I was grabbed in broad daylight, under the sparkling dome of the planetarium.
I had only known him for a few months, through a few choice encounters. On the day in question, we had agreed to meet for the stars and galaxies exhibit. Although I felt uneasy, I blamed this sentiment on dating jitters. I told myself that it would be great, I would have full control, and nothing could go wrong. We met in front of the planetarium, exchanging an awkward hug. My discomfort grew, but I forced it away with a broad smile. After a few minutes of awkward small talk and a particularly uncomfortable discussion on my date’s drug use schedule, we got in line for the show.
ALTHOUGH I FELT UNEASY, I BLAMED THIS SENTIMENT ON DATING JITTERS. I TOLD MYSELF THAT IT WOULD BE GREAT, I WOULD HAVE FULL CONTROL, AND NOTHING COULD GO WRONG.
The room was dark and in the shape of an arena. A ring of seats encircled a podium in the center. Already, people were spilling into the space. He guided me towards an isolated aisle of seats.
“For privacy,” he said.
I nodded, lowering myself into the experience. As the show began, I tried to focus on the narrator’s voice guiding us through the galaxy, but I could feel him rustling in the darkness, watching me. I pressed my palms against the scratchy theater seats, nails creating crevices in the soft padding.
Just as I relaxed, he poured his body over the arm rest, practically spilling into my seat. He pressed his chin into the nook between my shoulder and my neck, disturbing a few strands of my hair that I’d missed in my ponytail.
“Hey,” he whispered, breath hot against my skin.
I responded with a tight smile, “Hey.”
He must’ve taken this as an okay to proceed.
He began murmuring something about the show, but all I could think about were the patches of scruff pressed against my cheek, disrupting the majesty of the universe. I sat rigidly, nodding until he relaxed into his own seat.
But the momentary experience was far from over. Not ten minutes later, he attempted to grope me. Thankfully, the theater was so dark that he miscalculated the distance between us. His fingers came up with a spray handful of fabric. A few strands of my hair rustled in response, dancing away from his grasp. Clearly, this was unsatisfactory. He leaned into me, lips brushing, (practically biting), against my ear as he said, “I’m sorry if this show is boring you, I thought it would be cooler than this.”
HIS APOLOGETIC TONE WAS SO UNEXPECTED, THAT, EVEN PAIRED WITH HIS AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR, I BEGAN TO FEEL GUILTY. SURE, EVERY PART OF ME FELT VIOLATED, BUT I FELT I HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO STAY.
Though it was nearly eighty degrees in the theater, he moved his hands up and down my arms as if he was warming me. I cringed. We were practically sharing seats at this point. His legs were crossed towards me as he continued:
“I hope you’re having a good time”
His apologetic tone was so unexpected that, even paired with his aggressive behavior, I began to feel guilty. Sure, every part of me felt violated, but I felt I had no choice but to stay. I told myself he was nervous, that I was being rude. There were families and children sitting all around us, and I couldn’t justify subjecting them to such an uncomfortable confrontation.
I sat through three rounds of similar behavior, before I finally excused myself to leave. Afterwards, I felt as though I had woken from a bad dream, still disoriented, still in disbelief.
I THINK OF THINGS AS IF THEY WERE BEING JUDGED IN A COURT OF LAW—DID HIS ACTIONS JUSTIFY DEFENSIVE MEASURES IN THE EYES OF A JUDGE?— AND TRY TO REACT BASED ON THAT.>
Raised with a cultural history of harsh punishments, I’ve always been hesitant to speak up when faced with these sorts of situations of aggression or violence. Whenever I think about defending myself, I imagine a montage of the men who have hit me, the rumors that could silence me, and the society who would blame me. I think of things as if they were being judged in a court of law—did his actions justify defensive measures in the eyes of a judge?—and try to react based on that. If the court were to view my case from start to finish, they might encounter our lengthy history of flirtatious texts. They might dive into my past, and find that he, himself, had once comforted me during a particularly traumatizing experience that involved me being followed by a car. These cases of assault or harassment are never about the incidents themselves. Rather, defendants tend to draw from past indiscretions, and poke holes in true, but sometimes unbelievable incidents. If I stood up, if I admitted that I was violated, I might be viewed as an over dramatic attention seeker. They might say that I could have, should have taken extra precautions given my history with similar incidents.
As I examined this case, I realized that I had trapped myself. Due to my passivity, there would be no witnesses and no record of his actions. He hadn’t hit me, or escalated his behavior in a way that would leave any tangible marks. I thought about myself in relation to our society’s sexist standards. I was wearing a short romper with a low neckline, and our outing had been consensual. Though I wasn’t under the influence of any drugs, my small frame still deemed me incapable of defending myself against his advances. But that wouldn’t matter. As I’ve found through my confessions, people like to view these instances on a mock pain scale.
I’D BEEN THROUGH WORSE EXPERIENCES: BEEN FOLLOWED HOME, PUSHED TO THE GROUND, RECEIVED HARASSING MESSAGES, BUT NONE OF THEM HAD LEFT ME FEELING QUITE AS SHAKEN AS THIS ONE.
But I didn’t fit under usual requirements. I wasn’t bleeding, bruised, or visibly injured in any way. There were no physical marks, no tangible pain. In short, no real record of this interaction. There was no place for me on the pain scale, and no case.
It shouldn’t have mattered. I’d been through worse experiences: been followed home, pushed to the ground, received harassing messages, but none of them had left me feeling quite as shaken as this one. It had happened at three in the afternoon, in a relatively crowded, public place. Yet no one had intervened, because it had been a quiet, unnoticeable action, further encouraged by my own silence.
Suddenly, I felt an inescapable sense of displacement. I felt claustrophobic in my own skin. Despite years of collected behavior, this experience had been the breaking point. All of my collective experiences with such encounters, suppressed beyond belief, were came to the surface. People talk about escape steps to healing (i.e., therapy, self-medication, and denial), but they rarely talk about the aftermath of such practices. These details are hardly poetic.
One week after the incident, I began having night terrors.
I would wake in a haze, feeling trapped by the walls of my room. Anxiety actualized in hot waves of pain reverberating from my temples to my toes. I would pace back and forth, wrapping my arms around my ribcage, as if that simple action could hold together what was always falling apart. I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I felt like I was floating, awareness washed away by each set of bad dreams. I never slept more than a few hours at a time.
BUT ON THE INSIDE, I WAS BREAKING DOWN. I BLED SHAME. WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO ME WAS MY FAULT, AND MY RESPONSIBILITY ALONE.
No one tells you how painful silence can be. In the following weeks, I held the experience close to me. Not out of vanity, but for the sake of self-preservation. I smiled when appropriate, and attended club meetings. I turned my work in on time, and made study guides for my peers. On the outside, I was functioning fine. But on the inside, I was breaking down. I bled shame. What had happened to me was my fault, and my responsibility alone.
It was completely crippling to be confronted with that experience, and not know how to digest it. Because of my previously established reputation (a product of the widespread lies about my promiscuity), no one took me seriously.
The rumors made me feel powerless, as though the fear that permeated each layer of my skin was unwarranted. How could I ask for help, when people felt I deserved this? They would say I was asking for it. Don’t you see how she dresses? Don’t you see how she talks? Don’t you see? Don’t you see?
In that moment, there was no grand epiphany, no power surge, and no sustainable change. There was simply shame. Mounds and mounds of shame. If I had lived differently, talked differently, done anything differently, would I have felt less alone than I did in that moment?
HOW COULD I ASK FOR HELP, WHEN PEOPLE FELT I DESERVED THIS? THEY WOULD SAY I WAS ASKING FOR IT. DON’T YOU SEE HOW SHE DRESSES? DON’T YOU SEE HOW SHE TALKS? DON’T YOU SEE?
I let these questions consume me, distancing myself from anyone who claimed they understood me. But eventually, I received help in the form of a kind older sensei self-defense instructor who overheard me, on a particularly emotional day, relaying this story to a friend. He offered me a business card, and taught me a few maneuvers, slowly restoring a sense of peace. Through the art of aikido, his act of kindness, though unexpected, paved the way to a hearty realization. I could never retract those moments of discomfort, nor could I make sense of his motivation. Trying to make sense of the senseless, will inevitably drive you mad. The best thing you can do, perhaps the only thing you can do, is to prepare for future attacks, learn to speak up, and make peace with the ghosts of the past.