By Carly Roberts
The murder of Sarah Everard in England earlier this month, coupled with the murders of eight people (six of whom were Asian women: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng) in Atlanta-area spas, has sparked international outrage and shone a light on the epidemic of violence experienced by women at the hands of men. Across the globe, women are speaking out and sharing their stories and experiences of encountering violence in public spaces and being taught from a young age to bear the burden of avoiding “victimhood” through constant vigilance and elaborate survival techniques.
It bears stating that research shows that the majority of women murdered by men know their killer, and women of marginalized identities including indigenous women and trans women are both more likely to be murdered and more likely to be murdered by a stranger than average. We must discuss issues of domestic, racist, and transphobic violence as we discuss violence committed by strangers within the larger picture of violence against women as a whole.
There must be deep and sustained social change for the sake of all women — including the countless victims of femicide whose names do not appear on the front page of newspapers.
I have experienced many of the encounters with strangers that I see women sharing on “text me when you get home xx” posts. There were my first elementary-aged stranger danger scares and grown men catcalling obscenities to me and my friends at the mall (ripping my 12 year old mind away from the plans I was making to exchange babysitting cash for Claire’s earrings and a soft pretzel). There were phantom gropes during high school marching band retreats that left bruises on my butt and thighs; a guy repeatedly grabbing my hips and thrusting his pelvis into me during a Young the Giant concert on my college campus. The list goes on and on. Each anecdote was a reminder to remain constantly vigilant, and each experience was uniquely isolating — despite how commonplace these encounters are.
One formative moment that helped me understand the broad, shared burden borne by women was at the United State of Women Summit, which I was able to attend thanks to an invitation from Running Start. On the afternoon of June 14th, 2016, I power-walked down New York Avenue towards the Washington Convention Center — I was running behind and did not want to miss out on an opportunity to see the Oprah interview the Michelle Obama. My mind was on a hundred things at once, but none of them was remembering to remove my keychain pepper spray. Though I knew that there would be security at the Convention Center, it had completely slipped my mind.
When I arrived at the Convention Center, I plunked my bag down on the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt without a second thought. A voice interrupted my musings with a stern, “Ma’m, why do you have this?!” It took me a moment to process that the gloved hand pointing at my keys was referring to my pepper spray. I blurted out a now forgotten flustered answer about it being for security and forgetting to remove it.
A bewildered middle-aged man at the security check gestured behind him to a large stack of plastic security tubs and cardboard boxes heaped full of personal security devices. There were hundreds of keychain pepper sprays in plastic sleeves of varying hues, brass knuckles disguised as pointy-eared cat charms, telescoping batons, bejeweled knives, steel ball bearings encased in parachute cord, and tasers — so many pink tasers.
“I’ve worked dozens of events here with way more people and I’ve never seen anything like this! And it’s pretty much all women in there, I never would have expected it!” he exclaimed.
I handed over my pepper spray to join the others, and felt a pit form in my stomach as I thought about my commute home that evening. I pushed it aside and turned my attention back to the Summit. The event was amazing — I’m happy to report that I did get to see the Oprah/Michelle Obama interview as well as several other amazing speakers.
But through the whole afternoon and in the days following, the image of bins overflowing with the tools of self-defense stuck in the back of my mind. I kept wondering which of the women around me corresponded to which item in the bins. Who was going to be walking home without her taser that night? Would anyone be caught defenseless against some stranger lurking in an alley? I also kept returning to the security officer’s reaction to the cornucopia of weapons he and his colleagues had collected from the summit attendees — why was he so surprised, and why was I not surprised at all?
I, like so many other women, was taught to take the verbal and physical incursions of strange men in stride and move on without causing too much fuss — after reflecting on what I could have done better or differently to avoid attracting their attention. Before the Me Too movement, there generally wasn’t space made for appropriate and proportional responses to harassment, groping, or other much more serious offenses. I am so grateful for the changes that have happened in such a short time, but we clearly still have so far to go.
One of the keys to ensuring that our institutions protect women and address our public safety concerns is having more of us run for office. Our voices must be heard wherever decisions are being made — from neighborhood watch groups to the halls of Congress. As of today, women comprise barely a quarter (26.8%) of the United States Congress. Even so, in a time of fierce partisanship, women are reaching across the aisle to address sexual violence.
Many people who run for office can point to one particular event or moment of clarity when they knew they needed to do something to address a specific issue. If this moment of renewed spotlight on violence against women is pushing you to do more, and if you’re considering running for office, I encourage you to follow through on that impulse and bring your voice to the table — and text me when you get there.