On Labor Day weekend, a woman was assaulted by a stranger at the local lake trail. I’ve written about this lake park several times on the blog. I’ve posted photos on occasion; a bunch of winter photos once and another raft around Halloween last year. The lake is part of my small set of goals for 2018; I set the intention of visiting it 10 times. I can walk to it from where I live. Although small, the lake and its slightly less than 1.25 mile trail is scenic and popular.
It isn’t the first time a woman has been attacked there. I was taken aback to see in the local paper a quote from the public relations police officer, saying first that such incidents were very rare and further that he couldn’t remember any such prior incidents. I generally have a good impression of this particular officer but I knew his words were untrue. About 8 or so years ago (I’m just guessing at the time but could figure it out if pressed) a woman was sexually assaulted at the lake and a local resident was arrested and charged. I was deeply disturbed by that incident. The whole thing was unsettling and although I did not know the victim’s identity, surely felt for her. At least in the former crime, I knew the guy had been caught. I remember all this in part because the crime was brought up on the community’s largest online forum at that time, a Yahoo group and I researched the details on the state’s online crime case search. As a woman who goes to the lake by herself, a crime of this sort not only was on my radar but I wasn’t about to forget it.
Several times last year a man in distinctive garb sexually harassed women, including one with her child, at the lake. This man who was discussed on the largest community Facebook book, also was caught. I never saw the man but the whole thing creeped me out.
I don’t remember for certain exactly what prompted it, other than an incident where the police were called and had trouble finding the exact location of the caller, but a few years ago a series of numbered posts were set up around the trail so that in the event of a problem the police could respond to the right location. What this told me in part is that police have reason to visit the lake often enough – for whatever reason – to need assistance in nailing down specific locations on the trail.
In the Labor Day assault the woman was walking around the lake alone early one morning on the holiday weekend (many people walk or exercise early to beat the heat in summertime; some go every day, alone or in groups). The details released by the police were minimal. The man passed the woman but then stopped and ordered her to get on the ground, and subsequently threw her to the ground. She screamed and he ran off. On the community’s Facebook page someone reported that their neighbor had found the woman, bloodied, and assisted her after the incident.
I don’t know who this woman was – perhaps if identified, it would be someone I know or maybe not – but I don’t need to know. I am horrified on her behalf. How frightened she must have been and still must be. Incidents like this, and worse, can cause a woman to fear everything and to feel safe nowhere. That they may be rare at a specific locale, mean nothing if you are the one attacked.
I live outside a major city in what would be called suburbs but has many of the trappings of city life. Crime is not unusual. People get shot. There is gang activity. People are robbed. There are rapes and sexual assaults. Cars are stolen, sometimes with the driver in them, forced to go to ATMs and so on. I live in the original, older part of the community and it has a different vibe. Generally it is safer than the surrounding areas, even those sharing its zipcode. But it is not immune.
There are those who want to downplay crime in this older, original part of the community. It’s bad for home sales and so forth. Some politicians and locals didn’t like seeing too much unpleasant crime written up in the small local paper; it didn’t look good. The paper still limits the crimes it publishes and even though the police releases the names of those arrested, the paper typically omits the names. I personally feel I have a right to know who is committing crimes in my community; thankfully I can access the online state public records which have proven useful multiple times. They’ve informed me about the crimes of neighbors and people I deal with regularly, some benign, some not.
I initially heard of the lake attack online, on the Facebook page. The incident was also reported in a small blurb in the weekly paper on the Crime Report page, which was subsequently criticized in a later edition, rightly I thought, by a female letter writer, who didn’t understand why the news wasn’t more prominently displayed, especially given that there’s been no indication the perpetrator was caught. Something doesn’t sit right with me either. Shouldn’t people be warned? Shouldn’t as many women as possible who continue to visit the lake alone be told of the attack? Don’t men want to know about this too?
The brazen quality of the assault is most troublesome. This guy had to have been at the lake looking for someone. He wasn’t there to exercise or get some fresh air. No one spontaneously – out of nowhere – decides to attack women. Whether he was or is right in the head or not (the details suggested to me that he might not be) is not germaine. He did this and he’s still walking around out there somewhere. But are there signs at the lake mentioning this incident? No, no there are not. So if a woman goes there and doesn’t read the small local paper or didn’t happen to catch the piece on the TV news (yes, it made local stations), well, I guess she’s out of luck.
Be sure that I think all women at all times have to be aware of their environment and safety. The great majority of women understand this – no place is safe. Let me repeat. No place is safe. A woman can be hassled, attacked, assaulted, anywhere. Yes, some places are safer than others but I’ll bet the woman who set out to walk around the local lake early on a hot Labor Day weekend morning thought that was safe. Would I have thought so? Yes, I probably would have, thinking who is going to get up at 8am to go assault women at the local park? This is the same philosophy I employ when it’s 25 degrees outside and I am headed out somewhere possibly to exercise; I figure the odds are in my favor in terms of safety.
I’m going to tell you the tipping point which made me feel I had to write about this (somewhere; I also considered the local paper or Facebook page). The local police have offered whistles, a limited quantity thereof, to women who would like to come to the station and get one. The public relations officer referred to the whistles in the paper as a deterrent. I have a problem with this. Whistles? WHISTLES??? Tell me you’ve sent plain clothes officers to walk around the lake occasionally and maybe look for the attacker. Tell me you’ve posted notices at the park’s various points of entry that tell the public about the incident. Tell me you won’t abide women being attacked in our community. If you want to hand out whistles, fine. But don’t lead women to believe a whistle is going to protect her. Even if the police have been looking for this guy and someone is charged in the crime tomorrow, my reservations about the response, including not making the news more prominent in the paper, the offer of whistles, and the absence of posted notices, stands.
How would a whistle have helped the woman who was thrown to the ground? At one point in an interaction should a woman start whistling? When a stranger man, I dunno, asks for the time? Directions? Her name? How does a whistle help if a woman is suddenly accosted from behind? Or a man jumps out from behind a hedge or a wall or a corner? Or her date – women are statistically more likely to be assaulted by someone they know – oversteps bounds?
I think women should do whatever they need to do to feel safe. To be safe. Whether that’s always making sure someone knows where she is, whether it’s always having a cell phone in her hand ready to use, whether it’s exercising with a dog, and so on. But none of these (not even carrying a weapon) are a sure thing.
Women’s conditioning, my own certainly, works against them. We want to be nice, helpful, not make scenes, give people the benefit of the doubt, not appear racist, not seem a bitch, and so on. This leaves us vulnerable and far too many men of a certain sort know it and take advantage. I’d rather the community – the police – offer women training in how to handle themselves in public than hand out whistles. But the thing is, they don’t get it. My own experiences with the local police (there are women on our force but they are the minority and can be as bad as the men in terms of sensitivity), simply don’t understand the mental and emotional straight-jackets that so many women wear. I think even blowing a whistle in public at a stranger would be difficult and even not possible, for many women. I don’t just think it, I know it.
Many years ago I read the book The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. This book was very useful to me on several levels. There was a line in it that asked, and I’m paraphrasing, “What do you owe a stranger? The time? Directions? Conversation?” These few simple words opened up a door for me. The book was giving me permission to not engage with strangers, to not automatically answer every question, every statement, to not necessarily stop when someone speaks. I had a right not to engage but the only person who was going to give that right was ME. It changed things.
I’ve been made uncomfortable many, many times by people, acquaintances, and strangers. I’ve even written of a few incidents on the blog. And looking back, it seems much of it the most unpleasant ones stemmed from my willingness to be engaged or inability to ignore someone trying to speak to me. I talk to strangers all the time, men and women alike. I don’t expect to stop. But now I reserve my right to pick and choose and to disengage at any time. So many men I encounter believe I – and women – owe them something. If they think I’m attractive or have spoken to me, I owe them – my time, my conversation, my name, my address. I know they frequently feel emasculated, dissed, if they don’t get the response they want; that’s how their behavior comes across to me. The standard, “Hey baby, I love you, go out with me, give me some of that… well then FUCK YOU BITCH.” Oh, thanks ever so. But I no longer take responsibility for everybody’s feelings. What about MY feelings???
Experience has taught me to take the approach that nobody is going to help me at any given time, and that I need to look after myself. I’ve been hassled by men all my life, since teenage years. I am still hassled at an age I expect to be left alone for the most part, free to go about my business. I think I’ve earned that right! Yet I continue to have weird, harassing incidents. Some are innocent but some are not. I think I’ve thwarted trouble. For years I had to mentally talk myself through things so far as how to respond but now it comes much more naturally. If somebody is bothering me, I don’t owe them jack. If somebody starts to rub me the wrong way, I’m done.
Just to give you an idea, the other week I was out walking near the “town square”, the center area of the community. I needed to mail a letter and it was on the left side of the sidewalk. A younger, black guy was walking toward me. Because I crossed his path to reach the mail box, I said hello as a courtesy (alternatively, I might have said, “Excuse me” because that’s what I meant). He fixed his eyes on mine. This – which happens more than I like – is never a good thing; I can see the wheel’s turning, know that the person is too focused on me, and sees me as an opportunity, a possibility, or something to play or toy with. Sometimes I can tell the person is mentally unbalanced but they aren’t always. Compounding this instance, was both the racial aspect and a significant age difference.
He commented on my earrings, asking if they were Indian. I kept moving, having turned back in the direction from which I’d come, but responded in a friendly way, “I made them. I do like Native American designs.” I walked out ahead of him where I was headed, no longer facing him. He called after me, “You’re Pocahantas today!” I had now put distance between us and didn’t respond to what I considered an inane comment (despite having my blonde hair braided) and moreover one inappropriate to say to an older woman you don’t know, so he repeated his words more aggressively, “You’re Pocahantas today!” And then, with a tinge of hostility, “You hear me? You hear me?” I didn’t turn around or answer but continued into an office building where he didn’t follow. Were his intentions benign? Who knows. I wasn’t going to hang around to find out. This sort of event is simply not unusual for me; that’s my point.
It’s a tough line to walk. To go out into the world refusing to be small or inconsequential, to want to connect and engage, and yet to have to be ever-vigilant. It pisses me off. And it pisses me off on behalf of other women.