My post in which I mentioned an attempt of rape, which happened during my travel to Poland, generated several offline conversations, and I thought I should write more on how such situations were viewed at that time.
The more I think about it, and the more I try to recall how such situations were perceived by society, the more I wonder why I considered it reasonable. When I wrote about the classes in psychology, I mentioned that somehow women thought about themselves as equal but, on the other hand, knew that they need to prove themselves ten times more worth than the smartest men to be considered for a job. And it’s not only that the male bosses thought this way, but us, professional women, shared the same views.
A similar thing can be said about being a sexual object. We wanted to be considered seriously at work. We wanted our ideas to be heard. But at the same time, we wanted to be admired sexually. Flirting at work was not just OK, but expected. I remember once when I already lived in the US, the mother of my friend visiting from Saint Petersburg asked me: do they flirt with you at work? And when I answered: of course, not! her reaction was to the effect of “what’s wrong with you?” Married or single, with children or not, you were supposed, expected to flirt at work. Even better if you are married, because it means you are not trying to catch a husband.
There are many things which we all tend to forget because we want them to be forgotten. I am going to write about things that happened not just with me but also with many young women of my generation and my socio-economic group. But many will say that nothing like that ever happened to them. While it may be true for some women of my generation, many just choose to forget because it was embarrassing back then and is even more so now.
Everything and everybody told us that any professional achievements are worthless if we remain single; if we didn’t find husbands and didn’t have children. Thereby, you want to be reassured that you are attractive. “At the end, a woman should always stay a woman” – I heard that sentiment from teachers, relatives, classmates, I read it in the books and the most progressive articles, and I truly believed in that statement!
What it has to do with the rape culture? It’s just the other side of the same story. For many women, even though rape was one of the most horrible things that could happen to them, it was, at the same, a perverted proof of the fact that you are desirable, that you are of some worth “as a woman.” As teens, we would tell each other stories about “that girl, that was walking alone by there abandoned houses,” and then she was raped. And it was a mixture of horror and excitement.
And yet another side of the story was a victim-blaming. What do you expect if you decided to walk alone in the late hour? What do you expect if you wear a short skirt and high heels? It’s all your fault. And we were all afraid to tell anybody what had happened.
One of the most common sexual assaults in the city was touching the young girls’ private parts in the crowded buses. Most of us took public transportation alone since we were seven years old, or nine at most. And sometime after you turn ten or eleven it would start. On the crowded bus, you would feel somebody’s hands touching your private parts. And you would be terrified to do anything, the max you could try was to move away. You would not even try to look around and identify a person who was doing it. Because you are a child and they are all adults. And god forbid you to blame somebody who didn’t do it. And also, if somebody decided to touch you, it’s all your fault. It would usually stop by the time you turn fourteen, because by that time you are almost a grown-up, and might be not afraid to stand for yourself. But these several years in between were horrible, and we never-ever told about it to anybody! Just something to be said about MeToo…
Once, only once, I dared to stand for myself. I lifted my head and looked around. And I saw the face of the man in his forties, who was looking away from me, but the way he looked away left no doubt. I hissed in his direction: hands! It was a terrifying thing to do, because – see above, god-forbid-its-not-him. But I did it, and he immediately removed his hands, still not looking in my direction.
Many of my friends know the story of my first time nearly becoming a victim of a sexual assault. I will repeat this story here because, first, it should be told, and second, because it fundamentally changed how I felt about myself.
I was nineteen, unhappily single, and on that day, I was taking a train from the University campus later than usual. We had an event after classes. Usually, I would take a train back to the city together with a group, but as I said, I was unhappily single and a little bit anti-social at that time. It was not super-late, I remember that I took 9-25 PM train from the University. And the car was not empty; at least twenty people were sitting there. I sat on the bench closest to the doors, leaning towards the window and being moderately miserable.
A stop or two later, two drunk men entered the car and dropped on the seats close to me: one in front of me, another on the side. They started the drunken flirting. Once again, flirting with a girl on the train, asking close to inappropriate questions was a norm, and norms allowed me to ignore it. If they weren’t drunk, it would be most likely fine. If I would keep my mouth shut, there were chances it would be fine. But they were drunk, and I said, not turning my head: get out of here! – What?! – get out of here!
The man in front of me hit me in the face, really hard. The people in the car were silent (because-it-is-all-my-fault). I screamed. He grabbed me by my arm and started to drag me towards the vestibule. I was screaming and trying to resist. The car was silent. Finally, when he almost dragged me out of the car, one man jumped off his seat and rushed in our direction, shouting: “Do you know (expletive) what I would do with those (expletive) like you in Afghanistan?!”
I do not remember what happened next. That man started a fight with these two drunks. He was shorter and smaller than them, but better trained. I do not remember. I do not remember how it all ended; he must have pushed them out of the train to the platform on one of the stops. Judging by the travel time, there should have been at least twenty minutes between that and the time we arrived to the Baltic Railway Station. I remember saying thank you many many times. He was still saying something about Afghanistan. He was trying to calm me down, asked me what I was studying, and said that he has a friend in our University. Usually, I would take a subway from the train station to home, but he said he would hail a cab. He asked for my address, paid the cabman, and said that his name was Sasha.
What were my takeaways? First, I knew that-it-was-all-my-fault, because I yelled, “get out of here” instead of seating quiet or changing the seat. Second, I realized that nobody would stand for me. You can’t expect to have an Afghan veteran close by in any tough situation. And that silent car was my changing moment. Since that night, I knew that I need to be able to get out of any situation by myself, and that standard advice of “making noise” does not help. Probably, I should have been scarred for life, but the effect was the opposite. I became fearless, at least regarding rape. And I also accepted the fact that a possibility of rape is a part of my life as a woman.