Wednesday 6 February 2019

Being a woman in America while trying to avoid being assaulted

Perhaps sexual violence shows up in my novel the way light does, or dialogue: it’s so intrinsically a part of my life that I find it hard to imagine leaving it out, writes R.O. Kwon, the author of the award-winning The Incendiaries, in The Paris Review. Read on: 

Lately, I’ve come to suspect that maybe a lot of people, especially men, still have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in America going about her life while trying, and at times failing, not to be assaulted. So, these past weeks, I’ve been observing myself.

I, for instance, elect to walk on certain streets, not others. The elevator doors slide open, and there’s one man inside: I evaluate his size against mine, calculating how well I could fight him off, if I had to. I check the backseat of my car before getting in, just to make sure no one’s waiting there. I don’t leave my drink unattended; when I have to use the bathroom, I take it with me. It’s a multiperson bathroom. I take it into the stall. I lock my car as soon as I get in, then I start driving, pronto, no dallying. While I’m waiting at the bar to buy a drink, a man starts talking to me. I respond politely, if briefly: I hope to indicate, without provoking his ire, that I’m not interested. I get unsettling emails from a stranger, a man. I try to decide what’s safest, if I should create a filter that directs all his missives to the trash or if I should remain aware of what he’s saying. I make the filter, then I delete it. I should be aware, I think.

I park close to the gym. I get catcalled; I pretend I didn’t hear him. It’s after nine at night, so I decide not to walk home alone from my subway stop, paying instead for a short Lyft ride. I make sure the license plate is correct before I get in. The bar bathroom’s in the back, through a dark hallway; I have to piss, but I decide I’ll hold it, I’ll wait until I get home. I stand at a distance from the subway tracks: a friend who works in public transit once told me women are more likely to be pushed than men. It’s dark, and I park beneath a light.

A stranger on social media sends me a direct message: “hey beautiful.” I ignore him. No, I block him. I walk through the parking lot with my keys out, bright points spiking between my fingers, in case I require a weapon. Several years ago, after a serial rapist attacked women in my neighborhood, I enrolled in a three-day self-defense class. The first thing I learned was that it might help if I walk fast, with a purposeful stride. I’ll look less vulnerable. It’s night, so I walk fast. I try to look purposeful. I don’t make eye contact.

I make fake phone calls while I walk to a party in the Mission, listening to old voicemails I’ve saved, the voices of people I love piping again like songs. The doorbell rings after sundown; I’m home alone, so I pretend I’m not there. I get catcalled; I glare, but I don’t say anything. I’m traveling, and I realize I forgot to lock my hotel-room door while I was gone for a few hours. I check the closets, the shower, to make sure no one’s in there, waiting. I see three people walking toward me. It’s dark, and I think they’re all men, so I tense up. I get out my phone. When I realize one’s a woman, I relax, slipping the phone into my bag. I make so many more fake phone calls than real ones. I’m exhausted. I’m in a rage. While walking, I accidentally make eye contact, and I tell myself, Look stern. Look frightening. Don’t look so fucking afraid.


Sometimes, I’ll read a novel written by a man in which a woman walks home alone, late at night, in America, without having a single thought about her physical safety, and it’s so implausible that I’ll put the book down.


A few months ago, I published my first novel. I’ve been traveling a lot, talking about the book, and people sometimes ask why there’s sexual violence in my novel, or why there’s so much of it, or why multiple women are sexually assaulted during the course of a short novel—the question has variations, but the central inquiry is the same, and it’s most often from men: why did you make that choice.

My go-to response is that I tend not to write with overarching whys, that I don’t have any special messages in mind. Writing, to me, is less akin to action as willful as inventing and deciding than it is to discovery, a slow revelation in which I am more like a conduit. I sometimes think I’m a witness, rather than a person who makes. I don’t write to provide answers, I say. I quote Cortázar, whom I love: I’ve remained on the side of the questions.

But here’s what else is true: for all the attention I’ve paid to the ongoing project of my personal safety, it’s still not enough. The gropings, men’s hands where they shouldn’t be, the strangers in bars, the editor who, when I said I didn’t want to go up to his room at the end of the night, put his hands in my hair and pulled. My novel’s mostly set on a college campus. In my experience of college, as well as of life, I haven’t known how to get through a day without considering the possibility of violence against my person. So, perhaps, sexual violence shows up in my novel the way light does, or dialogue: it’s so intrinsically a part of my life that I find it hard to imagine leaving it out.


On the day Brett Kavanaugh was voted into the Supreme Court despite multiple, very credible accusations of sexual misconduct, I left my apartment. I went around town, running errands while trying not to cry. I walked along Market Street. A man catcalled me. “Are you fucking kidding me,” I said, flaring brave, for once, with fury. “Today, of all days.”

It was late afternoon and I was on a crowded street, but even so, when I saw his face go rigid, I was terrified. I wished I hadn’t said anything. I walked away as fast as I could.


What I’ve learned about angry men is that they can turn dangerous.


Joking with a friend, I said, “I’m often so angry, these days, that I’m a little surprised I haven’t turned physically incandescent. Why haven’t I started glowing in the dark?”


I went to the same college, Yale, that Kavanaugh attended, the Ivy League school reported to have the highest incidence of sexual assault. During the first week of school, I was instructed as to the purpose of the blue boxes stationed across campus: phone stations equipped with large blue lights, glowing lambent at night. If we pressed the emergency button, help would come our way, I was told. Throughout the rest of my time at Yale, I didn’t know anyone who pressed for help. I wasn’t acquainted with a single woman who, having been assaulted, felt safe enough to report the crime. Night after night, I walked past those phones, the blue boxes lighting my way home.

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