by Jessica Critcher
Last summer my husband was out of town for work. Though I missed him, it was exciting to be alone in Boston. I liked the idea of being mysterious and anonymous, minding my own business about town. With my tiny grocery cart, I felt like a woman with a secret. For two dollars I could take a train anywhere in the city– to an art museum or a brewery or a noodle shop or a bronze statue. If I wanted, I could go downtown and ride an elevator to the top of the tallest building in the city and scan the horizon for miles around. Wanting was all it would take to make it happen. The feeling is so pleasant that I like to carry two dollars in my pocket, even when I don’t plan on going anywhere.
We didn’t have air conditioning then. I would write early in the morning with the windows open, feeling breezes on my skin as I ate tomatoes from our roof garden. In the afternoon, when the sun climbed over the buildings and smothered my desk in hard light, I wrote in coffee shops and restaurants and all over the Coast Guard base where I could pilfer WiFi and air conditioning and a quiet place to sit. But when the sun went home, so did I.
One night that summer I got a real hum-dinger of a migraine. I get those quite a bit. The combination of hormonal birth control and staring at computer screens probably exacerbates this problem that I’ve had since I was about ten. Over the years I’ve been poked and prodded and scanned and medicated, and the doctors concluded that some people just get headaches.
That night, my eyes felt hard and heavy like little stones. The pain branched out from a tight knot deep inside my head, forming lightning patterns that stretched out to my scalp. It was too early to go to bed. I was restless. I took medication and massaged the tight pressure points in my face, trying to dissolve the pain like sugar cubes in tea, but nothing budged. I wanted to be cool and quiet in the dark. I wanted to feel a breeze from the harbor on my skin. I wanted to feel cold grass under my bare feet. I wanted to escape my stuffy apartment, to be outside. Wanting it was not enough.
Keys in hand, I hesitated. My independence and my two dollars didn’t carry the same weight at night. I know the statistics: 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Being a white woman, I know that someone like me is raped at the national average rate of about 17 percent. I tried to weigh the risks. Were those good odds? One in six. Seventeen percent. I couldn’t tell. Would the feeling of cool grass under my feet be worth it? This is my city, I told myself. My taxes maintain these parks and streets, and I’m going to walk them. I won’t be made to feel scared. Except, I was scared. I locked the door behind me and set out into the night.
I have been warned against this for as long as I can remember. At five or six my mother told me that if a stranger tried to touch me or take me somewhere, I should scream and kick and bite and fight. Ever since, I was paranoid that this would happen, that – even at five – I would be tasked with defending my own life and bodily autonomy.
I took some night classes in college, and I got more lectures about being a woman. Carry your keys in your hand to use as a weapon. Look men in the face, in case you have to describe them to the police later. Walk quickly, with your head high. Don’t walk like a victim, I was told. They’re looking for victims. Once I went to a concert by myself and my mother warned me that a man in Cleveland had raped and killed twelve women and buried them in his cellar. I didn’t need to ask what that had to do with me. It had everything to do with me. My mind has always resisted the idea that I could make myself into a victim. But mine was not the only mother to give such warnings.
It was exhilarating to be out alone at night, with no particular place to be. The ocean breeze felt delicious on my skin, just like I imagined. But the sensation was polluted and complicated by fear. With every step, my brain repeated one in six, like a nursery rhyme. One in six, one in six, the chant synced with my heartbeat.
No one knew where I was. It excited and terrified me. If I went missing, there would be no clues. It could take days to find me. I could be chopped up by then, violated and destroyed. If my husband called that night and I didn’t answer, he would have no way to find me. He would try a few more times and then probably call my mother, and then the police. My apartment would show no signs of a struggle. I should have left a note: Out for a walk, look for my body. xo.
If something happened to me (and I survived), I would be put on trial. They would ask what I was wearing – nothing but a sundress and a gauzy green wrap around my shoulders. Out at night without a bra – they would say I was asking for it. Comfortable clothing, like the freedom to walk at night, comes with a price. I was scared, but I kept going. I found a bench in the park and kicked off my sandals. I wanted to lay back and close my eyes, but being a woman alone at night without a bra was as far as I would stretch my safety. I had to remain alert.
A man smiled at me and commented on the nice weather. I nodded, but to myself I wondered, like I do with any strange man who talks to me, is this man going to try to rape me? He was only exchanging pleasantries. He didn’t mean to cause me anxiety. And being a nice man who had no intention of raping me, he would probably think that this story has nothing to do with him.
Men get defensive when I talk to them about this. I had a man ask me directly, confrontationally, how placing the responsibility to stop rape on men is supposed to help. If a man is about to rape you, asking him to stop won’t work. He told me I hadn’t thoroughly analyzed my position on this issue.
I’m 5’4” with virtually no upper body strength. The fact that I can be overpowered by just about any man who decides to violate me is not new information. I’ve been hearing about this since I was five, remember? If a man feels entitled to rape me, it’s too late. We can agree on that. If even one man feels like he has the right to violate someone, he learned that over time, and we as a culture have failed. Men need to hear that this is not acceptable behavior long before they contemplate raping us. Years and years before.
Imagine if, five-year-old boys were trained like I was. Imagine if boys were told that it is wrong to touch someone without permission. Not just once, but always, constantly, seriously, by grave-faced parents, repeating this message every time their son left the house. Imagine if mothers and fathers worried about their sons out late at night, asking, reminding, insisting that rape is wrong. Imagine if men in college were told about the serial killer in Cleveland with twelve bodies in his cellar– with “don’t end up like that” as the moral of the story. Imagine if while I was told not to be a victim, a young man was told not to be a predator.
Rape would probably not be eradicated by now. But the streets would feel much safer. It will take a few years for the messages to sink in, but if they’re as persistent as the messages I’ve been getting, they’ll eventually be common knowledge and instinct.
I walked home from the park without incident that night. The cool air polished the rough edges of my headache and I was able to sleep. I turned the deadbolt and sealed myself up at home, thankful that I had not been raped yet. But the “yet” is a heavy thing to carry. A few men in my life will shoulder it from time to time, but it always finds a home in the pit of my stomach. This weight does not make for a pleasant late night walk. I look forward to a day when I can set it down. That’s all I’m asking for.