It shouldn’t be dangerous to wear a skirt in daylight in DuPont Circle.
Actually, it shouldn’t ever be dangerous to wear a skirt. Or jeans.
It should not be dangerous to walk while female.
Yet most women take sensible precautions all the time as they make their way through the world. As we choose what to wear, where to meet friends for a drink, when to leave, in the back of our mind we consider whether a given location is safe. Sometimes we think so and find out otherwise. Sometimes we decide to take a risk that turns out to be quite worthwhile. Sometimes we plunge into an experience and discover a wonderful new neighborhood park. Sometimes we find that we have crossed an invisible line into the lion’s den.
Whether statistics bear out our fears or not, we know there are criminals who may attack us at any given time. Many women deal with it consciously by traveling in packs, keeping their keys handy in case they need a weapon or talking on their cellphones loudly so those around them know they are not really alone. We do everything we can think of to protect ourselves and prevent something from going wrong.
And yet does.
In her recent blog post, On the Reverse “10-5 Rule” and Walking While Female, photographer Liz Gorman wrote about a man who sexually assaulted her in broad daylight in DuPont Circle. For those of you not familiar with DC, that is a neighborhood filled with coffee shops and embassies. It is definitely not the Cologne train station at midnight where a similar thing happened to me twenty one years ago.
I was a college student with a Eurail pass and a shoulder bag of clothes. I’d planned to switch trains for Paris only to learn that they were fully booked. It was too late to get a hostel and too dark to explore the city. I wandered around the train station looking for an alternative and witnessed paramedics trying to revive a train conductor on the platform. It did not appear to be a successful effort; I can still see the man sprawled out on his back, immobile in a white shirt and dark pants, his belly swelling out of his clothes, a florescent light shining down on him as we travelers passed by. That fleeting glance made me think of death and escape. I was spooked and determined to get out of that station.
Seeking refuge, I climbed aboard the next train heading west only to have an old man grin madly at me and grab my crotch as he exited the train. His fingers were quite deliberate as he pressed through my jeans, but he didn’t get very far. I shoved him hard and swung my shoulder bag at him before fleeing down the aisle and into a compartment. There were angry shouts in German but no one followed or questioned me. Maybe the person behind him saw the whole thing and set everyone straight. Maybe the old man knew better than to press charges and covered my defense with a lie. I didn’t care; I was just glad to wake up somewhere else the next morning.
Except that memory is still there. I thought of it immediately when I read this column about the many women now telling their stories and that leering face slips by me at least a few times a year.
I don’t think grab & grope sexual assaults are going to magically end just because we’re talking about them. Dirty old men may die but they’ve been with us for centuries. What needs to change is our response when these things do happen.