An elevator speech for sexual assault

A few weekends ago, I was out with a group of friends. We were chatting in a circle, in a busy public place, when one of them got a funny look. Creasing his brow, he announced, “I think that man tried to touch my asshole.” We all stared after the couple that had just walked by, a middle-aged man and woman holding hands. My friend said again, “Yeah, no way that was accidental. He just tried his damned best to stick his finger in my butt.”

This was new to me. I have never been present when a man was sexually assaulted. None of us knew how to respond. My friend was justly stunned, and the rest of us weren’t sure if we should chase the stranger down, or yell after him, or just move on. In the end – no surprises here – we made some weak jokes amongst ourselves and the night rolled on. In the split-second decision between causing a scene or not, most people stay quiet. We were no exception.

But that experience left me thinking about the night I was out on a city street, holding my partner’s hand. As we stood on a sidewalk corner, laughing over some private joke, I felt a cruel force ram itself between my legs. It was so aggressive that it drove my loose skirt and my underwear up inside me – in a second, a finger was within me, actually penetrating my body, and then a dark shadow darted away down the street. In the time it took me to vocalize what had happened, he was long gone.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve been violated by a stranger, but – thankfully – it was the worst. I shouldn’t have to be thankful that the worst way an unknown man has ever touched me was just with his hands, through my clothes, on a street corner… but I am. Because so many loved ones have been through worse. And one of the most awful parts of this rape culture we live with is that not only do victims feel the anger and helplessness of being attacked (in any degree) – there’s a whole second layer of self-imposed shame for not having stood up for yourself; for letting the culprit move on, untouched; for staying silent.

It’s just so damn hard to come up with a powerful, rapid response when an attack comes out of nowhere. Even when someone forces themselves on you gradually, it’s so awkward to call more attention to the thing you desperately  don’t want to be happening. By the time you’ve realized that what’s going on is intentional and have summoned words to defend yourself, it’s usually over. Sexual predators rely on that pause caused by shock.

A recent episode of the amazing Savage Love podcast gave me an idea of one small way to reclaim some power. My hero Dan Savage took a woman’s call about how to respond to unwanted attention in a bar. She sought advice on whether it’s better to quietly shut men down or be loud and shame them publicly. Dan responded by telling her that – in most cases – a calm brush-off would do the trick. But the real revelation came with the next week’s episode.

Dan played calls from woman after woman in response to the original question. They all expressed one key idea: the best way to handle the moment when you feel threatened – or have just been attacked – is to have your reaction prepared in advance. Instead of fumbling for words, or struggling to overcome the social stigma against making a scene, having an “elevator speech” for sexual assault means you know exactly what you want to say and when to let it fly. Several of the women callers even recommended practicing your speech, saying the words in a mirror or with a friend, until you feel confident in your message, your tone, and your readiness to pull out your verbal weapon on command.

One woman said she adopts a “disapproving mom” tone. Lips pursed, she condescendingly says, “Do you really think it’s appropriate to have your hand there? You don’t even know me. Have some respect.” Another woman reported telling a man: “I am tired of you following me. I have politely disengaged twice. If you talk to me again, I will humiliate you in public.” And then there was this: “Touch me again, and I’ll break your nose.

Clearly, the message varies. But the power remains. And while – once again – this suggestion places the burden of behavioral change on the attacked instead of the attacker, I’m looking at this like a treatment for one symptom of a much larger sickness. I can’t change rape culture today, but if someone gropes me and then runs in the parking lot after work, I will know what to yell after them.  It won’t change that they felt entitled to touch me; it won’t remove my discomfort and disgust; but it will stop me from feeling that I let something blatantly unacceptable pass without a peep of protest. And, better yet, next time the assault comes at a slow creep (the man who edged ever closer on the subway, or the guy at the bar who kept touching my hair), I will have the words to call attention to their actions and stop harassment before it starts.

What’s my elevator speech?

“I’M NOT YOURS TO TOUCH.”

Once that’s out, and the silence is broken, I can add whatever’s needed.

So. What’s yours?

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62 responses to “An elevator speech for sexual assault

    • Awesome. I love this elevator speech! For some women, though (myself – up until recently – included), it’s almost impossible to go against years of being taught to be polite and never cause a stir. I wish I’d had more “big-girl” women like you in my life growing up – it’s ludicrous that I would ever be so worried about strangers’ opinions that I’d hesitate to defend myself in public – but there you have it. For me, being brave takes practice.

    • Thank YOU for making the point that this advice is for everyone. Despite the opening story, I mostly addressed male to female assault in this post… but clearly these attacks can be committed by anyone, against anyone. No one should carry shame about something they didn’t invite.

  1. So sorry that happened to you! When I was taking martial arts, my teacher always drove it into our heads that NO ONE has a right to touch us without our permission, and we do ABSOLUTELY have a right to defend our right to not be touched; with physical force if need be. I am fortunate that I have never had an experience like this, but it IS something I worry about. People need to realize that this kind of behavior is NOT funny. It is NOT a joke, it DOES hurt people, and that is simply not acceptable. I work with kids and I am always telling them to keep their hands/fingers/feet to themselves. It’s a very basic lesson and I want them to learn it now. So they don’t become “that guy” down the road who thinks he is entitled to stick his hand up a woman’s skirt.

    • That is such an empowering experience. I am so glad you had it, and that you’re passing it on to your students. There really isn’t ever a reason to touch someone without their consent, and I like that you’re teaching them that. You have so much potential to make real impact!

      In a different vein, this really was a perfect example of how you can’t possibly “ask” for sexual assault. I do sometimes go out wearing short, tight dresses (There’s no reason I shouldn’t!), but on this occasion I was wearing a floor-length, flowy skirt and a heavy sweater. I was holding hands with my boyfriend, no less – and that was when someone decided to grab me. The blame for assault all belongs to the person who enacts it.

  2. Reblogged this on myspokenheart and commented:
    Wow! I am shocked, disgusted and yet affirmed all at once. This is a must for ALL people, male and female alike… do you know what you will say when someone decides to take advantage of the situation and grope you as passing by, or worse?

        • I couldn’t watch much of that. I don’t mind that you posted it – it’s actually a perfect example of why I think the elevator speech is a good idea – but it reminds me way too much of crowded subway cars in Mexico City and a business men my father’s age trying to rub me behind the cover of his briefcase.

          I can totally imagine how this crazy situation happened and no one said anything. He started touching himself, and the people around him weren’t sure if it was really happening. Then they realized it was definitely happening, but everyone hoped someone else would say something. And then, too much time had gone by, and they all felt too awkward to break the silence… so an entire crowded train of people pretended it wasn’t happening. This is something I will never let happen again while I’m around. That POOR woman sitting right next to him with her head turned away…

  3. I am not much for talking . . . words COULD work in a crowded place, but if he has no fear of offending you like that I would think a stronger response is in order . . . I teach a pretty hurtful form of self defense for senior guys based on wing chung but for your case I would suggest Aikido . . . this is a very good alternative from totally embarrassing a guy to totally breaking his arm and it works for a small women as well as a man. . . . great discipline. If i were to start over I would learn and practice aikido . . .

    • I have taken some self-defense classes, and would like to take more. Thanks for the tip on the discipline! More and more, I think I will sign all my (someday) children up for martial arts of some kind, for the focus and the empowerment.

      • an exerpt from my blog:
        I look at going out into a public place these days similar to what it was like hiking in the Alaska bush, you know that grizzly bear is out there because you just saw a pile of fresh shit on the trail. He’s evading for now, but you never know for sure just what he is going to do. I always maintained a respectful fear for the bears, but was never really afraid of them. Fear would have kept me on the farm and I would have missed some the greatest times in my life as I traveled alone in no-man’s land.

        In the real world practically everybody you meet and greet will be just like you, kind, gentle and courteous, but it only takes one to really mess up your day. Self defense is learning to recognize that one person, how to avoid him/her and if necessary how to stop him in his tracks. You do not have to fear him, NOR must you become his victim. Only a part of the ‘way of the warrior’ has to do with physical contact . . . strategy is important also, as is self knowledge and awareness. These all take as much practice as learning to resist.

        For starters, get your eyes off the ground, get your ears out of the headphones, stop gabbing on the i phone . . . put your game face on, turn up the awareness factor, begin to observe, and watch where you are going. Learn to notice the problem BEFORE it steps on your toes.

    • Thank you for passing this on! I’d love to hear what you come up with. This is a tiny thing, but just having it in place makes me feel so much better. I think the way you phrased it – “some control” is key.

  4. I’m sorry we live in a world where such a precaution is necessary. An assault of any kind can take place very quickly. That is why it is so important for all of us, not even just especially women, to pay attention to our inner radar. There is nothing wrong with having a response prepared; believe me whoever wants to grope someone in public ( frottage I think it is called) has his or her plan ready.

    I was very dismayed recently when a friend of mine ( we are in our 50s) didn’t seem to recognize that an older man was stalking her at the gym. She made all kinds of excuses for his behavior just because of his age. She knew she was uncomfortable but ignored her own feelings until it got pretty blatant. Also I told her point blank the man was perping on her.

    Thanks for a timely and hard hitting post.

    • Hi, Magpie. Thanks for your comment. Your story about your friend is very telling – most of us are so conditioned to be polite – all the time – and we also want to think the best of people… but we take it to extremes. I’m glad you were there to validate her uncomfortable feelings!

  5. I’m so glad you wrote this. I love the idea of preparing an “elevator speech” in advance for uncomfortable and unpleasant encounters. Along similar lines, individuals who have been subjected to domestic violence & stalking are taught the art of “safety planning.”—These are all sensible ideas for living in this nonsensical, (and often cruel), world.

    • I hadn’t heard of safety planning before. It makes perfect, if sad, sense. We don’t install smoke alarms and air bags expecting to need them – but we can live so much more freely knowing they’re in place.

      • It’s a common practice to help domestic violence and stalking victims to make “safety plans” should they be needed. (Sad, huh?) I truly believe it’s the best way to empower people, no matter the age, gender, an so on.

  6. The idea that we should be pre-prepared for assault or unwanted attention is sad but very realistic. I have been known to put my hands up in a cross x with fists balled and say “no deal” or “no means no” this is useful on the dancefloor of clubs when guys keep trying to dance with you. The loud music can be difficult to get your point accross but the strong arm movements helps

    • That is an EXCELLENT idea. For a few years, I actually stopped going out dancing (something I freaking LOVE) because I was so, so tired of dealing with unwanted male attention. And that’s not some kind of humble brag – there are some guys who, I swear, don’t even look at a girl’s face, let alone ask her name, before stepping up to press their erection in her back. I really like your tip – it’d be hard for anyone to misinterpret that one.

  7. Good post! I remember, back in school I was spanked by school principal. Despite my protests, everybody agreed that he had just been trying to fool around and gain a good deal of class’ respect.
    As for me, I had to change the school 😀

    • Just one more reason why corporal punishment is a horrible idea in schools. I’m so sorry that happened – the kind of adult who needs to get their power trip (or any other twisted fix) from hurting a kid… that’s a person who should never be allowed to work with children. Was any sort of investigation made?

      • Not really. It was back in Russia. My parents went to school and tried to talk to him. Well, luckily, I didn’t understand the whole thing back then. Fun experience though 🙂

  8. How utterly revolting for you and your friend. 😦

    After my rather scarring experiences (see ‘Rolling in the Deep’ posts under Sexual Abuse Category http://sistasertraline.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/rolling-in-the-deep-part-one), I tend to act with aggression when someone behaves in an appropriate sexual fashion toward me.

    When I was younger and on a crowded tube, some guy put his hand on my arse and as it start creeping steadily towards my undercarriage (ahem) I took my hand out of my pocket, felt my way backwards and raked my rather long sharp nails savagely across the back of his hand. I heard a sharp intake of breath and the hand went away. When I got off at my stop, there was skin and blood stuck under my nails and I though ‘Yup. Take that home to your wife, you dirty b*****d.’

    I have also slapped men, thrown drinks, verbally abused them and for the most part, I tend to make them go away very quickly. Luckily now I am older, it happens less. Lucky for them at any rate. 😉

    Whilst all women (and men) should ensure their own safety and not risk further abuse, making a big fuss and embarrassing the abuser is always an option.

    A friend of mine once turned on a man who grabbed her crotch and grabbed his, not letting go till he fell to the floor. A girl after my own heart!

    I’m not a man hater honest, but no one touches me on the arm let alone anywhere else without my permission. Period. x

  9. PS LADIES (and GENTS where applicable) An old self defence that isn’t hard to do but is v effective is to jab a man in the Adam’s apple with your middle three fingers. This will cause him to choke, giving you time to make good your escape.

    Let’s be careful out there!

    • I think the awful truth may be that I freeze up in moments of crisis. That’s why I need the verbal bridge from doing nothing to standing up for myself – I just don’t think my brain moves fast enough to jump right to a groin-kick (bad-ass as that would be).

  10. Reblogged this on theunpolishedjourney and commented:
    Last night I had an opportunity to hang out with one of our clients. While we were talking she said, “Ms. Lindsey, one of the boys in my class asked, ‘Is you a virgin.'” I looked at him and said, “is you a virgin, because mine ain’t none of your business.” I was so proud of her because 2 months ago she was admitting to not knowing how to say no.
    I instantly thought of this post I had read before. One of my biggest desires is that women learn to have their voice, but some circumstances come out of nowhere. Unfortunately, we can’t control the people around us, but we can attempt to be prepared.

  11. Oh my god, where the hell do you live that some bastard violates you on the street in broad daylight? I have never even heard of such a thing!

    It is ABSOLUTELY difficult to come up with a rapid response to a difficult situation – be it as benign as an unexpected verbal insult from a colleague or “friend”, to something much more serious like a physical assault (sexual or otherwise). So I LOVED reading your examples of “elevator speeches” for this topic! Way to do something good out of something horrible.

    It’s so sad that people even need this kind of preparation; but better to be prepared and hopefully never have to use it than the opposite. Thank you once again for being a wonderful voice for social change. Lady, you rock!

    As for my “speech”: I’m thinking something like, “Leave me alone before I make a scene,” or “Get your hands off of me!”. But I’m open to suggestions. 🙂 {I do like yours; I may steal it…]

    • That happened when I was living in Mexico. To be honest, my three worst experiences with strange men all took place in Mexico. Apart from that, the people were lovely in every way, but the macho mentality is absolutely still in place.

      Unfortunately, if you Google sexual assault, you will find link after link to stories of women who were groped/flashed/really inappropriately cat called on the subway, on street corners waiting for the light to change, or (worst of all) while entering their apartment – how creepy is it to have the guy know where you live?! And this was all in broad daylight, and – across the board – almost none of them got it together in time to respond.

      So thanks for your words and for having a speech prepared! It’s better to fight a little than not at all. (And safer. It was actually a friend of mine who was catcalled on her doorstep, and many friends suggested she should have kicked the guy between the legs. Ummmm… no. She doesn’t know how he’d react, and he’s likely stronger than her, and he knows where she lives and clearly doesn’t have a problem bothering women… it’s just unrealistic AND unsafe to suggest a physical response to every chauvinist insult.)

      • I fully agree with you that a woman should attempt to physically assault a man only when a very real, deep threat of imminent harm/violence exists. Generally speaking, men are a lot stronger than women – so why “voluntarily” escalate a situation that perhaps needn’t be any more horrible than it already is? But I have no qualms with women vocally being more ‘aggressive’ – sometimes that is precisely what is needed to cause an aggressor to back down instead of ramp up. (And if a person does advance in the face of verbal warnings, that individual probably would have done so anyway…) Again, great things to get us to think about and plan for.

      • P.S. Now that you have explained that your assaults took place in Mexico, that makes a lot more sense. I have a friend who was born and raised there, and from talking with her over the past several years, I have learned a lot about the differences in our two respective cultures… Not all bad mind you; but certainly some areas are not good, either.

  12. Wow. What an intense topic. I have also been a victim and it really sucks when you think about it over and over throughout the years wishing you handled it in a different way. I’m such a “nice girl” yet I wish I would’ve had the guts to instantly slap the crap out of my attacker. This motivates me to be properly prepared in the future. Thank you for that.

    • I’m sorry you’ve also had this happen to you, and I hear you about being a “nice girl.” I was also brought up to smile and be polite no matter what. It’s ingrained in me to the point that any confrontation leaves my hands shaking, but I’ve finally learned that it’s worth it!

  13. I think my biggest concern with an “F OFF!” response is that someone will get violent with me in retaliation. I was spat on and punched in the kidneys because I didn’t respond to some cat calls when walking down a sidewalk in Hollywood (when I was 18) with my friend. Luckily we had a bookstore we ducked into. I’ve had a couple of other very scary incidents – but I’ve NEVER had anyone violate me with their finger like that. That’s scary and crazy. That’s a whole different kind of person right there – possibly different than someone trying to pick you up in a bar. The thing with crazy is that you never know what can set it off – and violent crazy is not predictable. I’ve heard making direct eye contact and a firm tone is often deflates someone that is thinking of attacking – and I think having something to say, with confidence, prepared in advance is a great idea.

    • I am SO sorry that happened to you. How did it even get to that point? And your experience totally negates those men who say, “Oh, I cat call women to make the, feel special.” NO.From start to finish, the words/noises they make are entirely about them, proven by them getting violent if you don’t respond appreciatively.

      You’re right about the crazy, and avoiding provoking it further. I see this approach as one more tool in the box, which may or may not be right for a given situation.

      • We were walking down Hollywood Blvd in the evening – and pretty quickly noticed that we were the only girls (we were barely 18) walking around by ourselves…and they started to cat call and you’d be surprised how quickly things escalate and you lose total control of the situation!

        Totally agree about more than one tool in the tool box!

  14. I was unaware that this was a rape culture my eyes have now been open. that is for happened to me randomly however I believe that I would get quite loud and violent maybe. I doubt that I would stand there and say nothing and let it pass and I don’t think anyone else should either. I think that having an elevator speech is a great idea everyone should be taught this.and maybe some self defense wouldn’t hurt either. And shame on those people advancing the people that don’t even know them that’s not OK.

    • Hi Carmen,

      Self defense is something I think should be taught to all students in high school. Knowing how to handle yourself when the unexpected occurs is a basic life skill… of course, there are so many basic life skills that aren’t part of standard education! In any case, as much as I hate the phrase “rape culture” – because it is so ugly and I so deeply don’t want it to apply to my country – it’s true. And against it, as with other things, I’ll always believe that words are our most powerful tool, weapon, and medicine.

  15. Maybe it’s just me,but “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose” seems an appropriate-HELL,LAUDABLE!!!!!!-reply to some creepy dirtbag’s attempt to grab a girl’s bottom and/or boobs!!!!!

    • Oh, absolutely, in the right setting! In a crowded bar, I’d go for it… but alone on a dark street, I don’t want to threaten violence and escalate the situation when I actually have no idea how to fight. Huge kudos to the women who’ve trained in self defense and can pull this line off with 100% confidence!

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