Roughly 10 days after photographing a man who exposed himself to her in Central Park, a 73-year-old woman was beaten and raped in broad daylight by an assailant who said “Do you remember me?” before attacking her. Sure, she remembered him; “Moms,” as a Central Park employee calls her, could hardly forget the experience of being threatened and intimidated by him after she took his picture.
This case is attracting a lot of headlines because it’s a perfect storm of circumstances, illustrating that many of the myths about rape are just that: myths. Her rape happened in the middle of the day in a highly crowded area of the park, not in a dark alley somewhere. Her rape was about an exertion of power and control, not sexuality, as demonstrated by the fact that she was savagely beaten and her camera was stolen. The rapist’s goal was to punish her for daring to document his earlier harassment.
And it brings up some interesting questions about street harassment, for me.
I’ve been getting harassed since about the age of 16; it’s included not just cat calls, whistles, and comments, but groping, flashers, comments on my tattoos, and the whole gamut of charming human behavior. I suspect a lot of xoJane staffers and readers could say the same. Harassment is pretty much a way of life if you have breasts, no matter your age, size, disability status, or race. Thanks to the fact that bodies like ours are considered fair game, it’s always harassment season, and there’s no bag limit.
Which is why a lot of organizations have started focusing on harassment specifically, trying to empower people to expose and report it. Holly Kearl’s Stop Street Harassment is one example, along with Hollaback, which has spread across the world and now even has an app so people can discreetly take photos of harassers and share them across a network.
But, as Emily pointed out when we talked about this case this morning, there’s a price for sticking your neck out on harassment. And that’s the risk that the situation will escalate. It’s something I’ve worried about on the few occasions when I’ve been willing to push back on harassment, and I know a lot of women who will say nothing in the face of harassment because they are understandably terrified that the situation could get even uglier. Cases like this are a stark reminder of the very real dangers involved in telling harassers to get stuffed.
Recently, UnWinona on Tumblr posted about exactly what happens when these situations escalate, and it’s terrifying:
Then he’s up out of his seat and things go from bad to worse. He begins pacing back and forth in front of his bike, alternating between screaming something about his mother being dead and calling me a slut, a hoe, a bitch. I am frozen in place. There is one other person in the car, and I’m not sure if trying to change seats will draw more attention to me or less. I trust my instincts and show no fear, doing my best to appear to be calmly reading my book, never once looking up to acknowledge the abuse he’s hurling at me.
This is what some people deal with on a regular basis.
When you’re alone out there, which you are when you’re in a public place and you don’t know anyone, no matter how many people are around you, there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen when you expose a harasser. Maybe the person will be shamed and will stop it. Maybe that person will get extremely aggressive and threaten or hurt you. And maybe the people around you won’t do jack shit to help you.
And that’s what I worry about, because there’s no guarantee, when someone speaks up, that a bystander will back the victim up. In fact, there’s pretty ample precedent indicating that the opposite is true; the bystander effect, as it’s known, explains why things like the Kitty Genovese murder happen. Women can be murdered in crowded areas, screaming for help, with multiple witnesses, while no one lifts a finger, not even to call the police.
This woman was raped because she dared to confront a harasser. She’s a park regular who goes there to go birding and take photographs, and she’s known by staff at the park. She has a favorite bench. She sounds like a nice, civic-minded person who just wants to be able to enjoy the park without willy-wavers, and she paid a high price for standing up against harassment.
Moms, there’s already a lot of speculation swirling around you, making this your fault somehow. You should have done this, you should have done that, why didn’t you report the first incident to the police, etc.
So I want you to know this: I am so sorry this happened to you. I am so angry this happened to you. This is not your fault. You did a right and good and brave and bold thing when you documented your harassment and I salute you for that. I hope they catch this guy, and I hope you make him squirm at the trial.