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.