by Olivia Keene
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence and assault.
I remember sitting on the airplane—my heart racing, my eyes searching, his hand on my leg. I remember being shocked, then scared, then repulsed, then angry. Who did this man think he was? How dare he act so casual and entitled in feeling up my thigh! It was the anger that gave me the courage to push him off. He apologized. Suddenly the anger was replaced with relief. It was a mistake. Maybe he had been half asleep as I had been. I turned away from him and tried to sleep again but there it was again. This time it was not a mistake. This time he was rubbing the inside of my leg. I froze. I desperately wanted the lady sitting to my left to wake up and see what was happening. I wanted a public shaming to take place—for him to feel the nausea that I was experiencing. I wanted him to be as terrified as I was. I wanted him to be horrified of the monster he was. But she didn’t wake up and I remained frozen.
What freed me from his grasp this time was the thought of his young daughter, about whom he had raved only twenty minutes prior. What would she think of her father touching me this way? What if he touched her like this? The anger surged back but this time it wasn’t just for my body and me. I thought of all the feminism theory and articles on sexual assault, women’s oppression, and gender inequality I had read. I thought, This is what they are talking about. This is the moment when I need to stand up and tell him that he is not entitled to my body, that this is not ok, and that he has to change. From the power in these thoughts I found the courage to push his hand away. After that I remained silent and motionless for the rest of the six-hour flight. Later this would become the most haunting moment for me—a moment when I would be more haunted by my silence than by his prying fingers. At times I find myself angrier with myself than at him. I had so much to say to him. I could have changed his life. I could have changed mine too—for the better. Instead I am left haunted by my passiveness.
I hadn’t thought of this experience in a while but recently, University of Puget Sound hosted “Take Back the Night” and I was reminded of the importance of fighting back. “Take Back the Night” was a sexual assault awareness and prevention event that included a march and protest around school, speeches from our inspiring professors Allison Tracy Hale and Renee Simms, and a speak-out session where survivors could share their stories in a safe space. SIRGE (Sexuality Issues, Relationships, and Gender Education) organized the event to give power to those who felt powerless. TBTN did all of that and more. The event opened with Allison Tracy Hale giving a small talk on the importance of what we were doing. She spoke of the importance of physical street activism. What resonated with me most is that she brought her daughter. She brought her because she wants her to grow up in a world where she is taught to fight back and speak up. She wants her daughter to be able to walk the streets at night without fear. After Professor Hale’s speech, we proceeded to march around campus ourselves. It was rainy and cold but still people came and walked with us. When we walked by dorms, students stuck their heads out their windows and cheered for us. When we returned to Wyatt Forum, Renee Simms began our Speak-Out by discussing the use of epistemology and experience for good. She told us to tell our stories to help ourselves and others live, understand and grow. After Professor Simms left the microphone, there was a long silence. All of us there knew that it was free for anyone to use. I felt tension mounting within myself. I wanted to speak but I was afraid. Finally someone broke the silence. After this, the stories flowed freely.
Walking home from the event, I felt as if I had finally done something that slightly reconciled my silence on that airplane almost a year ago. I had shouted at the world. I had told my story. I had listened to others. In addition to feeling empowered, I felt myself healing. Fear is a crippling thing. I felt as if I, along with many others, had taken steps towards sharing my voice, toward healing, toward ending the fear. We were fighting back.
Since hearing people’s stories at TBTN and experiencing the power and agency I felt in speaking out, I have been thinking about ways in which I can stand up and fight against sexual violence in everyday life. I am encouraged to do this not only because I am more aware of how often it happens, but also because I now realize how little people know about how to respond to it, especially in the situation. Sometimes it is unsafe to fight back in the moment. Sometimes we don’t have the strength or the bravery or the agency to do so. Just this past week on CNN’s Frederica Whitfield hosted Amanda Seales, a standup comedian, and Steve Santagati, author of Code of Honor and The Manual: A True Bad Boy Explains How Men Think, Date, and Mate–and What Women Can Do to Come Out on Top, to discuss the viral video recording 10 hours of catcalling in the streets of New York created by street activist group, Hollaback!. In the video, Santagati told Seales that if women did not want to be cat called then they should “act like a strong woman” and just speak up. Seales, infuriated, replied with the grave truth, reminding Santagati of 27-year-old Mary Spears who was shot and killed recently for refusing to give a man her number. Seales reminds us of how complicated speaking up for oneself can be. She reminds us that change cannot merely come through women talking back.
So, what have I come up with? How do we change the fact that I can no longer count on my hands the number of people I know who have been sexually assaulted? How do we change the fact that when I bring up sexual assault as an issue, people dismiss it because they don’t think it is important? How do we change that man on the plane? How do we make him see that he is entitled to no one? That no truly means no. How do we fight back?
Tell Your Story. Renee Simms spoke of this before the speak-out. Personal narrative, as we saw through TBTN, has the ability to empower and educate. We need to tell our stories and use them for good. Those of us who have experienced sexual assault or know about something that happened need to speak out, no matter when it occurred. You are not weak because it happened. You are not weak because you did not tell anyone. You are strong because you are here and you are still living your life. You are strong and by sharing your story, I promise that strength will grow and spread to others.
Listen to Learn. If people are going to tell their stories, others need to be still and listen. If you have never experienced sexual assault or don’t know anyone who has, that does not mean that this is not your issue. You probably do know someone but they just haven’t told you. Ignorance is never an excuse. Educate yourself, engage, listen, and support your fellow human beings who feel disempowered, sometimes everyday, by the world we live in. Do not just go to events because it is a space you want to fill with your opinion and experience, go so you can be filled with others. Just by listening you are fighting back, you are creating change.
Be Part of Your Community. As we heard from Amanda Seales, speaking up in the moment can put you in danger. So this is where the community comes in. If you see or hear someone who is in trouble, say something! If you told a friend you wouldn’t leave a party without them, don’t! If you hear someone who is uneducated on sexual assault, educate them, even if it means contradicting your friend. Not saying anything is as bad as condoning the act. There are times when allies and supporters should not speak in order to leave space open for those who are usually silenced, but with that said, sexual violence is a community-wide (worldwide) issue that affects everyone. You may think it doesn’t affect you, but it does. As was stated on the front page of The Trail this week, 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. How many women do you know? This is all of our issue. So go to marches! Shout! Let people know that this pisses you off! Read this article! Read The Trail’s article on Take Back the Night and Sexual Assault. Take a gender and queer studies class. Educate yourself. And when you see an event going on concerning sexual assault, know that your presence there is important and could change not only your life, but many others as well.
You are pretty much living under a rock if you are unaware that sexual assault and violence is a hot topic on campus right now. It’s a hot topic for a reason. People are speaking up, showing us that there are many encounters that happen on and off this campus, here and in every part of the world, everyday – this is unacceptable. I experienced it and walked away with no physical scars. I walked away with something worse: a loss of agency. I walked off that airplane completely suspended by fear and confusion. I was silent then, so I am speaking up now. Here is my story. This is what happened. It was an inappropriate touch on an airplane. It was a violation of my body. It was NOT ok and never will be.