Tag Archives: victimization

My Feelings on Street Harassment

26 Apr

My feelings, as you may have already presumed, are not good.  A few weeks ago, my friend Creating Carrie posted about an incident of street harassment she experienced while on her bike.  In the end of the post, she asked her readers to respond to a number of questions which were posed to the victims, the by-standers, and the perpetrators of harassment.  I had been planning on responding to this post since she wrote it but just hadn’t felt compelled.  Until right now.

I have, earlier in my thus far short blogging life, posted about two different experiences I have had with different types of street harassment.  One was verbal, one physical; one I took action that resulted in punishment for the perpetrators, one I still fantasize about what I could have done differently.  (I will not share with you some of the more violent fantasies.)  Each situation is different, the levels of safety are different, the time of day.  Is the harasser in a car, on a bike, walking down the street?  Is he alone or with buddies?  My immediate feeling, despite the scenario, is always the same.  Anger.  Intense, intense anger.  Sometimes people tell me that I should just ignore it but, honestly, I find that those people are usually men.  They don’t understand.  One night, walking home from a bar that my boyfriend at the time owned and worked at, (if you’re wondering what time of day it was, what I was wearing, and whether I had been drinking then I have nothing to say to you) I heard behind me, on the sidewalk, the crunching of bike tires.  Even though I think it is rude to ride a bike on the sidewalk, going the wrong way no less, I decided to just swallow my words, move aside, and let the biker pass.  I was a few yards away from home and it seemed silly to start something right then.  And then, it happened.  The bicycle rider, who turned out to be a food delivery boy (I use “boy” not in any derogative way but because this person was, or at least appeared to be, a kid) grabbed my ass and rode off.  I was livid.  I yelled, of course, but bikes are faster than legs and I knew there was nothing I could do but stand there and seethe and feel completely violated.  I walked into my building and the tears came immediately.  Not because I was afraid but because I felt so dehumanized, so disempowered, so enraged.  Ignore it?  How?  I tell people this story and sometimes they laugh.  I wonder what the hell they think is so damn funny.

When was the last time I was harassed on the street, you might ask?  About 20 minutes ago.  Here’s how it happened.  I decided today would be the day I would start doing some of the things I have been putting off.  I used power tools and I hung up a mirror.  I felt powerful!  Self-sufficient!  I said to myself, “self, today you are going to hang up that pendant lamp that has been sitting in a bag, swaddled in bubble wrap, waiting to be mounted on the wall or broken by marauding kitties.”  I got my things together and walked to the nearby Home Depot.  I looked everywhere (and failed to find) the item that I needed but in the process I passed a middle-aged man who said, in a whisper in my ear right as he passed me, “hello.”  Honestly, unless you have experienced this you can never really understand how creepy that is.  To have some dude pass you so close that you can feel his breath as he whispers something at you is one of the most unnerving things.  It is a complete violation of space.  I ignored him and kept walking.  And then I heard an automated voice behind me so I turned around to see the source and, unfortunately, he turned around at the same time.  It was like that scene out of countless movies when two people pass, find each other attractive, and then catch each other looking back over their shoulders and that’s the beginning of the story of love.  Only I wasn’t looking at him, he was looking at me, and I found him repulsive.  I knew I had made a grave error.  I decided to wander around the Home Depot a while longer, weaving around the store, making sure that this man who probably thought he got some invite to conversation, or who knows what, wouldn’t see me purchasing the box of 100 garbage bags I had settled on.  I left the store.  I was still walking down the driveway, a mere 100 yards from the entrance of the store, when I caught something out of the corner of my eye.  It was the man, in his car, keeping pace with me and staring.  It seemed more than just a coincidence that we left at roughly the same time.

“Hey sweetheart, you need a ride?”

Sweetheart?  Really? “I’m fine.”

“Where are you going?  You look awfully nice.  I bet I could get you there faster.”

All I could do was look straight ahead and say “get away from me” as calmly as possible.  Luckily, he listened to my stern request and said nothing.  The entirety of my three-block walk home I was looking over my shoulder, worried that he had parked in front of one of the semis lining the street I was walking up, waiting to try his luck again.  Thankfully, he didn’t but the point is that he could have.  The point is that he, like the other men who have harassed me, made me feel unsafe.  It feels especially invasive when it happens so close to home.  As Creating Carrie so wonderfully put it,

A harasser’s desire to harass cannot be allowed because of some mythical safety. Guess what? Harassment destroys my safety. Physical violence is not the only way to make a neighborhood unsafe.

Is the Home Depot now on the list of places that a woman shouldn’t go alone?  Oh, there are so many men there, so much testosterone-inspiring power tools that a woman is just asking for it.  Fuck that.  Me looking over my shoulder in response to an unexpected sound is not an invitation.  I was born with breasts (not literally, but you know), and a vagina, and all the other things that come along with being female but that doesn’t make me any less human.  So don’t tell me to ignore it.  Don’t tell me I am only making it worse.  Next time you see a girl and want to say something, just don’t.  And the next time your friend or girlfriend tells you a story of harassment, don’t laugh it off or suggest she do something different, just listen.  Otherwise, next time I am harassed in Home Depot I might heed my friend Cherie’s advice and grab the nearest nail gun, axe, 2×4….because, despite what people may think, we know how to use these things.

Thinking About Jailing the Victim? Here’s Why Not.

20 Apr

This is a post I have been thinking about writing for about a week now.  The idea was to give my rage a little time to dissolve.  As any friends or frequent readers might have already guess, this was an exercise in futility.  On April 15th, the New York Times (belatedly) published an article about a 17-year-old rape victim who was detained in Sacramento County, California (either in violation of, or due to the existence of, Marsy’s Law) for failing to appear at the court case against the man who was accused of raping her.  She was, ultimately, held in juvenile detention for 25 days for failing to appear twice.  The judge on the case deemed that rather than continuing to hold her until her scheduled appearance on April 23rd (almost a full month after she was first placed in custody on March 27th) she would be tracked using GPS monitoring.  Apparently her appearance is necessary because her attacker has been deemed a threat to public safety.

I really don’t even know where to start with this one.  According to the Times article, prosecutors in the case believe this girl is the missing link to putting away her attacker, a man who has a long criminal record including one prior rape.  Fair enough.  But ultimately that decision, whether to go through the strains of a trial, should be in the hands of the victim and not the criminal justice system.  As my friend Carrie said in a recent conversation, it should not be about justice, it should be about her justice.  Having been the victim of assault myself, as many women have been and, unfortunately, will be, I can understand her apprehension about coming forward.  I never told anyone what happened because I was afraid it was my fault.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed.  I, also, was 17.  Now, 11 years later, looking back on it I wish I had come forward and said something.  Who knows what this person did later.  Who knows whether his actions escalated.  Who knows whether by my coming forward I could have helped save someone else from experiencing the same thing I did.  The thing is that when I was 17 I wasn’t the same person I am now, at 28.  I was more concerned with healing myself, moving forward with my life, my freshman year at college, than I was with holding him (offiicially) responsible for his actions.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I even fully recognized, or named, the assault for a long time after it occurred.  Sure, the thought of seeing that person again, with whom I had a lot of friends in common, made me really uneasy but I don’t think I truly knew why that was.  I blocked it out and it took a number of years before I had the courage to admit to myself what had happened.  And again, I felt a sense of shame.  I was a strong woman, an independent woman, I shouldn’t have allowed this to happen.  But the thing is, it had nothing to do with how strong or independent I was, and I certainly didn’t let it happen (or “ask for it” which seems the common vernacular).  It had nothing to do with me as a person at all, really.  It had to do with his power and my, simply by being born a woman, lack thereof. It had to do with the society in which he and I were both raised.  My point here is that I understand the desire the prosecutors have to put this man behind bars.  He is a reprehensible human being.  But putting the responsibility for the safety of an entire community, and the possible punishment of a career criminal, on the shoulders of a young woman who likely feels responsible for her own assault is just as reprehensible.  She needs to heal, in her time and in her way, she needs support, she needs to either speak out against him or not, she needs to do what she needs.  And, really, she is the only one who knows what that is.  But since they have jailed her, since that has happened, here are some reasons why I find it incredibly problematic.

1.  According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) 54% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.  That’s a lot.  They even came up with this incredibly useful, and incredibly depressing, bar graph that pictorializes rape conviction rates.


Source:  RAINN

  1. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey: 2006-2010
  2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2006-2010
  3. National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999
  4. Department of Justice, Felony Defendents in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006

If one were to do a risk-reward analysis of the results of coming forward after a rape or assault, one would likely conclude that reliving a traumatic event in front of a group of strangers to most likely not succeed in putting someone behind bars is not really worth it.  It partially explains why so many rapes and assaults go unreported and also might explain why this specific victim decided against reporting to her court appearance the first two times she was required to do so.

2.  It is not, I repeat not, the responsibility of this 17-year-old girl, or any other rape or assault victim, to protect the community from his/her attacker.  Sure, it would be great if she felt compelled to do so and even better if it worked in her favor.  Clearly this man is a monster and shouldn’t be free, but to force a victim to face her attacker against her will is inhuman.  The prosecutors in this case can not know, even if they themselves have been assaulted in their lifetime, what this girl’s life has been like, how she might feel about her attack, the fear she might have of facing her attacker, the trust or distrust she might have towards law enforcement and the justice system.  No one but her knows how she is feeling and no one but her can make the decision as to how she would like to go forward.

3.  Back to the rape report statistics, why do people not have the ability to have a big picture understanding of things?  I get it, the prosecutors want to put this man in jail.  But how about the ways in which this story is going to impact other victims of rape and assault?  Do they really think that by putting this girl behind bars they are instilling any sort of trust in law enforcement and the justice system’s ability to handle cases such as this?  Do they really think that other victims are going to feel safe reporting their own attacks when the possibility they will be jailed for being afraid to appear in court is in the back of their minds?

4.  If you have ever followed a rape or sexual assault case that has garnered national, or international attention, then you will know that the woman is rarely portrayed as a hero for standing up to her attacker.  In our justice system, in media coverage, and in our society she is a slut until proven otherwise.  The victim-blaming runs rampant.  Press coverage, and casual conversation, is rife with questions and assumptions.  What was she wearing?  What was she doing out at that time of night in that area of town?  Where was her mother?  Had she ever lied on any document on public record because if she had, if she was capable of lying then, what’s to make us think she isn’t lying now?  How many sexual partners had she had previously?  Was she promiscuous, or perceived as being promiscuous, in her life?  How much had she had to drink?  You get the idea.  If the victim is not perceived as relatable and trust-worthy then the assault never happened.  She is forced to defend her past, her actions, and her personality as if she is the one on trial.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough, she has to look at examples like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in which he is respected and she is still, 17 years later, running away from the image of a semen-stained dress.  She is defined by her assault and he by his accomplishments.  With events like these to look to, who can blame a victim for not wanting to put herself through it?

Maybe it seems as if I have taken my analysis of this specific incident a little too far.  The point of the matter is that no unique rape or assault exists in a vacuum separate from all the rapes and assaults, and official responses to them, that came before.  Every single day women are in danger of becoming victims and, by jailing this young woman, Sacramento County has just taken, on behalf of the entire criminal justice system, a step backwards in terms of its openness to female victims of sexual violence.  We are further silenced, unprotected, disempowered, and victimized because of actions such as this.  And now this young girl has yet another trauma to overcome, the trauma of her own incarceration.