I was fifteen years old the first time a stranger exposed his penis to me. It was late at night, nearly two in the morning, and I’d gone for a walk because I couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t unusual for me, I often walked late at night. Our town was a safe place, and besides, nobody was out at two in the morning but myself. I almost never encountered another person.
On this occasion, I walked downtown, to look at the closed store windows and street side gardens. As I walked along the streets that in only a few more hours would be bustling with life, I realized I wasn’t alone. With a shock, I noticed a man standing beside one of the shops. He wasn’t moving, just standing in the shadows, an eerie smile on his face. I froze, completely surprised not to be alone, and then I realized something was terribly wrong.
He had his pants open, pulled down nearly to his knees, his penis on full display with his hands on his hips, leering at me.
I’d never been leered at before, but I had no doubt that it was exactly the word to describe his unsettling grin.
I stared for a moment, fears of being assaulted rushing through my head, but I managed to stay calm. I looked straight ahead, away from him, and marched past. I turned right at the next corner, and walked the three blocks straight to the police station. It took me less than ten minutes.
I had always avoided it before. I was a minor, out at night, alone. I knew I was violating curfew. I didn’t want to get myself in trouble. But this seemed so obviously more important. I went straight to the officer on duty and announced that a man had flashed me, that he was still standing exactly where I left him, three and a half blocks away. If somebody left right now I knew they could catch him.
Before I could begin to describe him, the officer brushed me off. I spent more than an hour at the station, begging anyone to listen, that there was a sexual predator practically right outside, but nobody did anything.
Eventually I was threatened with a phone call to my parents, and told to leave. I walked home by a different route, now scanning all the shadows for flashers or worse. I stopped taking such long walks at night. Part of me was furious that I was so thoroughly ignored, but part of me wondered if I wasn’t overreacting. If maybe grown men exposing their penises to young girls wasn’t expected, normal.
I could still describe every last detail of that man’s appearance. His egg shaped, white haired head. His pointy toothed grin. His button down shirt. In the sixteen years since that night, nobody has ever asked me.
Since then, I’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted in public many times. Groped at art galleries, rubbed against on trains, leered at everywhere from churches to pizzerias. I’ve never reported another incidence of public harassment to the police. The lesson I got when I was a teenager was too clear.
The lesson was that they don’t care if public spaces are violent to women. They don’t care if predators lurk in the shadows. They will not inconvenience themselves with even so much as a ten minute stroll to stop somebody from sexual intimidation in a public space.
Maybe that’s not true. Maybe in some places, the police do care about protecting the streets from “harmless perverts.” But when a woman attempts to advocate for herself and runs into a wall of uncaring, unresponsive, and even threatening adversity, it makes a lasting impression. It teaches them they are not as important as the freedom of a nameless, faceless man to use them for their own sexual gratification. It teaches them that the streets are not for them. That the world is not for them.
And all of us could and should do better.
Read more about how we should talk about rape culture here: Rape Is Like Potty Training, and Other Lies from the Comment Section
Read my latest post here: Paying It Forward For My Birthday
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