Politely Powerless: When Self-Defense Fails

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Yesterday, I suffered unwanted sexual advances from a man in a way that I can’t seem to find an appropriate word for. Was it molestation? Sexual assault? Too nuanced to label? The story, in a nutshell:

After a rough week at work, I decided to celebrate Friday by staying in for tipsy laundry night, one of my favorite bi-weekly rituals. I meditated on a glass of tasty young zin while sorting my clothes, then -- bereft of quarters -- ran to the convenience store across the street to withdraw some cash from the ATM. ATM aside, this convenience store isn’t one of my favorites, so on the rare occasions I step in, the 45-year-old owner always gives me a hero’s welcome.

I have a soft spot for this man, the tireless hours he works behind the counter, the cheerful way he corrects his wife’s mistakes on the cash register, the pride with which he looks on his 12-year-old son who spends evenings working on homework in the back. So I didn’t think much of it when he met me at the ATM and opened his arms for a hug.

As he was leaning in, though, I realized something was wrong. Instead of a quick, chaste embrace, the second his arms were around me, he swung his head down and planted a moist kiss on the base of my neck. At the same time, he dropped his hand to my ass and squeezed from one side while pressing his pelvis from the other.

The whole encounter lasted maybe five seconds, but the entire time, my body was frozen and my mind preoccupied with one thought. Not the thought I would have imagined, though. As a strident feminist, I’m never one to hold back when confronted by brain-dead teenage catcallers or men who stand too close in the subway. When presented with actual, physical violation, I always imagined I’d throw punches first, ask questions later.

Woman Says No with HandInstead, the only thought echoing through my head: Oh god, how can I get out of this fast without being impolite? After he’d retreated to the counter, I even bought a soda I didn’t want, so he wouldn’t think poorly of me for treating his store like a bank branch.

Even later, when I was back at home and felt safe, I struggled with the proper reaction to the event. So I did what came naturally: kept drinking wine until I could no longer feel the scrape of his stubble against my neck, then posted about the event on Twitter.

If I didn’t know how to react, my Twitter followers had no such reservations. Of the two dozen responses I received -- through Twitter, text and email -- people’s comments fell in three distinct categories:

1) Are you okay?

2) I want to punch that guy.

3) Why’d you let him touch you in the first place?

The first response came from both men and women -- and, though I was too uncomfortable to even answer, I appreciated it. The second poured in from men I know both online and in real life, and reminded me how happy I am to only associate with guys who are actively respectful to women.

The third response, though, is the one that troubled me. Not just because it hints at the kind of blame-the-victim mentality that perpetuates sexual assault -- both small cases like mine and much bigger, deadlier games -- in our society. But because it mirrored my own disappointment with my reaction. The weirdest thing, though, is that this failure of sympathy came exclusively from women.

There is, I think, an interesting tension in the current cultural conversation about sexual assault and rape. Feminists (and I do hope that all women are feminists) agree that any unwelcome physical advance, no matter how small, is a violation that should be stopped. We agree, furthermore, that often it isn’t physical weakness but rather a feeling of social powerlessness forces a woman not to speak out when she is being violated. And in the ideal scenario, a modern woman should feel empowered enough to ignore any inkling of social powerlessness and just do something to stop unwanted advances.

And it’s a great theory. It is, in fact, such a great theory, that it can be hard to remember that theories don’t always translate to reality. I, for example, would call myself a strong, empowered woman, almost to the point of obnoxiousness (just ask my ex) -- yet the one time it mattered, I was frozen by shock and all but turned into a shrinking Bronte damsel, falling all over myself so as not to offend the jackass molesting me.

I don’t have any answers or suggestions, no Big Lessons I Have Learned, but as a woman and as a feminist, this event and the responses it garnered served as a rather brutal reminder: in order to eradicate sexual assault in our society, women need to be empowered to recognize their own strength. But if that strength occasionally fails, we need a little understanding and sympathy. Both from others and from ourselves.

That Kind Of Girl is on a quest to do 250 uncharacteristic things over the course of one madcap year. She lives in Boston and writes over at Not That Kind Of Girl. This post was originally published on Life As A Human.


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