A few years ago, a man I didn't know attacked me on the street.
I've read and heard many women recount their experiences with interpersonal violence and how it played a correlative role in their later lives, and I always reflected upon these narratives with empathy, but as an outsider. I've always maintained the severity of my brief experience with violence had basically nothing to do with the person I've become in the years since, nor how I relate to other people. This summer, I've spent more time alone, just me, than I ever have before. I walked my new dog around my new neighborhood a lot and, while I've tried to maintain my confidence and my sense of safety and security, all summer this experience from years ago kept mentally popping up, and I've wondered if it had more of an impact on me than I first suspected.
The first semester of my senior year of college, I tried to save money by finding street parking instead of buying the ludicrously expensive campus parking passes. The night before Thanksgiving, I was trekking alone back to my car, foolishly, with my hood up and my over-ear headphones on in the pouring rain, when I got cold-cocked in the face and shoved to the ground. My hand-painted canvas bag — a precious souvenir from a vacation to Pike's Place Market four year earlier — was ripped from my shoulder.
Obviously, I never saw my bag again. Materially, the guy who attacked me didn't get away with much, but that night was my first experience with physical violence.
I realize now, years removed, how lucky I am that the extent of the violence I could have experienced that night stopped there, and how fortunate I am that this all happened right in front of a sorority house, where a few sisters were thankfully still in town for Thanksgiving and provided me their phones and care until my parents and the police could show up. (Delta Zeta will always have my heart for this.) But, in the years following, as I told the story of that night, I laughed that experience off in a major way. I also found myself, strangely and too casually, telling this story within the first two hours of meeting guys. Sometimes I still tell the story as flippantly as possible, laughing and saying things like, "No, I was the idiot who actually went to class the night before Thanksgiving!" and really hamming up the self-deprecating elements to retroactively seem less afraid of the experience.
But lately I've seen outside myself as I tell that story, and I wonder why I do that. Why I make stupid apologies, or position myself awkwardly in conversation, when I was totally the victim in a relatively serious situation. Is it because I think it's the most interesting story I have to tell? Is it because it now likely shapes a perception of men I have in general, however wrong that may or may not be? I'm not sure, but I've been thinking about it more and more as I meet men in contexts where I need to be able to say "no" and I need to be able to be sure that word will be heard.
I fear this experience may have acted as a catalyst for something within me that frightens me as a newly single woman, which is my general hesitation in saying no and saying it clearly. Following the assault, I accepted that I would probably always live my life as a woman who might glance over her shoulder more often than others while walking. And, sure, I could probably examine this more closely in therapy than I could here. But I do wonder if that night contributed more to my hesitation in generally asserting myself than I've accredited it.
Without meaning to sound trite and largely failing, I fielded some DMs on social media in the weeks following my most recent breakup. As I wrote previously, I've been in relationships for a long time, and I'm learning how to do this stuff all over again at a whole new age in life, in a whole new age in our time. Some of these messages I received were sweet, kind words from guys I genuinely like, but some made me very uncomfortable.
Of course I'm not afraid that these guys will punch me in the face and steal my purse, but my fear that these new interactions will go from good to bad to scary might have something to do with that initial experience of violence. There's also a wave of social media accounts (my "favorite" being @ByeFelipe on Instagram) that put men's often scary responses to hearing "no," mostly on dating apps, on blast that have sharply increased my trepidation. These posts aren't just eye-opening — they're usually pretty terrifying. The reality and the consequence of these interactions is frightening and, a word I find myself using often while discussing dating, daunting.
My hesitation with giving the hard "No, sir, please stop" isn't limited to digital interactions on my phone. My best friend is GREAT at at saying no, and I've always looked on longingly as she tells people in the wrong to GTFO with the greatest of ease. One time we were at a karaoke bar where an older, karaoke-bar type (you know what I'm saying) was propositioning us. The alarm in my head was ringing that this guy was definitely moments away from touching us, and instead of using my own voice, I timidly looked on and waited until she handled it for us with a stern and disciplined "Please leave us alone." I don't know if I ever told her, but I still haven't gotten over the shameful feeling I felt right after that interaction, nor interactions I've similarly had since then.
A part of me, I fear, will sometimes navigate life too cautiously because of the violence I experienced at the hand of a man who had my life in his hands, even if it was just for just a few seconds. I would love to be able to say that I've come to terms with that fear, with that caution, but the truth is I don't think I have, and, unfortunately, I think I'm in the vast majority of women who have at one point experienced violence.
In spite of how insignificant the actual, physical repercussions were from that night in November, I think I may only now be coming to terms with the physiological residue my attack may have left and the impact it may have on my ability to truly advocate for myself — in the realm of dating and beyond.