How I learned to be afraid, and why I carry pepper spray

This article first appeared on Tumblr, and has not been edited.

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(Trigger warning: the following post details a non-consensual encounter.)

(Please bear with me on the length of this. Though I have told this story to select friends and family, it is the first time I’ve spoken of it publicly, or in such detail. I keep reading things, though, that made me want to talk about it. Forgive me if I meander, it’s not an easy thing to think about, let alone write about.)

In the summer of 2012, I stayed out late at a friend’s house. It was a fun time with a lot of people, and a much-needed spot of relief during a time that was defined by a lot of negative experiences. It was about 3am by the time things wound down, but the house was only about three, maybe four blocks from where I was staying, so I decided to walk home.

I was about halfway home when a man across the street called for my attention, changed direction, and walked across the intersection towards me. Now, I’ve walked alone at all hours of the day and night, and I’m usually pretty wary and alert. But nothing major had ever happened to me. So while I clenched my keys into my fist as a possible weapon, I kept that hand in my pocket and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he just wanted to ask me the time.

He was backlit by a streetlight, and wore a hoodie, so I couldn’t really make out his face. But I could tell he was at least moderately attractive. He asked me how I was doing. He was aware of my tense stance, my wariness. He was very friendly, and did a great deal to make me feel safe. I relaxed a bit.

As I relaxed, he got to the reason he approached me. I can’t remember how he began, but at some point, he used the phrase, “I just want to touch some dick.” This phrase would be repeated a number of times throughout the encounter.

Now, I should explain something: I like aggressive people. I am ridiculously attracted to people of any gender (men, women, other) who approach me and make their intentions clear in a very straightforward manner. So yes, as he began his attempts to talk me into at least a little mutual fondling, I became aroused.

But I still did not want to engage in anything with him. His initial approach was enticing, and even played into several fantasies I’ve had. But he was a perfect stranger. I had no idea what sort of person he was, or what sort of diseases he may or may not have had. It was also late, I was walking home, and I really just wanted to get to bed.

He persisted, which again played into what attracts me to people…but it quickly grew old. And any semblance of fantasy this encounter was playing into died when he uttered the words, “I’m not gay, I just want to touch some dick.” Not my type. I have zero attraction to a man who feels, when approaching another man on a sexual level, that repeatedly claiming to not be gay is the way to go about things. Less so when he kept insisting this over and over, saying that it was just that his time in prison had changed him.

I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to be rude (even if I felt his rudeness was increasing), and I felt unsafe just trying to walk away. I was already in a pretty precarious position, half trapped between him and a chain link fence. On top of that, I would have had to turn my back on him to walk away. I had no idea, at this point, how he would react to that. Facing him, I at least had some chance of fighting him off, maybe using my keys as a weapon. If I walked away, I would have no defense.

Though my initial hint of arousal at his aggression was long gone, replaced by a rising desire to get away, the physical signs of arousal were not. He noticed the bulge in my crotch of a lazy half-erection, and took it as a sign of consent.

He told me he could see that I wanted it, right before sliding his hand up my crotch.

At this point, I just needed to get out of there. I knew he wasn’t going to walk away first, and avoiding turning my back to him wasn’t going to help me anymore. I told him “No,” not for the first time, and began to walk away as quickly as I could. Almost a run, though my battered flip-flops prevented me from actually running.

He didn’t let up. He kept pace with me, frantic now. Repeatedly telling him “no” was not enough. Leaving him behind was not enough. Even as we were moving down the sidewalk, he was trying to unbutton my shorts. I was doing my best to shove him off, but barely managed to hold him at arm’s length, which was not enough.

He got his hand into my pants. I don’t even know how to describe the sound he made. He was very pleased with himself. It was then that I finally managed to shove him away.

We were almost at the apartment building, and I still needed to unlock the front door (a very finicky door that always took time and struggle to unlock). There was no way to lose him, no way to get time to unlock the door before he would catch up with me. So I turned to face him, and kept shoving him away. I didn’t know what else to do.

And this is where I got very, very lucky. He finally took the hint. If you can call any of my actions something as subtle as a hint. He apologized, sort of, telling me he didn’t mean to freak me out. He even (finally) told me his first name, shook my hand, and walked away. I was so very, very, very lucky.

At this point, I think I was in shock, mostly just relieved that nothing worse had happened. When the encounter began, the worst thing I was worried about was getting mugged or beaten up. I wasn’t remotely prepared for what happened, and I still didn’t even know how to process it.

I got inside, and told my roommates and a friend who was over what happened. They seemed more concerned than I was. I felt…almost giddy with relief. I felt weird, but not traumatized. I was fine. Until the next morning.

The next day, I got up, and went about my usual routine. It wasn’t until I was in the shower that it all hit me. I’d turned the water on, and everything was fine…until I looked down.

It was when I looked down at my naked body that I saw it.

His hand.

All I could see was his hand on my crotch. It was as clear and real as anything else in the room, as my own body. I saw a disembodied hand on my crotch and I couldn’t stop seeing it.

And then the previous night flooded in. What happened. What could have happened. His hand.

I couldn’t breathe. I broke down, crying and hyperventilating and all the while seeing his disembodied hand on my crotch.

To this day, though I am attracted to men, I am terrified of any man who might be attracted to me. I’m trying to work past it, but I still, on occasion, see that hand. And when I see that hand, I see not only what happened, I see all the horrible possibilities if I hadn’t been so very, very lucky. I see rape, I see STDs, I see myself being murdered. I feel unsafe.

I started carrying pepper spray after that. For a while, it was the only thing that made me feel safe walking outside, even when I was with other people. Sometimes, now, I go without it…but not at night. Never at night. If I’m out at night, I have to have it on me. I have to be gripping it in my pocket with my finger on the release, ready to use it at any time. I don’t even know if I’ll be competent enough to use it properly, so it only eases the fear a little.

And all that? All that lasting fear? That paranoia? The feeling of being unsafe even if I’m close to home, in familiar and normally safe surroundings? The feeling that nothing is really safe, ever?

That all came from one incident. One.

Women deal with stuff like this all the time. I’ve talked to them about this, with friends I’ve shared my story with. Women deal with this all the time, even daily. And they’re told to expect it. Hell, I was told I should’ve expected it. That I shouldn’t have been walking so late, that it was just that sort of neighborhood. I just wanted to walk the three blocks home after a much-needed night of relaxation and friends at a time when I was struggling to find motivation to live.

Three blocks shouldn’t be that much to ask.

A world where this kind of thing isn’t expected should damn well be the goal.

I feel I should note that the summer this incident occurred, I had long hair. I also have what I’m told is a very feminine, alluring ass. Even with short hair, I’m often mistaken for a woman from behind. Heck, without my beard, I’ve spent much of my life being mistaken for a woman even from the front.

But this summer, with my long hair and the sort of summer clothes that scream “I cannot deal with heat, I am a winter person and I will melt,” I started noticing things. After the event, especially. People following me, suddenly changing direction when they caught sight of my beard. Vehicles slowing down, matching pace with me. A white van did this, following me for some time, and even started backing toward me. It sped off very quickly when I turned, exposing my beard to whoever was inside.

I keep thinking about this when I see women talk about the crap they go through. I keep reflecting on that summer, on the incident, and on the behavior of strangers before the realize my body is male.

This is why “Not All Men” is a terrible, and hugely offensive argument.

This is why the #YesAllWomen tag exists.

Because women have every reason to feel unsafe. And we’re taught to turn a blind eye to that.

I experienced a very tiny fraction of the sort of thing women experience all the time, and have for ages. And it left me with lasting trauma. I could not handle this kind of thing happening to me as often as it’s happened to some of my friends. I would shut down.

Think about that.

Not all men do these things. Not all men would walk up to me and force their hand into my pants in the middle of the night. Not all men would prey on me while I’m weak. Not all men would leave me feeling perpetually unsafe.

But one man did.

And that was enough to leave me terrified of the rest. Even though I share the same Y chromosomes. Because while not all men behave this way, enough do that I have very good reasons to be wary, to be afraid. Women are given very good reasons to be wary and afraid every day of their lives.

You think it’s unfair that sentences start with “I wish men wouldn’t…”? Well, I think it’s unfair that anyone is subjected to this kind of treatment. It’s horrifying. It’s dehumanizing. It’s not fair.

Fix it. Be aware what men are doing. Open your eyes to what people deal with. Straight women, non-straight women and men, trans and genderqueer people…men who want to show their power by making other people less than themselves are committing atrocities in the name of men.

When someone starts complaining about men, or talking about the things men do, they are not talking about you. When I talk about the faceless man in the hoodie whose hand I can’t stop seeing, I’m not talking about every person who wears a hoodie.

The appropriate way to respond to someone expressing frustration, or outright pain, is to listen. Listen, hear what’s being said. Unless you are actually being personally attacked, you have no reason to respond defensively. If you feel yourself becoming defensive? Stop. Think. Analyze why you’re feeling that way and if it’s appropriate to the situation. Odds are, someone is trying to educate you on a pervasive problem. There’s also good odds the person is trying to vent about experiences that still weigh heavily on them, tearing at their very soul bit by bit.

When people talk about these things, they’re usually not magically unaware of the good people out there. But talking about the men, the people, who don’t do these things doesn’t really help solve the problem of those who do. Just like a doctor focusing on how healthy one testicle is doesn’t do anything to solve the problem of the other testicle showing signs of cancer.

So please, think before you rush to defend, before you rush to play devil’s advocate. Think about what the people you’re talking to have been through. Think about what you haven’t been through. I’m privileged to have only experienced the very tip of this iceberg. That little bit was enough to nearly sink me, Titanic-style.

But many people, especially women, deal with a great deal more.

It’s not an intellectual argument. It’s emotional. It’s personal. It has nothing to do with rare possibilities, and everything to do with things that actually happen every day, to a lot of people.

So what do we do about it? Do we argue? Do we discount the real experiences of other human beings? Do we defend ourselves against things that were never directed toward us?

Or do we listen, learn, and try to figure out how to make the world a better place for everyone?

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