Shaker Zan, whose story I am sharing with her permission, emailed me about escaping an attack six months ago while visiting South Africa, which is in the throes of a brutal rape epidemic. Though staying in a relatively safe town, in a hostel "no more than three minutes walk to the center of town, and literally across the intersection from the very busy taxi center," Zan was returning from shopping at a nearby grocery store on a Sunday morning when she was greeted by "three boys a few years younger than me, hanging out on the corner," near the taxi stand, deserted at that time on a Sunday, one of whom shouted at her as she passed. She didn't understand what he'd said.
The part of me that has been dealing with street harassment since I hit puberty started to walk faster, but the part of me that is trained to be polite had me turning my head to say 'Sorry, what?'. The boy repeated whatever he said, but I didn't even try to understand because I was a bit preoccupied by the fact that the three of them were now following me. They kept talking to me, and sped up until they were right next to me, surrounding me. My heart was beating in my throat, and I said 'I'm uncomfortable, you need to stop.' They didn't, so I yelled (but not loudly enough to be heard by a potential rescuer) 'Stop following me! You need to leave me alone.' All the while they were herding me, pushing me towards the bushes on the side of the road. Fortunately these were right outside my hostel, and as they got me to the curb and tried to shove me into the bushes, I broke free, ran to the gate, and was thankfully immediately let in. I didn't stop shaking for ages. I was so scared.Zan continues…
The part of this story that I want to address is that I didn't scream. Not once. I yelled, and was actually hugely proud of myself for doing so even though it wasn't very loud, because it went against all my instincts to not make a fuss. And that's the fucked up part—there was no possible way to interpret what was happening to me as anything other than an attack, yet there was still this huge part of me insisting I not scream. Up until they started pushing me into the bushes, part of me was saying 'but what if you're misinterpreting this?' There were other parts of me that weren't even trying to rationalize why they didn't want me to make a fuss; they just emphatically didn't.
Now I know that I have a stronger impulse towards not making a fuss than many people. Some of that is just who I am, though some of it is certainly due to plenty of harassment in school by people who didn't like my opinions or clothes or the fact that I would dare to be different and be noticed. I'm incredibly lucky to have a mother who really taught me how to know what I need and think and how to say it. Part of that is because she was sexually abused by an uncle when she was younger, and was silenced by her family. She worked very, very hard to make sure I would NEVER be silenced. Thanks to her training I always stand up for what I believe, but I still find it scary when that means really standing out.There's a lot in Zan's account that really resonates with me, particularly overcoming the socialization to be a good girl, a quiet girl who doesn't make a fuss, and the feeling of self-silencing rooted in the fear of embarrassing a man/men who aren't really trying to hurt me. I've had so many conversations with ostensibly anti-rape men who nonetheless complain about women who regard them with obvious suspicion; a former acquaintance once accused me of being a "profiler" for feeling on-guard in situations like being the only other person in, for example, an otherwise deserted parking garage with a male stranger.
Yet there I was, in this incredibly threatening situation, unable to scream. I hope (and think) that had I not been so close to my hostel I would have brought myself to full out shrieking, but who knows? Before this, I thought I would have started to scream the second they surrounded me. I know myself well enough to know I would never have started screaming when they began to follow me, I would've tried to excuse their actions. Your blog talks a lot about silencing after the fact, or not speaking up because you're not sure if you've given consent, or because it's an adult or person in a position of power and you're confused, etc. I haven't seen any talk about not screaming when no one in the world could possibly fault you for it.
I felt crazy. Even at the time, I recognized that I didn't want to scream, and felt crazy for it. But there it is. Even now, after all this time thinking about it, I can't completely unpack the parts of me that had that gut reaction to screaming that was stronger than my fear of rape. With a family that never gave any message other than 'be yourself, be safe, be loud, do whatever you need to, we will always believe you', I still had that in me. Is the societal conditioning to be a good girl so strong that it could override that message? I don't know. I don't know what all that was. But I know if I felt that, other women do too.
I recognize that any man who claims to be anti-rape, yet has the temerity to complain about being "profiled" by a woman whose step quickens if they are the only two on a dark street, is not much of an ally. And yet the frequency of those conversations has nonetheless created a lingering feeling of "I'm going to feel terrible if I act scared and imply this guy intended me harm when he didn't." There is, within me, an internalized sense that I'd be causing him insult for no reason, even though I have a damn good reason—but the reason is mine alone and thus gets rendered as objectively unimportant.
My feeling of safety sacrificed in deference to the feeling of offense potentially experienced by a man who would only be offended if he's an asshole, anyway.
It's shitty to uncover that stuff dwelling within me. But there it is.
And, having found myself in a similar situation to Zan, and having similarly not screamed, I've realized that another part of the subconscious shit that creates my self-imposed silence in those quick seconds is the fear that screaming would induce him to violently silence me, that my screaming would somehow escalate the situation. Was I thinking there was still a chance he wasn't going to do anything, but would only if I screamed? As if rapists are made by screaming? Ugh.
What a terrible, terrible calculation. I know intellectually that screaming is, in reality, more likely to deescalate a situation than escalate it (though the movies would have us believe otherwise). And yet, I was still, in that split-second decision, more viscerally inclined to keep schtum.
That was many years ago. I hope I would react differently now, but I'm not sure.
I have dreams, all the time, in which I need to scream but can't. Sometimes it's because I'm being attacked, sometimes it's because I'm lost, sometimes it's because I'm in a fight, sometimes it's because I'm trying to yell a warning to someone else who's about to be hurt. I open my mouth and I try to scream with all my might—and nothing comes out but silence.
These are the only dreams I have that really terrify me.