This piece from Feministing founding editor Chloe Angyal, about a frightening near-abduction while she was traveling alone in India, reminded me of the last time I traveled by myself outside the U.S.
At the time, I was in my twenties. I was an associate at a top New York City law firm, and I’d begun rewarding myself for working 60-70 hours a week by using my vacation time to travel.
Traveling was a big deal for me. I never traveled as a kid. My family didn’t have money to see the U.S.A., let alone anyplace outside the U.S. A trip to California was considered exotic in my family. Leaving the country felt as unreal as space travel.
When I decided I needed to get away, I went to the Caribbean, always by myself. I loved the freedom of traveling alone – what Angyal describes as “[t]he freedom to make your own decisions, to move at your own pace, to literally choose your own path.”
My last solo Caribbean vacation was to Negril, Jamaica. I stayed at an all-inclusive resort where, to my surprise and delight, a group of NFL players also were staying. They checked me out as I checked in. No one in the group was famous, but as a lifelong football fan, I knew they were pro football players long before the desk clerk confirmed it. I settled into my room, changed into a bikini, and went for a run on the beach just as the players headed out on their Jet skis.
I feigned surprise when the guys called me over and invited me to hang out with them. I wasn’t the athlete groupie type, but I was especially attracted to one of the wide receivers, who cut through my half-hearted protests: “You know you want to come, stop the bullshitting.” They laughed. I felt safe with them – unreasonably, perhaps, but I did. They were American, I was American. They were guys whose names I’d heard before, guys I’d seen on TV. A few minutes later, I was that girl in a bikini sitting on the back of a motorcycle, gripping the waist of the wide receiver. Fun times.
It seems every group of famous or semi-famous people includes at least one hanger-on. I couldn’t quite figure out the hanger-on’s connection to the players. He appeared to be some kind of assistant to one of the players. Whoever he was, he disliked me on sight. When I was pretending I didn’t want to go out, Hanger-On Guy said, “Look man, she said she don’t wanna go,” and tried to get the wide receiver to leave me behind. He seemed pissed off by my presence the entire time.
We wound up at Rick’s Café in Negril, where we laughed, had some drinks, and watched the cliff divers until just before sunset. It was peaceful and relaxed. The guys invited me to a party later that evening at a different resort, but I declined. I was tired. And I was very conscious of not wanting my flirtation with the wide receiver to appear to be a group invitation.
They took me back to the resort. Just after I said good-bye to the wide receiver, Hanger-On Guy pulled me aside and told me the group was getting back together at the resort, after the party. Hanger-On Guy gave me a room number and a time to arrive.
I was a little suspicious, but figured it was on the up and up. The players had treated me respectfully up to that point. I wondered why Hanger-On Guy was the one giving me this information and not the wide receiver, but Hanger-On Guy seemed to be the organization/planning/scheduling guy. In that context, I rationalized, it made sense.
I showered, put on a sundress, and showed up at the room at the time Hanger-On Guy had told me to show up. No one but Hanger-On Guy was there. I instantly realized I was in trouble. I tried to leave. Hanger-On Guy blocked my way to the door, then pushed me down to the floor.
I thought back to my college assault, of gagging on a penis shoved down my throat. Please Lord, don’t let me get raped in a foreign country, I prayed silently.
I screamed. I said no. I pushed and struggled. Hanger-On Guy wasn’t a football player, but he was a man, and he easily overpowered me. No one heard my screams, and no one came. I was in Hanger-On Guy’s room alone, and he intended to rape me. I punched and kicked and scratched. He blocked my puny blows, laughing.
Hanger-On Guy muttered a lot of ugly words as he fumbled with his pants and his penis. He said I thought I was so cute, but I was just an average ho looking to get fucked, and he was going to give me what I was looking for. In hindsight, he was like those cartoon villains whose speeches about their evil plans give the hero time to devise a weapon to rescue himself. But he wasn’t a cartoon villain. He was real, and I was in danger.
The only weapon I had left were my words.
“Do you have sisters?” I asked, looking into his eyes to avoid seeing what was going on below his waist.
“Yes,” he answered, frowning.
“Tell me this,” I continued, in as calm a voice as I could muster. “If someone – some man – did to your sisters or your mother what you’re about to do to me, how would you feel about it?”
And he stopped. Cold.
He let me go. I ran back to my room.
Shame is powerful. I didn’t think like a lawyer, but like a woman who blamed myself for what had happened. I didn’t call hotel security, let alone the Negril police. I didn’t think of contacting any of the powerful partners at my firm. I wanted no part of any scandal. Although I hadn’t gone to Hanger-On Guy’s room for sex, I was ashamed I’d gone to his room at all. I hadn’t done those things women are supposed to do to protect themselves from acquaintance rape. So it was all my fault.
I thought of what Hanger-On Guy said about me. I’d spent the day drinking and flirting with football players. I’d hopped on the back of a motorcycle with a bunch of strange men, wearing nothing but a bikini. According to his logic, that made me a ho, and if I was a ho, I deserved to be raped. I consoled myself with the fact that I’d talked my way out of being raped. I felt I’d dodged a bullet, for which I was intensely grateful.
We women victims of sexual assault don’t need men to slut shame us. We’re quite good at slut shaming ourselves.
The next day, the wide receiver stopped by my room. Reluctantly, and because it was daylight, I let him in. He asked me what happened with Hanger-On Guy. Not surprisingly, Hanger-On Guy had boasted that I went to his room while the others were at the party, and claimed we had sex.
I was furious. “What really happened is, he lied and said you guys were having some after party, and when I got to his room, he tried to rape me. If he said anything else happened, he’s lying on his dick.”
The wide receiver said he believed my story. And in many ways, that was it. I even dated the wide receiver for a few weeks after I returned to the States.
Whenever I see articles advising women how to protect themselves against rape, I think about Negril and Hanger-On Guy. I did all the stupid stuff women are advised not to do, and I almost got raped. Yet, for me, my experience illustrates the futility of that advice. The difference between my college experience, where I was assaulted by a man I considered a friend, and Negril, where I was nearly raped by a stranger – wasn’t my behavior, but the man’s. Hanger-On Guy didn’t rape me because he decided not to. In Negril, the rapist changed his mind. Simple as that.
I’ve traveled alone in the years since Negril, but I no longer feel truly free to chart my own course. Some would say I’ve learned to travel wiser. It feels, however, like loss.