In order to get to the women’s bathroom at Radio City Music Hall, you have to pass through an old-fashioned sitting room lined with yellow upholstered sofas and tan leather chairs. Painted onto the walls are murals of ladies in various stages of powdering their noses. It’s a familiar ritual: women helping women get ready for a night out. But who looks out for them once they leave the safety of the dressing room?
Last October, I saw a girl lying on a one of the yellow sofas during intermission at a concert. Her eyes were closed, her legs stretched out, and she had one hand draped across her forehead. The scene alarmed me: just an hour before, I’d seen this same girl outside of the theater—walking, talking, and perfectly fine. The women coming out of the bathroom seemed to also pick up on the fact that something wasn’t right. As they exited the stalls, they looked over at her not once but twice, as if their intuitions were sending an SOS. I decided I would be the one to check on her—just as soon as I got through the line. But when I stepped out of the bathroom and back out into the lounge, she was already gone.
Almost every night that ends in sexual assault begins just like any other night. That particular evening, my husband and I had gone to see an Icelandic post-rock show. We arrived to find a crowd spilling out of the theater, around the block, and all the way down 48th Street. We found the end of the line at Rockefeller Plaza and then eavesdropped on the couple in front of us to kill time. The woman was a brunette from Switzerland, visiting New York City on a music residency. She wore a red windbreaker, gold American Apparel leggings, and black oxfords. An upside-down triangle had been carefully painted onto her face with liquid eyeliner.
“I like your triangle,” the guy said.
My posture stiffened, like that of a Midwestern dad questioning his daughter’s date at the front door. It seemed as if they’d only just met, and I didn’t like this young man’s flirtatious tone. As it turned out, I was also subconsciously memorizing the details necessary to recreate a police sketch of him: white, American, mid-twenties with a stocky build, wearing light-wash denim and Converse sneakers.
The Swiss girl deflected his compliment by asking what he did, and he cleared his throat before answering. “I work for an, uh, mattress company.”
“Oh, are you…an expert?” She asked.
“Only about ours,” he said before changing the subject. “Going to any other good shows?” It sounded more like a Craigslist ticket sale meet-up than a date. As we approached the concert hall, she listed several bands I’d never heard of. At one point, she pulled an embroidered fabric pouch out of her mini-backpack, and my watchful eye became a little misty. It reminded me of one I had when I was around her age, which I used to store weed, cash, and my prized fake ID.
In my early twenties, I also went abroad, traveling Europe on my own. As a curious student in a constant state of wide-eyed wonderment, I was never fearful. But that changed when I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance in my early twenties. Afterwards, I suffered from severe anxiety, which didn’t cease until my early thirties. The symptoms eventually led me to therapy, where I uncovered the source: unprocessed trauma.
As a result, I am highly sensitive to potential threats—to the point where I sometimes don’t know when to trust my own instincts. Once, I was in a taxi to the airport in Los Angeles when the driver swerved off of the road and into a deserted alley in Venice to “give me a quick tour” of the canals. He said he would turn the meter off and that “we had plenty of time” before my flight. I suddenly noticed his ultra-long fingernails dangling over the steering wheel and pictured my demise, Buffalo Bill-style. I started screaming at him to turn the car around immediately.
“Alright,” he said as he pulled back out on to the street, heading for the airport. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
In hindsight, he was probably just a weirdo. Still, when I watch something as innocuous as a pained conversation between a man who is interested—and a woman who obviously isn’t, I can’t tell if I’m witnessing average, run-of-the-mill lechery or a clear and present danger. For a person with PTSD, sometimes paranoia is just another word for survival. But in light of the recent political tides, I’m beginning to wonder how much of my fear is pathological—and how much is perfectly justified.
Rebecca Solnit wrote in the London Review of Books, “Women told me they had flashbacks to hideous episodes in their past after the second presidential debate on 9 October, or couldn’t sleep, or had nightmares.” I experienced all three.
Aside from the statistically grim picture of how many women have suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, we live in a society that punishes anything less than complete patriarchal submission. As I watched Hillary Clinton on that debate stage, I saw her facing off not only with the champion for every abusive man in America—but also a jeering embodiment of the misogyny women encounter every day.
The simple act of existing, harassment-free, has become exhausting. We clench our jaws on the street as random men make comments about our bodies or our nonexistent smiles. We reconsider our tweets, for fear of what disgusting horror might fly back in our faces. We even worry about our private photos, lest some online stalker get ahold of one and decide to Photoshop himself into it—as if enough ways to harass a woman hadn’t already been invented.
Still, we minimize these daily defense mechanisms as basic rules of engagement, because quite frankly, we have more pressing concerns—like who we might encounter on our way home that night. Or whether the men at bars who trail us with their eyes plan to slip something into our drinks. Or what harm might come our way, as it most often does, at the hands of boyfriends and husbands.
To remain blissfully unaware of such danger is a form of privilege. And yet, the alternative, to live in a constantly guarded state, comes at a price.
I was already unnerved by the election the night I went to see Sigur Rós play at Radio City. By intermission, I noticed the white wine I’d bought myself had run its course. The line for the women’s bathroom was harrowing, like a perspective drawing of a river rushing down red-carpeted stairs, its rapids twisting and turning over the landings before finally narrowing toward a vanishing point: the doorway to the ladies’ lounge.
When I finally got to the front, I saw the Swiss girl I’d seen outside. She was lying on the couch with her eyes closed. I shifted my weight back and forth to distract from the increasing urgency of my chardonnay situation. I wondered what could have changed so drastically for her in the last hour—and decided I would check, just as soon as I relieved myself. But when I returned from the bathroom to find she’d already disappeared, I headed back to my seat in a low-grade panic.
“We may be the only ones who know something’s wrong,” I hissed, scanning the six-thousand-person theater hopelessly as the lights began to dim once again.
When the show resumed, I accepted there was nothing I could do. So I thought about all of the nights I’d spent on the town alone at her age and emerged unscathed. Once, when traveling in Paris by myself, I went to a bar with three Parisian men I met in a pizzeria. Nothing happened except I got drunk and laughed a lot. Another time, I went on a date with a man in Italy I had never met before. I made out with him in his tiny blue car, and he was a little pushy but stopped when I told him to. Countless times, at house parties in high school or college, I went to a back room to sleep because I didn’t want to risk driving home drunk. Nothing happened there either.
Looking back, I am certain what is wrong with this picture is not that I was reckless, but that I consider these as times I emerged “unscathed,” as opposed to just times when no one chose to commit a sex crime. To me, this raises the question as to why society insists on urging women to live a life of extreme vigilance instead of adequately reprimanding those who choose to assault them. By heaping the burden of prevention on potential victims, we disproportionately bury them in blame when they are victimized.
In 2016 alone, a convicted rapist was given a six-month prison sentence to avoid “severely impacting” his life. A presidential candidate bragged about forcing himself on women and then suggested those who accused him of doing just that were not attractive enough to be sexually assaulted. We saw endless news reports of police mishandling cases, untested rape kits, and accusations deemed not credible because the victims were single, knew their attackers, or didn’t react in the “right” way.
For survivors of sexual assault, the injustices are re-traumatizing, the pace of progress is grating, and our hopes are constantly crushed. We desperately needed our rock bottom to have also been society’s, so we could all move forward together. I’ve been disappointed enough to know that’s not how it works. But I’ve also learned that advocacy, for one’s self and for others, is part of the healing process.
After the concert ended, I went back to the bathroom in hopes of finding the Swiss girl there again so I could replay what had happened, but this time change my behavior. As a survivor myself, I have become quite proficient in mentally revising history. In the new version of any events worth revision, I do what I wasn’t able to the first time.
When I couldn’t find her, I met my husband outside and tried to think positively. But I kept imagining her in therapy ten years from now, poring over every decision she’d made, trying to pinpoint which one it was precisely that had been the nail in her coffin.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I saw the guy across the street, right there.” He pointed for emphasis. “She wasn’t with him.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. He was standing with friends.”
I wanted believe that he was right. That she had just been resting her eyes on the sofa. And that I had projected my own past on the present, managing to both under and overreact—my hyper-vigilance and inaction working in some sort of useless tandem. Perhaps my need to constantly survey the scene was trying to tell me something: I wasn’t quite ready to be out on the front lines fighting for my fellow woman. Maybe I was still a wounded warrior myself.
As I walked toward the subway in the crisp city air, I could feel my ears still ringing from the show, which I realized I’d barely paid attention to. Not to mention my husband, to whom I had spoken but a few sentences the entire evening. I wasn’t even able to enjoy a simple evening at a concert. And in my heightened state, I’d managed to only commit certain details to memory.
It was the same stress response that had allowed me to remember the apartment where I’d been assaulted in vivid detail, the color of the sheets on the bed—even the ugly plaid print on my assailant’s boxer shorts. And yet I have no idea who I’d been with earlier that night or what month it took place in. Even if I hadn’t been in a state of shock—unable to talk about it with anyone—my case would never have stood a chance.
Because instead of being encouraged to report our sexual assaults, women are told to modify our behavior. This is not so much a strategy for prevention as it is advice for becoming a “good victim.” How much we drink will not stop a rapist from raping that night—but it will affect the credibility of our testimony. And how we dress does not in any way compromise our ability to withhold consent, but it’s constantly commented on, as if a struggling, frozen, or limp body somehow confuses men—but only when too much skin is present. Vigilance is not rewarded; only its absence is punished.
I couldn’t have known then what I know now, nor would I have wished that knowledge upon myself. To live in fear is to relinquish one’s freedom. Women shouldn’t have to get ready for an evening by brushing our hair in front of the mirror while also formulating self-defense strategies. We can’t always save ourselves—nor can we save each other. But we can find solace in the fact that we’re not to blame. It’s the one thing that cannot be taken from us.
Sarah Kasbeer lives in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Vice, Salon, the Hairpin, and elsewhere. Read more of her work at sarahkasbeer.com.