I was standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, handing out fliers in a large group of people gathered looking over the railing. “Come check out our concert. Madonna will be there.” It was a canvassing day for Amnesty International’s Bringing Human Rights Home concert in February 2014. Needless to say, it was freezing, and we were all bundled in layers of jackets and scarves, the entire group of canvassers being young women. Posing for a photo with a large group of people, I suddenly felt very uncomfortable. Before I even realized what was happening, a tall, strong, unkempt man was digging into my hips, holding me to him, and grinding his erection on me through our clothes. I fought him while trying to not bring too much attention to the situation, finally succeeding after almost a minute of his unwanted touch. Without a word, he looked me in the eye, spun around and walked away quickly into the crowd. One minute was all it took, and I haven’t been the same since.
I didn’t tell anyone. I am not the type of person to seek any sort of attention, much less for a traumatic experience. I just wanted to sweep it under the rug and forget it ever happened, move on with my life, go see my boyfriend, and go on like business as usual. I may have mentioned it to my boyfriend in passing, but I didn’t treat it as a serious issue- I didn’t want to revisit the feeling of being violated. Not wanting attention took on an entirely new form for me- I didn’t want to be touched, I didn’t want to be looked at, I didn’t want to stand out in any way. I stopped participating in class, I stopped going out to parties and bars, I stopped wanting to improve myself in any way that would be noticed. I crawled into this cave of self pity and embarrassment and just wanted to be alone.
Before going to New York, I’d lost in excess of seventy pounds; I looked the best I’d ever looked in my life. I had long red hair, an artsy fashion style, and by all means, was a very attractive young woman. For the first time in years, I was beginning to feel good about my body. Immediately after leaving the Brooklyn Bridge, I wanted to rip my skin off. I dyed my hair brown and cut it off. I got new glasses. I gained back all seventy pounds. My boyfriend and I broke up. Any way I could distance myself from the assaulted version of myself, I did. I wanted to be unattractive, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was all a defense mechanism. I was afraid to be beautiful because of all the consequences that come along with it.
During the rest of my time in New York, I was cat-called on a weekly basis, had men yell profane comments at me from train platforms, got lustful glares from people. Just two weeks ago a man came up to me and stood about a foot away from my face and told me how beautiful my eyes were, inching closer with every second he spoke. I texted my friend about how uncomfortable this guy made me, and she gave me some of the best advice I’d received in a long time. She clarified the difference between negative and positive attention, and how these are things that only I could decide. And while I am still oversensitive to male attention, I should “NOT have to make [myself] comfortable with that.”
“There is an appropriate way to [compliment a woman] that doesn’t coincide with feeling like he is entitled to talk to you.”
So after over a year of keeping this struggle to myself, I’ve finally decided to put it out there: I was sexually assaulted, and I’m not the same as I was before. The hardest thing to rationalize has been understanding that I did nothing to provoke this man, and while he could walk away, I was left in an emotional vacuum. Being sexually assaulted is not something to be ashamed of, and unfortunately, unwanted sexual attention is something women and men have to deal with every day. I know I won’t be able to change that reality, but learning to cope, prevent, and move on has really changed how I live my every day life. I’m re-learning how to judge positive and negative attention, I’m losing weight and dressing nicely again, and most importantly, I’m not keeping my feelings or my story to myself.
Because you should never be alone in dealing with a sexual assault, here are some national resources to help understand and heal from a sexual assault:
RAINN– Phone and online hotline
National Sexual Violence Resource Center– Resources in English and Spanish
Women’s Resources of Monroe County– Monroe County, PA