Warning: This op-ed contains content that could trigger survivors of sexual assault and other readers
Like many women across the country, I was triggered while following the nomination proceedings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Uniquely, as a Caribbean-American woman living in “America’s Paradise”, this consequential moment in our nation’s history has made me even more aware of how much farther my culture has to go when it comes to dismantling the patriarchy in my community.
It has also brought me to the conclusion that when it comes to the consequences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment, we as women and men have been living in dual realities for far too long and I’ll tell you why:
It was early spring in 2014 and I was walking to work to Trader Joe’s a few blocks from my house one brisk morning in Washington DC. I had the opening shift at the store, so it was early morning — way before the rest of the city had begun their day — still dark, the sun had not come up yet, and I had unfortunately missed the bus that would surely get me to work on time. Frustrated and cold, I started the 15 to 20-minute trek to U Street
“To work,” I said politely while keeping my quick pace.
He complimented my looks and asked if he could walk with me.
“No, I’m fine thanks. I’m in a rush…late for work,” I said.
For about 10 minutes and maybe 4 blocks, he followed behind me, asking me questions about my personal life and telling me about his. Again, I politely but nervously responded each time that I didn’t have time to talk and kept walking.
To this point, I had not encountered another person on the street — it was just me and him. I grew increasingly afraid because we were basically alone and his demeanor, while still fairly pleasant, seemed unstable. He was becoming more and more excitable, clearly not recognizing my discomfort.
“Listen, I really want to walk to work in peace. I’m late,” I said firmly.
“Well, I’ll leave you alone if you give me a hug?” he said with a smile.
“No that’s okay,” I said.
He took a few large steps in front of me blocking my path. “Just a quick hug and I’ll go, he said, still smirking.
“No, I don’t want a hug,” I said, annoyed and afraid at this point.
He then lunged towards me, pulled me in and wrapped his arms around me. My arms were constrained, and my hands immediately made two tight fists.
I remember wriggling for him to let go of me, while repeating “okay”, over and over with my eyes tightly closed. He was too strong, so I decided after a while to just let it happen and not make him angry for resisting. I’m not sure how long he was holding me, but it was too long for me and felt like forever.
He finally let go and said with a smile, “See, that wasn’t bad. That’s all I wanted.”
But I didn’t want the hug and let him know several times that I wanted to be left alone. That clearly didn’t matter to him.
Satisfied, he left me heading in the opposite direction. I turned quickly and walked as fast as I could the last block and a half to my job. I fought with myself to put a smile on my face before entering the store for my shift, went to my graduate class later that afternoon, and completed my day as if it were any other day, even though it wasn’t for me.
I’m not looking for sympathy. My experience could have been a lot worse, like the dozens of unfortunate and heart breaking stories of sexual assault I’ve heard or read in the news, and from the many women that I know personally. I’m not even sure if what happened to me counts as an assault (my mother has assured me it was), but I definitely felt violated and harassed. My point, however, is how differently that man experienced the incident than I did. He left with a smile, content with receiving what he wanted, and I left on the verge of tears imagining what could have happened — my heart beating so fast that I thought it would jump out of my chest. The issue lies in that disconnect and the fact that two very real, but different, realities exist for him and me.
There are countless victims, women in most cases, who are afraid to share or express their experiences of trauma and vulnerability, whether it be physical abuse, sexual assault, verbal harassment, simply feeling violated or otherwise. They don’t think they’ll be believed, that it’s something that “just happens” to people, that they’ll be criticized, or seen as overly dramatic. The aggressors, on the other hand, who are men in many of these cases, will say it wasn’t their intention, it was innocently done, the victim complied — essentially it wasn’t a big deal.
The recent hearings to confirm our nation’s newest Supreme Court Justice brought all these thoughts and memories vividly to my mind once again, regardless of Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence in the sexual assault allegation, because it’s bigger than that. It’s about how these men in power react to a woman’s demand for physical and sexual control over herself and how they respond to such allegations of abuse or assault. Can they empathize? Do they sympathize?
This nomination boils down to measuring the value of character and humanity. It hits home for me because it has a part in determining on a local level — socially and politically — what message we as human beings send to our community about how we value and respect women, and how we respond to male privilege.
To be frank, I’m reminded way too occasionally here at home on St. Croix of that fear I experienced in DC. It happens when I’m approached by men, young and old, who ignorantly hide behind the “values and customs” of the Caribbean “way of life”, which have allowed them to make sexually inappropriate gestures and remarks about my appearance and call that “tradition” or “culture” — all the while undermining not only my intelligence, but my authority over my space, body, words, and emotions.
Do I feel as vulnerable as I did that morning in D.C. when I have these encounters at home? No. Fortunately, I have gained more confidence and authority over myself. However, there are still many moments when I feel my defense shields rise up. When men in tinted cars slow down to watch me, or when they tell me I should smile more, or when they ogle my body in their “good afternoon” greetings, or when old men believe that I’m a school girl and ask if they can walk me back to school (TRUE STORY).
That being said, I don’t believe that the U.S. Virgin Islands is quite as progressive as our mainland peers when it comes to championing gender equality, professionally and socially. I’ve definitely had more than enough personal experiences here on my tiny island to speak that truth. However, both my territory and my country have a long way to go.
The social construct of power, leverage, and self-entitlement that men at large hold over society is such a farce, disappointment, and insult to the real issues that impact every facet of our community daily, particularly women in this instance. We must realize that this behavior has far-reaching effects beyond the victim. The outpouring of sexual assault stories and the national protests concerning Kavanaugh’s nomination are a prime example of that. It’s not “her” problem or “his” problem — it’s “our” problem and the demand for men to acknowledge this call to action grows larger each day.
At some point, men must take the first step of genuinely accepting responsibility for the hurt that their privilege has caused their communities. Tearing down the pedestal of patriarchy that they’ve been propped up on for so long is the end goal.
The man that forcibly “hugged” me that morning probably doesn’t even remember what he did or how visibly distressed I was because society has taught him he can live without consequence or repercussion for that type of inappropriate interaction. I have fluttering flashbacks of that morning more often now because of this moment we are experiencing in the #MeToo movement and this Supreme Court nomination. The dichotomy between his experience and mine is a very real problem. Moreover, the current status quo, nationally and locally, cannot go on much longer especially in this time and generation. I continue to be optimistic that it will not.
Re-submitted on March 13, 2019,