When I was 23 and living in Saint Lucia, a man tried to drag me into the woods that border the public beach in Gros Islet. Nothing happened to me. I escaped with two skinned knees and a dirt burn on my lower back.
As an American woman, I grew up knowing the basics of assault response. Like all women and girls, I had spent time going over possible scenarios in my head. If I ever felt unsafe I would scream. If someone ever came up behind me I would straight-up donkey kick him in the groin. In my head, I had the total ability to go Lisbeth Salander on anyone and everyone who wished to do me harm.
But that was before someone actually did come up behind me with the wish to do me harm. And I can tell you that I did not execute a donkey kick and I did not scream. In fact, I did something so far from assertion that it still puzzles me today.
My mother once told me a story from her childhood, about when she watched her cat deliver a litter. As each kitten was born, my mother’s cat became weaker. She was dying from the strain. As my mother watched helplessly and listened to her cat whimper and wail, her nerves did something that she’s never understood. My mother laughed.
When a man came out of nowhere and grabbed me in Saint Lucia on an early Sunday evening, I laughed. Just faintly and only for a few moments, but I remember it. Laughing softly was my initial reaction.
I escaped because the friend I was walking with had a pocketknife. And fortunately for me, he wasn’t afraid to act in a very dangerous situation. I’m not going to go into details. But I will say that because of my friend, I didn’t have to endure what oceans of women have had to endure since the beginning of breath. Because of my friend, I haven’t been raped.
Yet. A part of me wants to end that sentence with “yet.” Just as someone might say: “I haven’t been in a car accident yet.” Or: “I haven’t had kids yet.” The same way that we express that the future is unpredictable. And both hurt and joy are bound to happen. But also because as women, we grow up aware that we are the targets for most violent acts. And by the time we reach a certain age, we have girlfriends, sisters, cousins who have been raped. The heartbreak of sexual assault has entered our lives in some way. Maybe we are that girlfriend, sister, or cousin.
My experience in Saint Lucia was certainly the most violent encounter I’ve had in my life, but it wasn’t the first time I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice. It wasn’t the first time I felt that saying yes might be easier than saying no. And I think we’d be hard pressed to find a sexually active woman who doesn’t have a similarly blurred experience in her past; when complying just seemed easier because she didn’t want to make a fuss or seem like a prude. She’d give in a little bit because she didn’t know how to say no, and how to say it politely, because ladies never do anything impolitely.
I spend a lot of time saying no now. Maybe because I’m a little older it makes it a little easier. Maybe because I’m a little ashamed of how paralyzed I was in Saint Lucia. Of how different I was from the woman I expected myself to be, how motionless. Now that I’ve encountered force, a situation where I had no option, I try to exercise my options a little more.
I say no to drinks now that I would have politely said yes to four years ago. I’ve learned to stop apologizing or making excuses. I’ve realized that I’m a woman of my own motivation, and the glimpse of a hemp necklace is enough to know =I don’t want to sleep with someone. Saying no is my right. It’s not my bitchiness.
As women in the Western world, and especially as women travelers, we are told by many to take a self-defense class. So we can “prepare ourselves for attack.” Others tell us not to take a self-defense class because doing so might give us a “false sense of security.” We should just avoid places instead. Either way, “attack” is something we think about. A lot. It’s something we’re told about. A lot. And the possibility of it makes us change our plans, as if attack would be inevitable if we were to go a certain way.
Because of my friend, I’m a survivor of a violent encounter. I’m not a victim of one. Many women, of all ages all over the globe, are not as lucky as me. The world knows this, yet we still question the victims who come to us, we still sexualize rape in the media, we still make rape into a joke in a stand-up comedy routine. Rape surrounds us. But we don’t do that much about it.