A few weeks ago I talked with Neal Conan on NPR's Talk of The Nation about my experience as the victim of an attempted date rape in 1986. (I also wrote about the experience in a post titled: It Happened To Me: A Letter To My Daughters About Date Rape.)
In discussing my experience with the young, female producer at NPR prior to the interview, something jumped out of my mouth that startled both of us. I said, "We have to accept the fact that women are prey."
The producer seemed to recoil from the notion and even I instantly wondered if -- as a feminist -- languaging women's status in this way was somehow belittling women? If this nomenclature might undermine the proposition that men and women are equals?
During our discussion Neal Conan referenced the 15-year old girl raped in Nova Scotia who ultimately committed suicide due to the fallout of having the photos of her alleged rape posted online and a similar incident that occurred in Steubenville, Ohio. Both girls were attacked when they were incapacitated by alcohol and incapable of defending themselves.
As a mother of two daughters this news is devastating to me and I wondered if it's possible for me to protect my children from a similar fate.
So I sat with that notion of women as prey. And once I got over the repugnance of correlating women with animals that are low on the food chain, I realized that taking ownership of this idea could be empowering. Perhaps if we acknowledge we're prey we'll stand differently in the world. We'll make a plan and have our own backs, rather than relying on the kindness of strangers.
(To be clear. Sometimes rape simply can't be avoided regardless of all precautions taken and I am in NO WAY suggesting that rape is a woman's fault. But we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should never blame the victim, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss what women and young girls can do to stay safe.)
A few months after my date rape ordeal, I was walking to my car alone from a club on Sunset Boulevard on a Saturday night. It was late -- 1 or 2 in the morning -- and I was heading down a dark side street when I noticed a black man wearing a hoodie standing quietly in a driveway I had to pass with his hands shoved in his pockets.
Prior to my attack I would've passed right by him, because I would've worried he'd think I was racist if I didn't trust him. But, post-attack my desire to be politically correct was trumped by caution. I stopped dead in the middle of the street a safe distance away and just stood there openly staring at him.
After a moment he said, in an erudite, British accent, "Sorry, luv, I'm just waiting for a ride. Hope I didn't give you a scare." His willingness to acknowledge my need for safety put me at ease. And perhaps I'm a bit of an Anglophile who thinks anyone with a British accent is beyond reproach. Either way, I felt safe enough to continue walking to my car.
Here are other habits I've acquired having accepted the fact that I'm prey:
1. When walking at night on secluded streets I stay off the sidewalks and walk down the middle of the road with keys protruding from the fist of my right hand, ready to fight or flee.
My statuesque German friend Bettina does this too, but adds a colorful bit of dialogue for potential predators in her heavy Bavarian accent, "You try to grab me and I punch you in the face, then I kick you in the balls!" (I would NOT mess with Bettina).
2. I also make a lot of noise when I walk home in the dark. I sing loudly and badly because I don't think predators want noisy prey. I know I must look and sound ridiculous, but I just don't care.
3. I'm married now so I don't have to be out there in the dating world. But if I do find myself in circumstances due to business or travel where I might be socializing with a man or men I don't know well, I stay sharp. I avoid alcohol or anything that could render me vulnerable. This is particularly important for young girls and women who haven't learned yet to drink responsibly and can often drink too much or be given drinks spiked with the date rape drug.
4. I don't enter remote locations with a man or men I don't know. For college girls this remote location could simply be upstairs at the Sigma Chi house on-campus. Men in a group, particularly young men, are capable of behavior they would never engage in if they were alone. They can often incite one another to the extremes of date rape as a way of showing off.
5. When I have Mom's Night Out I make plans with my fellow moms to keep each other safe. For me this means having a designated driver, or walking home together. In college or while dating in groups this could mean having plans not to leave each other alone in vulnerable circumstances. To watch each other's backs.
My attempted date rape occurred on a deserted beach at night in part because my girlfriends and I didn't make a plan. They left me alone on the beach because they didn't know me well and thought that's what I wanted.
6. I don't step into an elevator, or a stairwell alone with a man I don't know. I was taking summer classes at UCLA the year prior to my attempted date rape. I noticed a male student who seemed to keep popping up outside my different classrooms and the cafeteria where I ate lunch. As I walked to the parking structure at noon, I noticed the same student behind me.
My animal instinct TOLD ME this young man was stalking me, but my social contract not to be unkind, not to be aggressive or confrontational won the day. As I entered a stairwell to get to my car three stories up, the young man was right behind me. I was incredulous. I couldn't believe he would dare attack me in broad daylight on a busy campus. I was thinking this right up until the moment he shoved his hand under my skirt.
My reaction was to spin around and punch him in the face, knocking him down one flight of steps, dropping my purse and running down the stairs at him screaming, "I'm going to kill you!" I was emboldened by the fact there were other people nearby and I was taller than my assailant. Had the campus been deserted and the student twice my size I guarantee I would've had a less successful outcome.
Here is a comprehensive list of 25 Things to Do to Avoid Rape from WikiHow that really are a map for keeping women and girls safe.
I feel fortunate I escaped my attack with only a few bruises and bite marks. It was a cheap price to pay for an invaluable lesson. But I don't want any other women to garner their streets smarts that way.
We need to make it clear to our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends that we are prey and must behave as such; aware, alert and prepared to take measures to have our own backs.