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?