Nicola’s Got Nerve | Issue 2

“Darling, is it the way you dress?”

This was the response a man gave to me on a Paris metro car, after I shouted at him, “Why are you bothering me?” For the past several minutes, he’d made sure to stand too close to me, causing me to move away from him twice, and put his hand on top of mine, while holding the support pole in the middle of the car. All threatening behavior ~ claiming space, pushing my boundaries, seeing how far he could go. I remember looking around, but no one else was in the car to see what was happening. It made me so angry and resentful to think that I would have to change cars and essentially run away from this creep, but I did.

At the time, I was just twenty years old, living abroad for my junior year in college. I had come from the protected and respectful environment of my college campus, Sarah Lawrence, and wasn’t used to this type of treatment at all.

However, it was his WORDS, perhaps even more than his actions that shocked the hell out of me. I’m embarrassed to say that instead of instantly recognizing his statement for what it was ~ a dangerous manipulation ~ I immediately took stock of what I was wearing, which I still remember to this day: black opaque stockings, black high-heeled Mary Janes, a black turtleneck with a cream-striped wool skirt with attached suspenders that my grandmother had made for me. It was above-the-knee, but I thought the sensibility was more cute than come-hither.

Now admit it, did you find yourself, even for just a second, evaluating the modesty of my outfit, even if it was to agree with me about the “un-sexiness” of it? If so, you are not alone, because it’s the tendency of every human being to wonder how WE could have controlled circumstances better, how WE could be less vulnerable to attack, and of course, to ask ourselves why WE were the unlucky target of a predator.

We, We, We, indeed.

We are assaulted in the street because we are women, not because we are “packaged” like women. Assault and harassment are about domination, not about sexual attraction, but it’s still so easy to fall into internalizing responsibility for an attack. One of the reasons that it’s so hard to get beyond this, is the fact that so many powerful segments of society still believe a woman can defend herself merely by putting on the “right” piece of clothing when she walks out the door.

Just this February, a member of the Toronto police force was censured for making the comment to Osgoode Hall Law School students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Yes, he really went there. Let’s take yet another ride on the victim-blaming carousel. This did not occur in some backwater, but on the campus of a major metropolitan center which had been the scene of violent sexual attacks in recent years.

Mistreating people, then informing them that it’s their fault are the actions of an abuser. This manipulation is designed to cause guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility in the victim. If there are even small pockets of law enforcement that still feel the way this officer did, then we’ve got an entirely new class of abusers to deal with ~ the second tier, so to speak, which we’ve got to educate and at the same time, mentally steel ourselves against, if we are victims. This is imperative, because it’s clear that predators are just one link in the cycle of violence against women.

What will it take for us to wake up, to stop shifting responsibility away from predators? Perhaps a sense of empathy for others, and the certain knowledge that self-expression in the form of dress can never be an acceptable excuse to victimize someone, not in a truly free society.

Peace and Balance,

Nicola

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  1. [...] The Islip Area AAUW Branch in New York sponsored me to speak at their local library this evening and Nicola surprised me by coming to the talk! I asked her to share her story for the attendees and everyone was very impressed and inspired. I know I continue to be both impressed and inspired by her presence of mind and determination to make sure he didn’t harass any other woman. Coincidentally, she wrote a guest post on iHollaback today. [...]

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