I was assaulted a few weeks ago. I tried just now for a few minutes to find another word for it, something less aggressive, but I couldn’t. I realized how ironic it was that I was trying to shave down its sharpness, because that entire thought process I just went through— the “let’s not blow this out of proportion, here”— that’s why I’m writing this.
Here is the truth: It wasn’t the first time it’s happened. It wasn’t the second, third or even fourth time, either. It happens a lot, and in varying degrees, but it happens a lot more often than people—men especially—expect.
Whenever I’m aggressively cat-called, followed down the street, or chastised and cursed at for not reciprocating a stranger’s hello, I immediately and subconsciously devise an exit strategy. Did you know that? I assess the situation— his mood, his weight, his strength— and I try to predict whether or not I’d be able to fend him off, if it ever came to that. Do you realize that? It happens in a second.
But those situations occur most often with people you know. Not very well, or at least not in my case, but they are “friends,” friends of friends, or acquaintances with whom you’ve exchanged a witty back-and-forth and thought, “Well, this could be nice…” It’s with men who start to assume things, who are presumptuous in what you want from them but are actually passing their wants as yours. It’s with men who haven’t gotten used to the word “no,” whose efforts they refuse to let die in vain, and so they grab, grope, hold, squeeze, hurt you, almost as if into submission.
I am not submissive. I am KIRAN SUZANNA SAMUEL, quick wit and sharp tongue, but my physicality betrays my personality. Fact of the matter is: I am 115lbs. of skin and bones, and if it came down to you vs. me, you would win. You strong, masculine man, you don’t think I see that?
But back to that night.
A friend of mine threw a black tie event for her company, and so I ventured out to support her. Like plenty of other girls, I love playing dress up, and so I bought a dress especially for the occasion. It was black, knee-length, well-tailored and a bit low-cut. It wasn’t obscene by any means, but it wasn’t the most conservative, either. I had black pumps on and donned a red lip.
I brought a friend from the area, N, as my date. Over hors d’oeuvres, we got into a slight argument, as is the nature of his and my relationship. There were cheerleaders there, and we somehow got into a discussion about how much they make. On average, cheerleaders make around 10K a year. They’re expected to hold jobs, because cheerleading is meant to be an extracurricular activity, a supplement to something resembling a “real” job. N, although initially surprised by how much they made, quickly found justification for it.
“They’re selling their bodies. They represent sex. Their only purpose is to support the main event. They’re as valuable as the guys selling beer in the stands”
I didn’t agree then, still don’t now. As a former competitive dancer, I know how much work and practice goes into a routine, I know how grueling practices can be, I know that putting on a performance is hard. I imagine these girls love what they do, which is why they do it.
“But they get perks in other ways. There are men who buy them things. Men who want to have sex with them. I know these girls. They love it. They love the attention. They chose this career. You want to change how they’re looked at? Change the way they dress.”
We agreed to disagree, and left it at that. I couldn’t find an avenue to change his mind, and I realized that. The night was generally fun. Open bar, some of my favorite people, a lot of dancing. There was a guy there who was a friend of a friend that I had come to consider as an acquaintance— we had met a handful of times before, always while out in the city, exchanged a few flirty comments, hugged goodbye. When he saw me that night, the first thing out of his mouth was, “I didn’t know you had that body under there. Why don’t you wear things like this more often?” I laughed. We were both drinking.
Fast forward an hour or two, and he approaches me again. He tells me he wants to show me something (he had a role in the event planning, and so I trusted that he was showing me something cool about the venue). I followed him past a dark projection room and up the stairs where the performers’ changing rooms were. He walked in, and I stood at the doorway.
He smiles. A man who was already standing in the room looked at me and back to him and back to me again. I understood what was happening.
The stranger looked back at him again, started laughing, threw up his hands and walked out of the room. I tried to follow him, but I was pulled back. PULLED. The alarm bells in my head were deafening. He was wasted. I was shit-scared.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about what happened next because this is my LIFE and not fiction, but there are a few elements that will not erase:
You’ll never forget the feeling of your heart on the floor when you hear the door lock.
You’ll never forget struggling against a man whose roaming hands and unwillingness to listen tell you that you’re disposable, cheap, worthless.
You’ll never forget being reminded, yet again, how invincibility is a state of mind that doesn’t belong to you. It never will.
But I also managed to get out. By the grace of God, I managed to shift my weight against him in such a way that he fell back and I had time to reach the door and bolt downstairs.
And right before I went back to the party— and this is important, because I’m certain other women in similar situations have done the same— I smoothed down my dress, touched up my hair and put a smile on my face as if nothing happened.
I found my way back to N and we went to the bar and got another drink. I saw *him* in peripherals, but he refused to look at me, and I took it that he was rightfully embarrassed about what he did. I relaxed. I pushed what happened to the back of my mind. Another hour passed, and I was having a good time again. The music was good, and I was dancing with some old friends.
I went up to get another drink.
Out of nowhere, he reappears. With a drunken smile on his face and one hand on my wrist, he starts to drag me towards the back room. Here I am, helpless in this tight dress and tall heels, skidding across a marble floor while people lend us glances but generally pay us no mind. What a sight. I am protesting, pulling back, grabbing the wall, saying NO, but they’re falling on deaf ears and battling a very determined resolve. I’m panicking. I’m halfway into this room and realizing at this point nobody can probably hear me, but I look back and see a friend of mine, P, and I immediately start screaming his name. As if waiting for this cue, P runs to me. He grabs me by the waist, hoists me out of his grip, and takes me back into the main hall. I finally exhale.
P tells me later that he came because he saw it all happen— me, standing at the bar, laughing, and him, saying something in my ear. But when he grabbed my wrist and started to pull, he says my face fell and that’s when he started to follow me. But if P wasn’t watching? Then what?
After consoling me for a bit, P leaves me with N and I immediately go outside and get some fresh air. N follows. He watches me, sitting facing the wall, head down, with no idea what happened. When I finally tell him, he’s aghast. He holds me, and I let the tears flow. But while I’m standing there, sobbing into his shoulder, he says something very, very interesting:
“It’s not your fault.”
He repeats it like a mantra, over and over again. It’s incredibly sweet of him to do so. I imagine it’s what he thinks is appropriate, given what I and perhaps he knows about how women assign blame to themselves after rape or domestic abuse. But as he’s saying it, all I can literally think about is those cheerleaders.
“…I know these girls. They love it…”
That earlier conversation with N, juxtaposed with him holding me and telling me it’s not my fault, haunted me for a long while after that night. N genuinely cares for me, and I’ve never once doubted that, so in no way do I mean to undermine his efforts. But I can’t help but marvel at how those two starkly different thoughts could emerge from the same person.
This is where my head was/is at:
I am standing there, crying after being assaulted by a man who stared at my silhouette in a tight dress and decided without knowing me that he knew more than I did what I wanted.
I am a woman who tried to look pretty for an event, fully aware of the fact that men are attracted to women in carnal ways.
“They love it.”
I am no different from a cheerleader.
The next day while on the train home, the cacophony in my head was deafening. I needed to talk about it. I picked up the phone and called my friend T, not really knowing that he was the right person to talk to about it, but feeling, somehow, that he might be. He was.
He told me, as a heterosexual male, he understood where N was coming from in the cheerleader conversation. But as a man who’s known women that have gone through situations much more precarious, dangerous and affecting than mine, he said he also gets my disagreement. He doesn’t fully understand it, being a male and only having that perspective to go off of, but he tries (and that matters). The root problem, he questioned, is that maybe people, men especially, don’t know how to handle ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ on the same plate. He said that society isn’t ready to have that conversation, because it negates long standing perceptions of how women should carry themselves and how the rest of the world treats them (accordingly).
I never thought about it that way, probably because I never disconnected the two. As a woman, and more importantly, as a human being, they are necessarily intertwined. From where I’m writing, I can’t see one without the other. My gender and my sexuality are both essential, nonrefundable parts of me, and to cheapen one is to cheapen them both.
I think those of us who *try* are just starting to learn that gender cannot be looked at in conventional ways anymore. Getting to this point has been a long battle, and maybe where we are in the conversation is still only the beginning stages of a long, exhausting war. But gender roles, for example, have at least begun to be picked apart and repurposed to accommodate for new, emerging, refreshing ways that respect individual preferences and priorities. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” runs in this month’s The Atlantic, and I heard that it may be the most-read article in the magazine’s existence. The article discusses whether or not it’s feasible for educated, well-off women to actually have it all. At 23, I’m not a mother or a wife, and I don’t have an established career. But I do want those things for my future, and I’m so glad that these intricacies are addressed because it acknowledges in a public space that my feminism is multi-faceted. That it is complex. That it is up to my interpretation. That there is room for societal change.
I don’t think we’ve gotten that far in the conversation about sexuality. It’s a shame for all of us on the whole, but sometimes especially for women, who are waiting for this conversation to move along for the sake of our safety and sanity. Right now, women aren’t included in the dialogue. We’re mirrors. That night, as I was wrestling against him, it was so obvious— I was a projection of what he wanted. What he saw. What he thought would be okay to act upon. And for what reason? Because I wore a tight dress?
But it’s not isolated to one gender; both men and women contribute to the perpetuation of this really blocky, limiting, antiquated, misogynistic interpretation of sexuality. Why else would girls call each other “slut” as a term of endearment? Why else did one of my best friends say “That sounds hot” when I told her the story the day after I was assaulted?
It’s tricky, and I can’t sit here and pretend like I have any answers. To be honest, I don’t even know how to define ‘sexuality’ apart from how I understand my own, and even that is a work in progress because I’m learning about myself everyday. But for what it’s worth, I think this unknowingness is important and valid, and at the very core of defining sexuality. I. Don’t. Know. And following from that: Either. Do. You. Not acknowledging that there may be a huge difference in how I see my sexuality and how you, an OTHER, pigeonholes it into this conventional little box, backed by social mores and misogyny does me, as an INDIVIDUAL, a huge disservice. Often times, a seriously dangerous one.
I’ve always seen myself as complicated. I am girly, flirty, and highly emotional, but I am also opinionated, outspoken, and purposeful. I have always found it UNFAIR!!! when I’ve been told in various ways that I can be either feminine or dominant, never both, as if the two cannot exist together. But when I am out there in the world, and I am touched without permission, talked to like I warrant disrespect, or treated like an object, it gets unbelievably hard to stick to your guns and remember that they can.
In the nights that followed my assault, my head was reeling with questions: In believing that I am a smart, strong woman, do I automatically forfeit my right to be proud of my body, to feel sexy, to feel wanted? Can I walk out into the world in a mini-dress and reasonably expect that I will be respected and that my words will still be powerful and hold weight? Or is it actually my fault when these things happen?
Just as I don’t have any answers, I don’t expect to be given any, either. All I expect, or, more appropriately, hope, is that some day, I won’t have to be scared in my own body anymore. I want it to be acknowledged that this fear is real, and that it manifests itself in dangerous ways. There are women—strong, complicated, beautiful, intelligent women—who are running from themselves every day. And much like I am now, they are waiting for an opportunity to finally exhale.