I slipped into a pair of jeans, a loose fitting t-shirt, and old Keds I found getting cozy with some dust bunnies at the back of my coat closet. I made a face at myself in the mirror, slinging my bag–a relic from my college days–over my shoulder. Dressed in decade old clothes, sans pearl earrings, watch, and lipstick, I felt vulnerable.
I was dressing, or rather under dressing, for a dentist’s appointment. The location of their office wasn’t sketchy per se, but as a woman who was about to be alone in unfamiliar territory I figured being nondescript was best. I even left Atticus, my iPod classic and constant companion, atop my dresser. Just to be safe.
The fact that I felt all these precautions were even necessary was incredibly upsetting. Why did I have to dress down? Why did I have to leave Atticus behind? Why are men not responsible or held accountable for their urges? With those thoughts in my head I went on my way.
The bus ride was uneventful and as I stepped onto the curb I was feeling much happier. Summer was in full swing and for once, I was ahead of schedule. I only had a few streets left to navigate from the bus stop to the dentist’s office and having gone over the directions the night before I was confident I would get there without a hitch.
Somewhere between the first right and the third left turn, I got lost. My phone, which was mildly dependable at best, had died. No Google maps; no way to call. Still, I had about half an hour and some memory of where I was supposed to be heading so I walked on.
I’d been wandering around empty streets in a mild panic that was starting to transform into anxiety when I finally thought I recognized the name of the street I was on.
As I was trying to recall whether it was supposed to be a right or left from this street, I looked up and saw a man heading towards me. He seemed harmless enough so I kept walking, planning to cross to the other side before he got close enough for his features to be discernible. He must have taken wide strides because he had planted himself in front of me quicker than I had anticipated.
“Why you alone, pretty mami?”
I averted my eyes and attempted to walk around him, but he was one move ahead of me blocking my way when a voice crept up from behind me.
“Where you goin? We’ll take you there.” His last sentence seemed to wrap itself around me. I felt my skin crawl.
Before I had sense enough to get away, they were on either side of me, forcing me to walk in step with them. They bantered about my hair, my body, and the tight grip I had on the strap of my bag, entwining me in tobacco breath and the stench of man sweat.
They foresaw my every attempt at quickening my pace or falling back by circling around me. It was an empty street, though fairly open, so I knew they were leading me someplace else.
“Don’t worry. We’re gonna show you a good time,” they jested.
I cursed myself for leaving my can of pepper spray–the one my boyfriend had gotten for me in spite of my protests that it was unnecessary–and for not printing out the directions.
I concentrated my gaze on the road searching for other pedestrians, a passing car, an open window. My two “bodyguards”, as they referred to themselves, had slackened their pace and were veering right, gesturing to each other. I took the curve in the road and their distraction as a chance to run and slipped out from in between them.
I ran, directionless, hammering my feet onto the pavement, unsure if they were running after me. Sweat and angry tears stung my eyes, blurring my vision. My ankles threatened to snap and my legs were beginning to cramp, but I kept on running, turning down more empty streets. It was the honk of an oncoming car that stopped me. I had run right in to an intersection. The volume seemed to be turned up around me–the heat, roaring engines, laughter, birds chirping–exploding in my eardrums, pecking at my skin.
When I finally walked through my boyfriend’s apartment door, I was exhausted, defeated, and trembling. I knew I had been lucky, but I was livid. I was angry for days after–angry at being told it was my fault, angry that I was afraid of leaving the house alone, angry at the two men that harassed me who would continue to assault other women, and angry at the the culture that made them believe they had some kind of right to me, my body.
Women in ads are part of the problem. They’re there to be leered at, desired, and consumed either wholly or in part.
The two men who harassed me seemed unable to differentiate me from the women in those ads. If it’s socially acceptable for them to leer at and lust over those women, then it’s acceptable for them to direct those same feelings towards me. Like the women in the ads, they saw me as an object of their pleasure and felt justified in doing so. They didn’t care about the revulsion I felt towards them, my thoughts on religion or politics, or that I prefer Sour Patch Kids to M&Ms. I was there, they were there, and therefore they had a right to me. After all, I am a woman–a sexual object, a thing to be consumed and possessed.
With so few women occupying decision-making positions in media–roughly 5% (Status of Women in the Media, 2014)–it’s no wonder female representation is the way it is.
It’s not going to change as soon as I finish typing this and my anger from that day still burns. I felt then, as I feel now–helpless. I don’t remember their faces. I can’t walk the streets in search of them so I can blind them with my pepper spray and kick them in the groin before turning them over to authorities. I wish I could. It would make me feel better, certainly, but it wouldn’t change anything. More men like them would crop up before the bars even closed behind those two.
I began writing this without a clear direction in mind. I knew I wanted to set it down after months of not dealing with it. I was lucky, and it made me feel guilty. Guilty for running away, for not remembering their faces, for letting them go knowing that I was not their first, nor would I be their last.
My boyfriend taught me how to box after that so I take some measure of consolation from the knowledge that I can land a pretty damaging right hook. My dad always told me to close my fist and aim for the throat, but I think it’s better to just run.