I was office-bound the Friday, August morning that I locked eyes with a passerby on the opposite side of the street. Already the encounter was strange; it was rare for me to come across anyone on my route to work. He was young, younger than me maybe, a high school student even, with half of his braids coming undone. We did not politely look away from one another; I watched him until we passed out of each other’s periphery. There was something about the odd, unhurried way in which he went by—he looked as though he were purposeless. Like he was going nowhere.
Where he was going turned out to be directly behind me. After following for a few moments with an uneasy closeness I was finding more and more difficult to ignore, he struck out and tackled me to the ground, both of us falling in the grass and the brambles beside a railway viaduct.
Those first few wild moments I felt no fear and no pain, only great confusion. The desire to apologize or say “Excuse me,” then get up and continue on my way was unshakeable. Certainly, I had bumped into him and somehow brought us both down with my inherent clumsiness. But I found myself unable to stand or untangle myself from the man atop me. I realized that he was holding me down, and that this was not an accident I could talk my way out of.
I decided to talk anyway, producing a strangled sounding, “Why?” as we wrestled in the thick, overgrown city brush. As the struggle continued, my all-consuming bewilderment grew, until he finally answered my “Why?” by forcing a hand between my clamped-together knees, up and under my skirt.
A quick scan of his person revealed no weapon; no firearm held to my back, no knife at my throat. I figured that if he had something to threaten me with he already would have, and that if he really wanted to kill me he was probably going to whether I was silent about it or not. Gambling, I let loose one scream, then more—longer, louder, shriller.
Alarmed by the escalating volume and frequency of my cries, my assailant released me and fled down the street—back the way he was trekking before our bizarre scuffle. I didn’t move from the position I landed in, and I didn’t stop screaming either, until a man from one of the neighboring houses
I complied, and when I stood, I saw limbs that were scratched and dotted with blood and street grit. Those insignificant abrasions were all that remained of the 90 second confrontation. I was okay.
The hour of my assault (eight in the morning) allowed for me to spend the day at a police precinct. By the end of the afternoon, I had selected my assailant from a lineup, met with state prosecution, and shaken hands with an innumerable variety of professional do-gooders. And I was okay.
I am still okay, but okay is no longer my default. Being okay takes effort; being okay is cause for celebration. Okay is no longer a guarantee. The road to recovery—from any sort of assault—is indisputably complex, laden with indeterminable hurdles, and highly individualistic. Recovery is not a hard science; there is no unifying theory or one-size fits all guidebook. My own recovery has been contingent on the outcome of my attack: my assailant was both unsuccessful and apprehended.
Even the assault itself gave me, the victim, all the advantage: a woman walking to work in a heavily populated, residential area is confronted . It reads like a bad TV movie and it played out like one. Nobody asked me if I had been drinking, or why I was out so late, or what I was wearing. It is an incredibly rare occurrence, the kind of attack so often dramatized, but seldom experienced so simply in reality. Most victimized women are not as stupidly lucky as I am.
The vast majority of sexual assaults reported in the US are perpetrated by someone the victim is acquainted with, to say nothing of the sixty-eight percent of attacks that go unreported. A whopping 98% of those assailants never spend a day in prison. To see a predator incarcerated is a remarkable bout of fortune, a statistical anomaly at present.
Reminding myself of that remarkable fortune helps me feel okay. All the good that came from removing this person from the general population makes the actuality of the assault seem very small indeed.
But the smallness of the event does not mean it did not occur, and while it is okay for me to feel okay about it, even to trivialize it as much as I see fit, it is not okay that another human being tackled me to the ground and attempted to hurt me, unsuccessful as they were.
For many who experience an attack of any caliber, denouncing the event and rejecting blame is the first step to psychological well-being, a feat that is starkly more difficult when the attacker is a date, a partner, or a relative. I have exchanged narratives with an
“I was kind-of raped,” one such woman admitted to me, with a sickening nonchalance I was fast becoming familiar with.
“It was my one friend, the guy I had dinner with last week. I said, ‘No,’ but he held me down, and it happened anyway.”
She looked embarrassed about it, as though she were expecting admonishment, as though she had made a stupid mistake.
“You weren’t ‘kind-of’ raped,” I refuted, shocked, “He raped you. Are you going to tell anyone else?”
“Oh, no. I don’t want any more trouble.”
“But he raped you,” I repeated.
“But I invited him in. It’s nothing like what happened to you.”
She’s right. It’s much worse.
Acquaintance or previous consensual activity does not illegitimatize sexual violence of any caliber, but many women are made to feel exactly that—illegitimatized—within a system of misogyny and rampant victim blaming. To call the process of prosecuting one’s rapist arduous is a substantial understatement; even those us living out best-case scenarios are exhausted by the extent of the ordeal.
The hours I spent walled up in a police precinct were far more frustrating and draining than the attack itself—and these were people actively trying to help me. I told and retold my story, with graphic detail, over and over to blank faces attached to uniformed bodies. By the time I had to give my “official” statement, I had given it, unofficially, at least fifteen times, never to the same person.
Furthering my exasperation was the habit of these officials to refer to me as “The Victim,” to one another and to my face, despite having my full name, and being encouraged to use it. To my dismay, this has continued far into the process of prosecution.
But I never had to endure a rape-kit or any physical handling. The promise of further violation, especially when paired with insignificant results, can be discouraging even to those most staunch in their decision to prosecute.
The desire to keep an assault private is understandable and perhaps automatic: had a bystander not already called the police the morning I was attacked, I am positive that I would have continued on to work, in a daze, and gone about my day. There is effort and energy required in the pursuit of justice that is simply not existent in the aftermath of an assault. In many cases the idea of it is unfathomable, particularly following a passage of time.
That’s not to say that women who chose not to prosecute their attacker aren’t recovering or are recovering “wrong”—their recuperation happens to involve the protection of their privacy, something they are entitled to. Self-protection is the only absolute tenement of individual recovery, and no method of self-protection is less valid than any other.
One of the ways I have protected myself is by eliminating a specific type of person from my life—the type of person who hears my story and says, “Maybe you shouldn’t be walking to work.” Continuing to walk to work is another way I protect myself—I think that it is essential to my being okay.
To say that I am okay is not to say that I have been unaffected by the encounter. I am constantly replaying and reliving that feeble, pathetic, “Why?” and no amount of self-empowerment seems to fade its memory. There are things I now that were not issues before. I hate that I constantly look over my shoulder when walking under a viaduct. I hate that my illusion of security can never be reconstructed. I especially hate that I will cross the street if a man is walking “too close” behind me. I am someone who panics. I am someone who is cowardly. I am someone who racially profiles strangers. But I am someone, and for now, that is enough for me to feel okay. That is recovery. The rest will come after.