We see a lot of viral images every day. Anecdotes, too. Most of them we simply skim over and scroll past, but every once in awhile, we come across one that makes us pause and think. One that makes us remember. As a young woman in college myself, I can't forget this one:
Like her, I can't forget these words because they are a resonating truth. For me, and for every woman I know. I go to a small school in a safe suburban neighborhood where people generally know one another, where we generally feel interconnected and familiar. And yet. I am never completely safe, not even in the safest of places.
9 a.m.: On campus, I live in a house with 16 other people, most of whom I know very well. I wake up in the morning and drag myself, half-asleep, out of bed and into the bathroom. I brush my teeth and try to wake up a little more, and today I shower before heading off to class.
If my mind is not fervently preoccupied with other things, images of a strange man breaking into the bathroom to hurt me flood my mind. I know this is extremely unlikely and push these thoughts away, but the fact that it could happen means that I know they will return.
10 a.m.: I leave the house and walk across the street to campus, mostly passing people I know or have seen around. I am stressed about getting to class on time and the workload I will have to tackle that day. My walk to class isn't even five minutes long, but when I find myself alone between buildings with a male fellow student, I become involuntarily nervous.
I tell myself that I'm being ridiculous, that nothing could happen to me here, that the likelihood of him wishing me harm—especially here, now—is close to zero. But I have to repeat it until I am in the building.
12 p.m.: I stream across the plaza to the dining hall with a flood of other students, comfortable with the predictability of it, with the fact that we are all eating lunch at the same time. There is a sense of relaxed camaraderie, and I feel safe.
I am, after all, in a group.
3 p.m.: After class, I jump in a school-owned minivan and head off to volunteer at an after-school program. We have to park a few blocks away, and head towards the center as a group. It's hot out, so I am wearing shorts—a fact of which I am keenly aware as we pass a few men sitting on their front steps. My skin crawls when they look at me, and for a brief moment, I wish I was covered from head to toe.
One man's gaze lingers ever so slightly. I do not know if his glance is passing or predatory, and hope I won't find out. This moment, all too familiar, passes through my conscious mind as an unsettling feeling of deep discomfort.
6 p.m.: We return from volunteering and head into the dining hall together. I'm happy and comfortable, but still occasionally quite aware of the fact that I am wearing shorts. As I stand in line for grilled cheese and walk back to my seat, I wonder how many guys have checked out my ass. I am in a familiar place, among a crowd I know. I am still under a microscope.
8 p.m.: I run back to my room from the library to grab a book I've forgotten, and as I cross the street, a car full of guys zoom past and I can only catch the word "baby" being shouted by the one hanging out the window. Flustered, vulnerable, and angry, I turn around and flip them off. It feels uncharacteristically crude, but it's the only way I can think to show defiance. I grip my keys in my fist in case they decide to turn around.
11 p.m.: I make a run to the campus convenience store minutes before it closes. There is one other student in the tiny store, and we don't happen to know each other, so I pretend to ignore him. I check out with my bag of salt and vinegar chips first, battling my desire to just trust with the hope that he will take a different direction out of the building.
2 a.m.: I leave the library as campus safety shuts it down and begin my mini-trek home. It is a two-minute walk, maybe three. Down a straight well-lit path I know well. I find myself gripping my keys and thinking of self-defense moves, as I have been taught to do. The elbow is the strongest part of the body. Pushing out one knuckle when punching will cause greater damage. Shoving the heel of one's hand up the bridge of the attacker's nose will force the nasal bones into their brain, and they will die.
I see one other person and immediately go on high alert when I see they're a guy. My step quickens and I curse at myself for the fear pounding in my chest that is probably unwarranted. I reach the street, hoping he will turn the other direction. Just as he does I feel relief slide into my chest, headlights appear and I am nervous all over again. What if they call out something obscene? What if they decide to pull over and grab me? I don't let my brain go further than that. I don't know who they are, but I am racing to fit the key into the lock before they can pass and see me standing on the doorstep. Alone.
My average day is filled with small moments in which I suppress feelings of anxiety and fears of being groped or attacked. I don't walk around scared every minute of every day, but I do I normalize and minimize microaggressions and potentially dangerous interactions with men. Like every other woman, I pretend that it doesn't bother me.
What is our other choice?
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