On a recent evening trip to the library, I was leaning into the back seat of my car to retrieve my bag of books. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man walking across the parking lot. I didn’t feel afraid but I did take a moment to assess my safety and plan how I would protect myself if he were to try to attack me.
Does everyone do this? Is it just women that do? Is it only the ones that have watched too many made for TV movies? Or is it the ones, like, me that survived an attack of some sort once before?
I try to remember back before I was raped: did I take any safety precautions then? Did I plan on how I’d fight my attacker or escape? No, I don’t think I did. I think the perceived invincibility of my youth prevented that. All the other young women at college were buying pepper spray but I didn’t trust that I’d aim it in the right direction or that the wind wouldn’t blow it into my own face if I needed to use it. I opted for a high-pitched alarm on my keychain instead. Then once in a lecture hall during class it accidentally went off. With everyone staring I fumbled and could not get the damn thing to silence for the longest time. No more keychain alarm.
It didn’t matter, though. I wasn’t ever going to get harmed by anyone.
But I did.
And I survived.
But sometimes—well, sometimes I still get mad. Mad at the rapist? No, not really. Mad at the landlord for not having safety bars on the windows or at the college for not offering more advice on what safety features to look for in an off-campus apartment? No and no. Mad at the Neighborhood Watch couple* across the street for not noticing? Never.
Mad at myself. Of course! Mad at myself! After all, I didn’t fight back. All that tough-girl talk and self-empowerment and I didn’t fight back--not a single fucking punch or bite or kick. The threat of his words and the chance of that knife making contact with my jugular were enough to get me to obey his commands with no resistance. Be raped, dance, say you’ll be his girlfriend, let him look for jewelry to steal, say you love him (!). Repeat.
That’s what I was thinking about as I retrieved my bag from the backseat of my car almost nineteen years later. “Next time would be different,” I tell myself. “Next time I would fight back.”
Last time I didn’t fight back and even though I was harmed psychologically, I emerged without a scratch. I walked away from it so physically fine I was worried they wouldn’t be able to find any evidence on me and maybe not believe me. I struggled, certainly, in my days (years) after being raped but without any physical scars or disfigurement. I came out ALIVE. So I know I can’t be legitimately mad at myself over my reaction last time since I survived.
So if there ever was a next time, it might be the same: I might go along with an attacker’s demands if that was how I felt would be the right way to react for me to survive.
A next time might be different: I might fight back if that was how I felt would be the way for me to get out of it alive.
A next time would be exactly the same: I would listen to my instincts and decide whether fighting would be a wise choice in that situation or not. I would stay calm. I would get out alive.
(*I didn't know the neighbors across the street were part of a real Neighborhood Watch committee. After the break-in, they sent me a card with a heartfelt apology for not having noticed anything out of the ordinary. It was very sweet of them to let me know.)