Walking While Female

09 Jan 2013

written by Carolyn


The whole moment lasted only a few seconds.

I was walking east on 40th Street from Times Square. For exercise, I decided to walk instead of taking the crosstown shuttle, even though my wonky knee had been particularly bothersome that day — likely from overdoing it in Bikram yoga, limping through my New Year’s resolution to adopt a more consistent practice.

As I walked fast — or fast-ish — my head was filled with self-deprecating chatter about my knee: “Oh, you used to run races in Central Park, now walking crosstown is a chore. Oh, last summer you were walking 3.5 miles home from work, now you need a knee brace to get around the city. Boo hoo woe is me” — crap I allowed to fill my head when “thank God I’m alive, healthy, and can walk unassisted” was more than enough.

Nearing Bryant Park, I noticed a man standing outside a bread and sandwich shop. I noticed him because he wasn’t just standing there — he was banging on the plate glass window with his fist, clearly trying to get the attention of someone inside. It was obvious the man was disturbed. He pounded the glass and pointed at two women seated at a table inside the shop, right in front of the glass.

Odd crazy guy, I thought, not breaking stride.

Just as I was about to pass the guy, he suddenly turned away from the window and grabbed my right hip, gripping with the intimacy of a lover. His actions were purposeful and intentional. Within a fraction of a second, the man turned his attention from the women safely inside the bread shop, women he couldn’t touch — to me, a woman he could.

I clutched my purse tightly with my left hand, and brought my right arm and hand down with the full force of my forward momentum, knocking his hand off me.

I didn’t scream when he grabbed me. I didn’t turn back to scream at him after I knocked his hand away. I had someplace to go, and kept walking, accelerating my pace a bit. I didn’t look back to see if he was following me, but my head was now filled with the stream of curses I planned to hurl at him, at the top of my voice, if he did follow or try to touch me again.

That I had just been physically assaulted by a stranger didn’t fully register until I reached the corner, waiting to cross.

The audacity was galling. I was going along my way, minding my own business, and this man reached out and grabbed me as if by right. As if he was entitled to my body. He wanted a woman to notice him. When his efforts with the women inside the sandwich shop failed, he turned to what must have seemed an even better thing — me. He had a desire; he was determined to fulfill that desire, even if by force. And for less than a second, I was subjugated to his disgusting will.

Like the women inside the shop, I never looked in the man’s face. I never gave him the satisfaction of my attention.

As I continued on to my destination, I felt pretty good, even brave, about the way I had knocked his hand off me.

But later, I wondered.

I wondered why I hadn’t smacked him AND screamed. Why didn’t I say, “Keep your fucking hands off me, you filthy motherfucker!,” as I planned to do if he had followed me?

I thought about the other times I’d been assaulted — and how then, too, I’d been silent. I was silent during my college rape. I was silent with the subway grinder. I screamed in Negril, but I ended up using not my screams, but my words, to talk my way out of being raped.

This time, although I was the one who had been assaulted, I felt — as I had in the past — ashamed. Ashamed that I hadn’t been even more demonstrative, more forceful. Ashamed about losing my voice.

Rape and sexual assault have been much in the news lately, but our culture of rape remains static. After the brutal rape of a young student in India, so brutal that she died from her injuries, American and  British media reported on India’s culture of misogyny — as if harassment, assault and rape were crimes peculiar to Indian culture. Newspapers and magazines printed breathless op-eds and personal essays, filled with tales of Indian men leering after 9-year-old girls, or grabbing the vaginas of old women. The Indian rape case was presented as a uniquely Indian matter.

At the same time, details emerged about the rape of an unconscious girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

Yet few stories drew parallels between what happened in India and what happened in Ohio. And although there was much discussion of how unsafe it is for young women in India to go out alone, one finds next to nothing in the mainstream media about the prevalence of street harassment and sexual assault in the United States. But it is prevalent. What happened to me happens several times a day, every single day, in New York City and across our great land. Whether we want to admit it or not, rape culture is real. In the U.S. as much as India, there is a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies — one that cannot be excused or justified away by “good men projects.”

I shouldn’t have to justify myself, but I feel I must. So, to be clear — I wasn’t dressed provocatively when I was assaulted. I was wearing a coat, a scarf, yoga pants and sneakers. I wasn’t in a dangerous location at a sketchy time of night. I was in a busy part of midtown Manhattan between 5:30 and 6, a time when people are leaving work and heading home. I wasn’t intoxicated. I wasn’t flirting. I was just out walking, heading to my destination.

Between my subway ride from Harlem and my crosstown walk, I’d been in close proximity with hundreds of men. Only one of them put his filthy hands on me.

My only “crime” was being a woman within physical reach of a man who chose, in that moment, to assault me.

Assault is assault. Rape is rape. There’s no justification for it, and no excuse. All discussions of rape and sexual assault ought to begin — and end — there.

18 Comments on Walking While Female

  1. Jess Banks

    I’m so sorry to hear that happened to you. I know you’re a survivor, so you’ll know how to deal, but take care of yourself as shock and emotion and muscle memory make themselves known in the days to come. Also be aware that body work, such as yoga and massage, can sometimes trigger strong emotional reactions. I know all this because I’ve been there. Take care of yourself, and thanks for sharing.

  2. X. D.

    UGH! It pains me to read this and I’m so sorry you go through this. It’s a such a shame that people can’t keep their hands to themselves and in the city in which we live, people saw and minded their own business. Hopefully you get peace soon.

  3. Carol

    I’m so sorry you went through this. I know how terrifying and upsetting this experience can be. So sorry. (Hugs).

  4. Jeniene

    You are a wonderful writer and a courageous speaker and, not to be too immodest, so am I. That said, I too have stayed silent in situations of assault. One, over 20 years ago and committed by my direct supervisor, has stayed with me because I never said a word. I honestly think I became an employment lawyer because of that instance. It’s not easy to speak up in a culture that takes happenings such as this for granted. Regardless of our laws and our “civility,” it is still very much a blame the victim society. I am terribly sorry that this happened to you but I am very thankful that you are of such strong spirit that you can move beyond something like this and begin to enlighten the rest of us.

  5. Jeremy r bouis

    The man sounds unstable and perhaps dangerous. I think you should report it not only for your own protection but others. Too late? I feel for you and wish you (we) didn’t have to deal with things like this everyday it seems. Wishin you better times.

  6. Kathryn

    Wow. Thank you for saying it. For writing it down and publishing this. I wish it was an extreme case. People need to know our normal.

  7. Anderson

    Carolyn, thank you for your courage to share this experience. Your story will have an impact. I hope one day that men will take up the cause of street harassment and sexual harassment. If our women can not be treated with respect and dignity while outside the home, no one can expect that. The same who are railing against stop and frisk, need to protest and eliminate this abhorrent behavior. Thank again for your post Carolyn

  8. Tricia

    It pains and angers me to read this. I go through the exact same thought process every time I am assaulted or harassed. Why isn’t our first reaction to shame our attacker? Has society taught us to be silent and go on with our day?

  9. Ellen Eades

    I think it takes a moment for our brains to process the astonishment that comes with a sudden, unexpected assault. Especially one that occurs as you describe, in the middle of the day in a place where you are feeling safe enough that you have an internal dialogue going on and aren’t expecting any danger. You probably would have yelled and cursed the guy out if you hadn’t been able to knock his hand away, because at that point your mouth would have caught up, but I know when I’ve been in that situation that my first reaction is “WTF?!” not “Get away from me you motherfucker!” Because we aren’t expecting it, and because it’s just damn stressful to walk around being *ready* to yell angrily at all comers. (I’ve been there, too. There was a time in my life where I looked at all men on the street and mentally targeted: eyes, throat, knees. It was SO stressful. I just couldn’t maintain that anger all the time. I gave up martial arts because I couldn’t get to that sense of readiness without feeling too much unhealthy anger.) I’m really sorry this happened to you and that it happens to so many of us. But I hope you don’t blame yourself for that moment of silence. You had a right to be where you were, thinking your own thoughts, headed for your own destination. You have every right to be astonished, as well as outraged, that this happened to you. You handled it and moved on. You’ll be angry, shaking, and adrenaline-filled at unexpected moments for days, but you are going to be okay. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Sally

    Do not apologize! If you had been tipsy, if it was 11:00 at night, if you wore high heels and shorts, no matter! The only factor here is the assailants seeming mental health issues, other than that wrong is wrong and he was. Thanks for the heads up, if it ever happens believe I will scream, kick and cuss enough for you and me and if it doesn’t happen then we have to fight for those you can’t fight for themselves.

  11. Dr. Goddess

    I’m catching up here but thank you for writing this piece. I have read all of your pieces on rape and assault and your adulthood seems like my childhood. Parts of it are in my One Woman Show but I plan to write about a host of things I’ve not addressed in public, just yet. I envision you walking down the street and I envision his smirk and whatever “Hey Baby” he had in his head. For some reason, it seems to me that the women who were in the restaurant were white, too. You didn’t state but that’s what I see. I was trying to explain why I felt like a different woman in Ghana and it wasn’t until I read your essay that I realized that “rape culture” did not seem present or prevalent in the country when I was there. I could be wrong and I could have missed it because rape culture is so extreme in the U.S. but we need an overhaul of our values and the ideas we perpetuate in this country. Anyway, thank you for this and I will be happy to share it!

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