I am a California native, and I’ve been living in Washington, DC for the past 3.5 years. I have been astounded time and time again by the level of street harassment that goes on here, as well as the type: It is not just excessive in terms of frequency, but it is also usually very verbally aggressive and hostile, in addition to overly vulgar.
From the moment I arrived in DC, I began attracting an excessive amount of negative sexual attention from men on the streets. I have had an abundance of uncomfortable experiences, ranging from simple, sexually explicit comments thrown my way, to men exposing themselves to me and masturbating to the sight of me in the park, and guys grabbing my butt while they ride past me on bikes. I am a 5’’9 Caucasian female with a curvy figure. I am attractive, but no more than any other female in this city. I do, however, seem to generate far more harassment than my friends, and I have to attribute it largely to the curves. Whatever the reason, the frequency has concerned everyone in my life.
On the night of Thursday, August 12th, just slightly after midnight, I was walking with my friend back to her apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. We only had a 5 block walk to go, and we were together, so we didn’t think it was necessary to take a cab. We were carrying groceries in both our hands. A mere half a block from her building, I heard a sudden rush of footsteps behind us, then felt someone’s body slam into my back. I then felt myself 100% bound, as the person wrapped their arms solidly around me in a strong bear-hug hold.
Because the brain does not process things normally when in shock, the first thought both I and my friend had was, “Oh, whose that? Is that a friend I know that’s just surprising me with a hug?” We had just said goodnight to a friend, so I thought perhaps it was him.
The attackers grip suddenly changed, and though he still had me bound, his hands suddenly gripped my breasts very hard. My arms were pinned to my side. I could not move. And to be honest, I didn’t even realize just what was happening to me.
–That is until his left arm shifted to hold me in place while he shoved his right arm between my legs, placed his hand over my vagina, quickly rubbed it aggressively and then attempted to shove his fingers inside of me over my dress. I heard an utterly disgusting sound of sexual arousal leave his mouth in that moment– I think that sound disturbed me even more than the molestation. It has certainly been the part of the experience that has haunted me the most.
It was only then that the shock gave way to an understanding of what was happening to me. According to my friend, I screamed “Get off of me!,” then dropped my weight to the ground. I don’t even remember doing this. And that’s when she realized just what was going on. Even as my body fell away from his grip and onto the ground, he was still struggling to hold onto me. When he let go, I looked up to see my friend struggling with him and pushing him away from me. He grabbed her hair, yanked her head back, shoved her and ran away.
The entire thing probably lasted a total of 10 seconds. This person knew exactly what he was doing. He worked my body with such precision that he clearly had the attack down to a routine. I was in shock for nearly the entire thing. I didn’t fully understand what had happened until I saw him running away.
We called the police, but he was long gone. During the entire episode, there were approximately 10 men sitting on the porch to an apartment building just 2 houses down the street. They witnessed the entire thing, made no attempts to intervene, didn’t move at all to run after the attacker, and, when it was all over, sat passively in place watching me weep in a ball on the sidewalk. When the police questioned them, they said they saw nothing.
It has been a week, and I feel NERVOUS. Everywhere I go. I don’t want any man walking behind me on the sidewalk, even if he’s simply going to work, I don’t want any many standing behind me on the bus, even if he’s reading. I don’t even want any many looking at me. I cannot relax AT ALL when I leave the house.
The sexual violation isn’t even the most traumatizing aspect to the experience: Sadly, I’ve been expecting something like this to happen for a long time, and I’m frankly surprised it’s taken 3.5 years given the level of harassment in this town. What has been the most traumatizing aspect of it is feeling like anyone who passes by me could attack me at any moment. As I lay there on the sidewalk crying that night, I wasn’t crying because some stranger had tried to shove their fingers inside of me: I was crying because I felt so utterly outraged and helpless. The violation of my power as a human being and my right to not be dominated feels even more intense than the sexual violation as a woman.
I have owned pepper spray since I was groped by the cyclists last year. I have spent the past year with it clutched in my hand, switch on, finger ready every single time I’ve left my house. 4 days before this attack, my spray broke. I had been walking around DC feeling extremely naked and vulnerable and scared without it, but I tried to tell myself I’d be okay for a few days until I got a new one. –Irony at its best.
Having said that, even if I’d had my spray: Given the way he had my arms and hands pinned to my sides, the pepper spray would have been useless. In fact I wonder what, if anything, WOULD be useful in a situation like that: We all think we’re going to act like cheetahs in these situations. We carry pepper spray and take self-defense classes and think we’ll be ready. In fact I once took a self-defense class geared precisely toward what to do if someone grabs you from behind and pins your arms down.
The fact of the matter is: When it’s happening to you, you just go into SHOCK.
I am very surprised that this man attacked me with another person at my side, but I’m very thankful she was there. I’m positive I would have been raped had she not been.
Though they are illegal here, I have ordered a stun gun and I intend to begin carrying it in my hand if ever I have to walk in DC at night. The fact that I have to resort to this infuriates me, and the reality of never being able to simply go for a walk in the city I love and reside in, without feeling perpetually on guard and defensive and nervous, makes me really sad.
I don’t know what it is about this city, or me, or the combination of the two that makes this type of thing so very prevalent, but I want it to stop, and I don’t know what to do.
Location: Washington, DC; Columbia Heights neighborhood; 16th St. NW at Spring, near The Woodner apartment building