were you walking though?” -Everyone. Yes, I was walking late. This is a thing both men and women have to do sometimes as adults. I realize that I am arrogant for expecting to walk to where I live at night, while in possession of a vagina (which oh yeah, that wasn’t my choice, I’m sort of just stuck with it). Guess I totally got what I deserved! If you were wondering, my date who also went home at the same hour was totally fine. As he expected to be.
-“Why didn’t you take a cab?”-Everyone. Welp. My metrocard is paid for at the beginning of every month. so taking the subway home is essentially free. A cab to Bay Ridge costs about 40 bucks before tip. Want to know what I have to do to make that kind of money? That’s more that I make teaching for an hour, and let me tell you, I work too hard for that money to waste it on taking a cab every time I want to have an evening out and not get raped. Oh, and because Gender Equality, I paid for dinner and drinks this particular night, so I was broke anyway.
I am sick and fucking tired of having to apologize for my attire and lifestyle when bad shit like this happens to me. I am tired of the double standards (Dress sexy for your date! Don’t dress sexy as you walk on the street on the way to or from your date though, or you can expect to be raped!”)
I am tired of women having to apologize for a whole irrelevant set of lifestyle choices because they have been the victims of a crime.
For example, if I was walking home from having sex with my date instead of kissing him on the cheek, would that change how you felt about my story?
What if I had been drunk? Would that make me more responsible for this stranger looking for someone to rape having stalked me?
If you heard this story first, then learned that I pole dance on my own time second, would you secretly assume I must have been dressed like a slut and thus invited this person following me? What does “dressing like a slut” even mean, by the way?
As women, we live our lives knowing that the second we suffer a misfortune, people will point to a failure on our part to prevent that misfortune.
-Were you “unaware”?
-Were you dressed as an attractive woman?
-Were you walking late? (The last time I had an issue with assault, PS, was leaving my job at the same hour as my male coworkers. I was groped on the street just trying to get home after a long day. They’ve never had any problems. If you were wondering, I was wearing pants and an oversized hoodie).
Fuck ALL of this shit.
Let’s take a second and say that again, with feeling: FUCK ALL OF THIS SHIT.
Fuck rape culture.
Fuck victim blaming.
Fuck anyone who hears a story about rape, assault, or harassment and finds a way to justify it. The only appropriate response is the same one you’d give to a man who got jumped or robbed: “That is really fucked up and that shouldn’t have happened.”
This is where personal agency comes in. When I pole, I make no apologies for my female-ness.
I am a woman. That is how god made me. But it doesn’t trump my rights as a person, which are:
1. The right to live my life regardless of my gender. This includes the expectation to be safe.
2. The right to exercise my sexuality as I see fit. If I want to date, have sex, look sexy, dance sexy, this should have zero effect on my right to personal safety. Period.
3. The right to combine the two without fear of losing my status as a respected human being who can expect to be safe.
Your sister should be able to walk home safely. A porn star should be able to walk home safely. There’s no difference.
I am soooooo down to shout this from the rooftops now that I am female, I pole dance, and I deserve and EXPECT to be respected and feel safe.
It’s not an asterisk on my file, that makes me an exception. I think the more of us who live out loud this way and still demand respect, the better we can change the thinking around sexual violence. It’s never okay. It should never be “expected.”
And it’s nobody’s fault except for the guy who follows a woman home at night knowing damn well that the fact that she’s wearing a skirt will make her victimhood a moot point.