The internet was abuzz a few weeks ago with the story of a feisty woman that shouted down a man who sexually assaulted her on the subway. This, and the uproar surrounding the new TSA policies have created an opportunity for increased awareness and greater discussion about the reality of sexual harassment and sexual assault that all women face.
If statistics are to be believed, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That number is probably much higher due to under-reporting. Indeed, each of us probably has an experience where we have been harassed, assaulted or touched without our consent.
My first experience came the summer I was 14. I was back-to-school clothes shopping with my parents and had left my dressing room to show them an outfit I had tried on. Upon returning to my dressing room I found a naked man standing fully erect and masturbating into my clothing. If ever there was a time I am grateful for my profound ignorance about sexuality, this is it. In my naive child’s mind, I assumed I had walked in on somebody trying on underwear. I quickly returned to my parents, my face beet-red and told them ashamedly what I had done. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, after further probing, that my parents figured out what had actually happened. They called the police but were told there was nothing to be done about it. My parents tried not to make a big deal out of it, saying sometimes these things happen and it wasn’t my fault. As horrifying as this experience was, I’m not sure what else could have been done. If my parents had freaked out the experience would have become much more traumatizing for me. As it was, I escaped unharmed and have not suffered any long term psychological effects.
What I lost, though, was innocence. I, like many women, have accepted the inevitability of sexual harassment. When I get catcalls or unwanted comments about my body, I generally roll my eyes and move on. I rarely get upset and I never fight back. I suppose this is the coping mechanism I have adopted to deal with the reality of being a woman in the world.
But it is a tragic one. Never should I, or any other woman have to quickly usher her children out of the neighborhood park because some men are making sexually violent comments about her. A woman should be free to ride the subway without being groped or flashed. And it should go without saying that all women should have the right to choose who and how often they have sex. But this is not reality. The reality is that the majority of violence perpetrated in this world is on and against the female body.
To not be acutely aware of this fact is to be privileged indeed.