RO Kwon wrote a piece in The Paris Review, “On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted,” about all things she does in life to try to avoid being assaulted. This is my take on the same issue.
One of the first things I do in the morning is walk the dog, which half the year, is early enough that it is dark out. I deliberately wear clothes that I can hide in that make me look like a boy or young man—oversized sweatshirts and sweatpants. While sometimes I would prefer to wear the hoods of my hoodie or coat up, the problem with this is that it blocks your peripheral vision and you can’t see when people are coming up behind you. But sometimes it’s cold and I’ve forgotten my hat, and I put my hood up, but I think about the peripheral vision issue every single time—like this might be the one time where it matters. I like listening to podcasts or audiobooks when I walk the dog, but if it’s dark out I frequently think about how this can be a risk factor, and that if someone assaults me, people will say, “You shouldn’t have had your headphones in.” I wear sneakers because if I had my work heels on people would say “You shouldn’t have had heels on.” I have 911 on autodial on my phone. With respect to security, the dog can be either a boon or a risk factor. On the positive side, she isn’t scary, but the fact that she might bark could be something of a deterrent. The dog also creates an easy excuse to do things while walking that seem nonsensical, like turning and walking the opposite direction (to avoid someone creepy), or stopping and rotating while the dog investigates something (so that I can turn my body to look at someone who is behind me.) On the negative side, if the dog is in the actual act of pooping, this creates a risky moment where I can’t exactly run away if something happens. A dog attracts unwanted attention from people who are looking for an excuse to talk to me. For example, the guy who said hello, and when I said hello back too quietly, said WHAT YOU DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH or the one who said WHAT YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR ME. There’s also the guy who, careening closer and closer to me, told my dog to shut the fuck up because she barked at his sudden movement toward me. One guy said he wanted to fuck my dog. When my dog has diarrhea, my main concern is her health, and my second main concern is that I will have to walk her in the middle of the night, maybe at 2 or 3 in the morning. There is a spot very close to my front lobby I can use, that would take me about 5 seconds to run back to my lobby from. There’s decent lighting there, but only sometimes enough traffic that if something happened, someone would see. Although that doesn’t mean they would stop.
Because I walk my dog so much, I have gotten to know the local bouncers at bars near my house. I realize this is a really good thing because they recognize me which decreases the probability of the bystander effect. One time I was walking near one of these bars and a large man crossed the street heading directly towards me, cursing under his breath while he tapped an enormous bolt-cutter against his leg. Something told me that if I made eye contact with him, it would be very dangerous, but that if I turned and walked the other direction it would be even more dangerous. I was able to veer towards the bar, where someone recognizing me made me feel safer. I continue to see that man on occasion—I think he is a neighbor.
There have been several times where, leaving early in the morning for work, a random man was sleeping in the lobby. This situation is more creepy/weird/frightening, not “lol why is there a random man in the lobby.” I have several locks on my door. They are always locked. Before I go to sleep, I check them once or twice. My dog walkers and apartment concierge have their own keys and access to my apartment—I have thought about this. Maybe 40% of the time I am already in bed for the night, I will get up and check to make sure the lock is locked. I have Googled more than once about what is the best weapon to have in your house to prevent against intruder. I have kept a steak knife on my nightstand more than once. The dog is good, because if someone tried to get in, I would have a few seconds warning. The best option would be to jump off the balcony. If I had time, I could tie some sheets and try to climb down, or maybe drop some pillows down. The issue with this is that once you land and break whatever bones, you’re then lying on the street and anyone can come up to you. Also I have thought about how I would need to save the dog too. One night, around 9 or 10 at night, a random man pounded on my door and tried the lock. Because at first he knocked, my instinct was to go to the door and open it. I had the sudden realization that just because someone knocked, that doesn’t mean I have to acknowledge the knock. This actually was a realization, because it goes against decades of having politeness norms drilled into you, or learning that ignoring men can lead to them being enraged.
I have had things in my apartment break, or large items that need to be delivered, and in these cases the person who comes is always one or more men. I used to pretend I have a husband sometimes, but now I just live dangerously.
If I walk out of my home, these are the types of harassment I can encounter, in order of least to most aggressive.
Unwanted complements about my appearance or an admonition to smile: If you don’t understand why this is annoying, read this entire essay and ask yourself if you still don’t understand.
Leering/ staring: this often makes you regret your choice of outfit, but let’s be honest, sometimes it happens no matter what you’re wearing. There are certain parts of streets that I circumvent just to ignore staring. Sometimes the staring is not just staring, like the way a dog would look at an ice cream cone, but is a spine-chilling, hate filled stare ala “I want to Black Dahlia you.”
Catcalling: The “best” case scenario is that they do it and nothing else happens. But often times they expect a response. You can force yourself to say something friendly, or to do a tight-lipped smile. You can nod politely. You can ignore them but see entry on screaming below. You can ask them not to do that, but see below. You can yell at them, but see below. You can’t talk to authorities, because this isn’t illegal.
Saying hello, then, regardless of your answer, walking along beside you and trying to talk to you and persisting even if you say you are married or have a boyfriend, because your boyfriend isn’t here isn’t he? The walking beside you thing happens a lot—I think they think it is something like a date or something they’ve seen in a movie.
Screaming: often occurs if any of the above are not properly acknowledged. Frequently: Stuck-up bitch, whore, racist (any race—doesn’t matter), do you speak english. Sometimes the screaming evokes more screaming if you ignore it, because you are still not acknowledging them.
Following. I recommend always knowing the best route to take beforehand if someone were to start following you. If, for example, he keeps asking for your phone number on the metro despite you saying you are married/have a boyfriend (even if this is not true, it is the most successful way—trying to make it clear that you are someone else’s property), then he waits to see which metro stop you get out at, you can wait for him to get off first. One time I tricked a guy this way, then I saw him look for me on the platform and I did an elaborate path to evade him, then wondered if it was safe to go home, because maybe I couldn’t see him on the street, but he could see me.
Throwing objects: beer bottles, stones, liquid.
Things I have done to try to avoid street harassment: ignoring (see screaming entry above), avoiding areas entirely, smiling, pretending I have a phone call, wearing headphones (this does not work—men will ask you to take them off.) Two things that have very significant impacts on cutting down street harassment: 1) don’t go anywhere, 2) have a man walk with you —sometimes a guy starts to harass you then then realizes you are with a guy and apologizes to the guy 3) drive.
Being in a car and driving makes me feel safe, most of the time. Except right when you get into a car, you have to lock it immediately, because a man could have been following you. I look in the backseat sometimes. The problem with driving is that you can’t run out of gas in the middle of no where because something bad could happen. My dad said girls should ALWAYS have at least 20 dollars cash tucked away in their car. But even if you find a gas station in the middle of the night, something bad could happen there. If you are on an isolated road and a car rear ends you, should you pull over because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or should you not pull over because it’s a bad man? If you are on an isolated road and what appears to be a cop car tries to get you to pull over, should you pull over or is it a man impersonating a cop? (On that topic, if a man comes to your apartment and claims to be a cop, someone investigating a gas leak, or other such emergency worker, do you trust him and let him in or try to verify his identity? If you try to verify his identity, in either case, he might get angry because you are questioning his authority.) The other really bad thing about cars is parking garages, which can be a nightmare. They are filled with dark spaces, places to hide, and are often deserted. I try to park as close to the entrance next to a bright light. Sometimes there isn’t a bright light. Someone was sexually assaulted at the parking lot of the Whole Foods I used to go to. I don’t go there anymore.
Places where I lace my keys between my fingers to serve as a weapon: parking garages, parking lots, streets in the day or night, long isolated hallways in buildings at night, elevators, broad daylight in a public area just because someone is acting bizarre.
Don’t walk home alone at night, someone can rape you. If you are alone on a metro car, someone can rape you. If you take a cab or an Uber or a Lyft, someone can rape you. You should text your friends when you get home.
Many women have fake numbers. Sometimes they give them out to guys because if they don’t give their number out, the guy gets mad, so it’s easier to just placate him. It’s also good to have a number other than your cell phone number—like Google Voice—that you can use for dating because sometimes if you are not interested in a guy, he will start harassing you.
When you go out on a date, your first concern is if the person is even safe to even be around, the second is whether or not you like him / are compatible.
Sometimes guys try to walk you home after a date, which is sweet, and I wish I could accept this sort of sweetness, but in reality, I have them walk me to another location and let them think it is my home. Women also do this with Uber drivers who give them weird vibes.
I once went on a camping date with a guy I had just started dating. I sent my friend a pin of my location via my iPhone with an “lol in case you never hear from me again” message.
I was on a date once with a guy who said that he liked when DC was grittier, like when there was an abandoned house by his apartment and there would be “crazy guys” hanging around it. I said that as a woman, I did not like DC when it was “grittier” because crazy guys who hang around abandoned houses are the same ones that stare, yell or follow me and make me feel unsafe. He said he hadn’t thought of that before.
There is a lot of writing and blogging and Instagram around the idea of women traveling, or women traveling alone and they make it look glamorous. I spend a lot of time thinking about security when I travel alone. One time I rented a room in someone else’s apartment because it was cheap but when I got there I realized it felt a little weird and my door didn’t lock. I kept trying to lock it as quietly as I could because I didn’t want them to think I was locking it. This shouldn’t have been scary really, because the apartment was a posh apartment inhabited by two gay guys, but I still didn’t sleep well. I have stayed in more than one AirbnB where the bedroom door didn’t lock. In one case I spent over five minutes trying to do that thing where you tip a chair towards it and hook it under the knob so someone can’t get in. (The problem with this is that some doors open in, and some open out). Other times I put a chair in front of the door with a bunch of crap on it, so at least if someone tried to open it I would have a few seconds warning. When I have stayed at other people’s places, I’ve often been uncomfortable if it is on the first floor, or there is a sliding glass door. I never stay in hotel rooms, or rent places on the first floor. I always use the deadbolt.
One time I went to the Dominican Republic with a friend. We had prearranged hotel transport from the hour to the resort—a one hour ride. When we arrived, no one was there to pick us up. We tried calling the resort, but they were confused. A man who ran an air transportation “business” offered us a ride for cheap in an unmarked van—this was the only option and neither of us spoke great Spanish. Inside the van there was a woman sleeping. I was starkly alert the entire drive, working out contingency plans. How did I have any idea of where he was actually taking us? When we got there alive we laughed and had some drinks.
If you have a male gynecologist, there is usually a female nurse in the room with you while he is examining you. This wouldn’t have to be a thing if it didn’t have to be.
When I was in college, myself and all my female friends developed a sixth sense or something. It was the ability to look across the dance floor at your friend, and from once glance at her eyes understand that she was saying “please come over here and free me from this situation in some way that makes this man mad at neither of us.” Sometimes women smile at men and it’s kind of a wonder to me that the haven’t yet developed this sixth sense about what we’re actually thinking about when we smile.