I always feel a jolt when I hear that “a girl is asking for it.”
This charge implies a woman deserves what she puts out into the universe—as if she’s procuring sexual harassment or violence. Well, no girl, however short or tight the clothing, deserves that sort of comeuppance.
Don’t get me wrong, I have dressed inappropriately in my day. Not to work or school, but in my private life to social events. Does this mean I am asking for it?
What I’ve found is that no matter what I wear there is no escape from the sexual advances of certain men. Unwanted and unsolicited advances keep rolling in: From the not-so-subtle stares to the out-right cat calls echoing out of cars.
Multiple men have felt they hold the right to grab my butt. I don’t consider this a compliment to my appearance – it’s a side effect of my gender.
I know this because I’ve been chased three times in my life. The first time, I was 17 years-old and walking my two dogs in my hometown of Round Hill, Virginia. I had no makeup on and was wearing gray sweatpants. The second time was in Paris, France. Donning a heavy coat and jeans on a walk to the Metro, a man rolled along beside me in his car catcalling even as I ignored him. When I didn’t react, he took it a step further by pulling over, exiting his car, and running toward me. I ran. The most recent time I was chased was in Vienna, Austria. This time it was two men in a car who jumped the sidewalk curb and touched the nose of their BMW to the building beside me, effectively blocking me in. Again, I turned and ran. I was wearing shorts.
It shouldn’t matter what I was wearing on these occasions, but apparently it does, because none of these times have been as emotionally disruptive as when I was upskirted.
This morning a Masssachussetts court deemed it legal for a man to secretly take a picture underneath a woman’s clothing. The court ruled that “the practice did not violate the law because the women who were photographed while riding Boston public transportation were not nude or partially nude,” according to Haimy Assefa at CNN.
The ruling took me back to a fall day in 2011 when I was searching for winter boots at Tysons Corner Mall in Virginia.
I was wearing a light pink, knee-length dress from J.Crew. If you must know, it was conservative, but I don’t feel I should have to defend that. As I perused the Bloomingdale’s selection, I felt that soft, raw nag of being watched. Although no one curious appeared to be around, the feeling wouldn’t shake and I left to ride the escalator to the top level.
Halfway up the climb, I felt a finger slide along my inner thigh.
I turned to find a young man on the stair below me. He was holding out his phone in his palm.
It was then that I realized he had just taken a picture of my underwear from beneath my skirt. I lunged for his phone, screaming, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He kept repeating, “no, no, no.” He didn’t speak English. And he didn’t relinquish his phone. I reached up my hand to slap him in his face – but couldn’t muster it.
A mother and her teenager daughter were standing behind us on the escalator. They did nothing. When we reached the top we were all under a shower of my screams, but I felt the screams were trapped inside me because no one reacted.
This man, he didn’t bolt. He watched me scream. Then, he turned and slowly walked away.
In this moment he dwarfed my self-assurance that what had just happened was a violation of my privacy and self respect. When I later recounted my assault to two undercover policemen, it became abundantly clear that my violator had escaped. I wanted to know why he would touch me.
He hadn’t meant to scrape my leg, they said; he just wanted to get his picture without me ever knowing. This man had done it before and he would do it again.
Several people have asked why I didn’t hit him. The only answer to give is that just because he is a bad person doesn’t mean I am. My only regret is that I didn’t stop him. I didn’t try hard enough to confiscate his phone. He is out there now – at the mall or in the airport – preying on other women. I had a chance to stop that, and I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Massachusetts Justice Margot Botsford of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court wrote in her ruling that “A female passenger on a MBTA trolley who is wearing a skirt, dress, or the like covering these parts of her body is not a person who is ‘partially nude,’ no matter what is or is not underneath the skirt by way of underwear or other clothing.”
Outrage at the ruling has prompted action to change the law. I hope it does without delay.
Upskirting happens and it’s not fair. Hopefully my story will lead ladies to pay attention. Listen to your intuition and your instincts. Be constantly vigilant of your surroundings. Lastly, make an effort to help a screaming woman.