"Yell fire if someone ever tries to hurt you," my mother warned. But never yell help. People run toward fire, and away from help. And if some does grab you--act crazy. Like bat-shit loony-bin crazy."
Growing up as a young child in New York City, my mother taught me the basic skills for how to be street smart.
"Walk on the far side of the stairs on your way into the subway," my friend Mark informed me. I was 18, and had just returned to NYC to study theater. "That way you won't be surprised by a mugger hiding on the inside of the corner."
When I wander through my own landscape of sexual trespass, my stories have been about escape. And when I listen for how I was taught by those around me, it was always in preparation for a stranger on the street. Even though, statistics reveal that the majority of sexual trespass and abuse is from someone who is known.
I was a freshman in highschool, and had just been served my first alcoholic beverage. I was on a date with as a senior who I had a crush on. And while making out in his backseat, he ignored my multiple requests to stop trying to take my pants off. He was nice, and fun, and yet something in me wasn’t ready to move at his pace. I told him I wanted to stop making out. But he refused. And without thinking I pushed him off and got out of the car and started walking home in the dark.
He told me to get back in the car, that it wasn’t safe to be walking alone in this part of town (and he was right) and that he would take me home. And he did.
I am grateful,
for both of us,
that as an uneldered adolescent, he eventually listened to me, and gave me a ride home.
After hearing so many of the stories of other women, I am grateful to this young man, who despite his own desire, and his strength, didn’t push back on me.
I was at club in NYC when I realized after having one drink that something was vey wrong.
"We need to leave right now," I told Alice.
We had a code, follow the instincts of your friend without question.
We had walked through the streets many late nights, and if one of us saw something headed our way we were wary about, we simply said, "Let's cross," and without skipping a beat in our conversation, we crossed the street.
So Alice and I left the club, even though we had just arrived.
Within 8 minutes we discovered our drinks had been drugged-- we couldn't stand upright, couldn't tell where we were, even though we were just two blocks from our home.
I am grateful that she listened. I am grateful that some part of me knew to leave.
I was walking with another friend another night when I saw a couple of men walking toward us who were clearly not in a right state of mind. "Let's cross," I said to Faith.
"Why?" she asked.
I wasn't used to the code being ignored. Faith and I were facing each other, leaning against a building waiting for the club to open. The man walking toward us was tearing off his t-shirt. I explained the situation and started to cross the street.
"Don't be silly, it's fine," she said.
As the man approached I looked down, somehow knowing well enough not to look him in the eye, but it was too late, he grabbed the drink that was in my hand, smashed it against my chest and then out of my hand.
It wasn't fine.
I turned and walked away without saying anything, leaving my friend behind, breaking another code, but too angry that I hadn't been listended to, and too angry that I hadn't followed my instincts.
At night, I walk down the middle of streets and avoid dark sidewalks, even when walking with friends who mock me.
When by myself I walk with a bad-ass strut, nothing like the slow saunter when walking with others. I've hitch hiked across Alaska and Hawaii, often by myself. I always pick up women hitchhikers, only once did I pick up a man when I was by myself, instantly regretting it, fearful the entire time. He was perfectly nice. But I just couldn't get the what if scenario out of my head. I live and act from a lot of what if scenarios.
Just the other day, I watched myself change out of a skirt and into pants, when I realized I would be walking through a more remote part of town alone...well...because I don't want to have to put words to what went through my mind.
Part of my unofficial training for how to be a woman in America included taking in an outragous amount of news, media, movies, and television repeatedly exposing me to women being abused and violated.
As a young woman, with a full figure that attracted the attention of men, I learned to hide my sexuality as best I could. I am, as they say, a late bloomer, and it wasn't until I was in my mid to late 30's, living among a community of men and women who showed continued respect and appreciation for each other, that my sexuality eventuality emerged to be embodied, and not feared as something that would attract something I didn’t want.
As I write this, I realize I have lived much of my life acting as if I were prey being hunted.
I can't say that I consciously feel that way. It’s just there, an undercurrent of life.
And I also can't say that it is true. Plenty of the times I crossed the street was because 1 or 3 men men were together, and living in the what if sceanrio outweighted my willingness to just walk by them and look them in the eye, acting as if I wasn’t prey.
The truth of it is, I have felt safe, comfortable, cared for, and looked after by the men in my life.
And my mother, and my friends, never taught me to be afraid of this world, but rather, they taught me how to live in it.
In the wake of hearing so many stories of trespass, I am shy to share these stories. And I realize I haven’t shared them before now. And this is our way. Many women don’t share these kinds of stories, they hold in them the complexity of shame, embarrassment, comparison, and more. But then I think…who am I not to share the wisdom of my parents and friends? The learning from following my instincts? How would i have acted differently if I was not taught from a very young age that it was not only my right — but my job— to protect and defend myself? These are the kinds of questions being surfaced in our times.
How can we change the cycle of fear, change the cycle of abuse and trespass, and transform what we have learned into teachings that steward the next generation of both men and women into respectful and responsible relationship with each other?
This Novemeber 10th, I will be co-teaching a course on how to tell your stories…join me if you have a story you have been holding, or want to learn how to work with hard to tell stories so that they can play a part in the change that is being calling for.