The first news story I read yesterday was about a 30-year-old woman being abducted and raped by three men in the Garden District, an area of New Orleans generally regarded as "nice."
I searched the article for mentions of the time of day of the attack, the woman's race, if she knew her rapists - anything anything to make me feel better about the situation, to make me feel like this would not happen to me. I realized that I was trying so hard to "otherize" the victim and details of her attack that I was ignoring the obvious point: Violence is personal. Any attack against a woman in my community is an attack against me.
I am a victim of sexual assault. I am a victim of sexual assault because we are all victims when sexual assault occurs, whether it happens specifically to us or to others. I say this not to degrade or diminish the experiences of those of us who have endured actual physical affronts and violations. I say this because this particular woman was not attacked out of context.
We live in a very dangerous world in which it is not rare for something like this to happen. It is not rare for women to live in fear, shame, or ongoing emotional distress. It is in fact common. What is thankfully also common is that people get outraged about this type of thing, and I believe that if we are outraged for the right reasons, that energy can bring us all to a healing place.
I think it is correct to be upset over this attack as an isolated event. After all, a woman was hurt and violated in a most intimate and physical way. She was denied agency over her body and her sexual choices. She was taken advantage of and she was injured. Her emotional pain will probably last for her entire life, well after her body heals. Yet her assault is one in a long, seemingly unending chain of violent acts against women in our city and our world. I take her rape personally because it could have happened or maybe someday will happen to me, and also because it reflects the darkest quality of the world in which I live.
"I'm evidence," she was quoted as saying, covered in her own blood and the semen of her attackers. Yet she is evidence of more than an attack. She is evidence of a tacit social understanding that rape is inevitable and the only recourse for us is to feel bad about it and maybe involve the police. And then what - lock up the offenders? Will that stop rape? Will that take away this woman's rape?
Some people have created a successful crowdsourcing campaign ("Support NOLA's Most Badass Assault Survivor," as if there were a contest for such things) to give the victim money for a down payment on a house. A house would give her more support and stability, they say. A house would be her own.
I agree that we, in acts of communal empathy, should give her money, and hugs, and flowers, and a new home, and whatever else she needs. But the more lasting gift would be to give her a real reason to feel safe, and that will only come if we say "We do not tolerate this. We do not want our women or anyone else getting attacked or fearing attack. We do not support the social circumstances that create helpless victims or necessitate the celebration of resilient survivors. We actively resist the violence that our men are taught to perpetrate in order to assert themselves fully as men. We want healing for those who have fallen prey to our collective violence as a society. We want healthy, strong communities that do not condone rape and other violence, and then turn to the police as flawed adjudicators of justice in the aftermath of such terrors. We want self-determination and liberation for our bodies and minds."
We need to build a safer way for ourselves.
I did not know what to do or how to think yesterday after I read that news article. I felt vulnerable. I wanted to stay inside and whimper. But then I thought about resistance and how I, as a female-bodied individual, could stand against such horrifying anti-female violence.
I decided the biggest act of resistance was to just be, to honor my existence as a person. I needed to do something that made me feel alive in a positive and physical, life-affirming way. I decided to go out and ride my bike at night in the Bywater. I decided to get drunk and hear music. I decided to say a big "fuck you" to the rape culture I live in.
I don't know if I was more careless than usual on my bike ride, if I made some more dangerous turns than I normally would have, if maybe I went the wrong way down a one-way street on purpose, but I knew that a motorist honking at me was affirmation that I was alive, that that person did not want to hurt me, that that person was actually ANGRY that I was in harm's way.
I biked very fast up to the French Quarter, so fast that I almost took a spill on the Press Street train tracks at Chartres, where there's cobblestone instead of pavement. And I felt that "about to crash" adrenaline rush as a confirmation that my body was alive and alert and going to do everything it could to protect itself from danger.
I went to the Spotted Cat and had too many vodka cocktails and listened to Meschiya Lake, who emanated force and strength with her voice and salty admonitions to the audience not to "touch any of my musicians or I'll punch you in the face." I thought about whether she was guilty of cultural appropriation when she covered "Indian Red." I went across the street to dance to a banjo duo's send-up of "Saint Louis Blues." I went to Walgreens and ignored all the products designed to make me feel inadequate, which coincidentally was 90% of the inventory. I went home and made tea and played with my cat. I made causes and effects. I barely drank the tea. The cat ran away from me. I had a nightmare about sexual assault. I got up this morning. I had to clean the teapot. The cat knocked over a houseplant. I was late to work. There was evidence that I had lived and done things and had an impact on my surroundings. I'm evidence too. I'm evidence of a woman who fears, who makes impulsive decisions anyway, who rejects the perception that I am, or any other person is, a walking sexual receptacle. "I'm evidence," she said. I'm evidence too.