Intersections – Dark Alleys
By Nicki Salcedo
Women are trained from an early age to be gracious, silent, and cautious. When I walk alone, I stay alert. I carry my keys. I avoid isolated areas. I never go out alone when it is very late or very early even in busy areas. I loop around the block. A woman knows what this means. A stranger is on your block or near your home, and you don’t want them to know where you live. You loop.
I have to follow the rules. Men don’t live this way. They live free. My husband asked me an unsettling question this week.
“Do you ever feel afraid?” he asked. “As a woman? Are you afraid walking down the street?”
We have known each other for twenty years. We talk a lot. There are no reasons to be coy or circumspect with him, but I didn’t know what to say. He had recently read something about the rape culture in America.
“I’m not afraid, but I’m alert.” I didn’t say much else. I didn’t say that I am often afraid, but not in dark alleys. No one prepared me for the places I truly needed to fear.
In college, I was afraid at times. I went to a nice college with smart boys. You are with a group of friends, people come and go, and eventually you are in a room with a different group of friends. Suddenly, you’re the only girl in the room. I clearly remember one situation where I thought, “How do I walk out of here and not seem like I’m afraid?”
It was just as I said. We were not drunk. We had gone to get smoothies. There were several of us, but eventually it was two boys and me. I could hear my mother’s voice from three thousand miles away warning me. This was my dark alley.
There were smiles and laughter. A playful tug at my shirt. The tenor of the room changed. I don’t remember what I said. I’m sure I made a joke. I’m sure I made every attempt to make them feel comfortable as I left even though I felt unbearably uncomfortable.
College is a time to navigate sexual politics. I might be labeled. Liberated, slut, victim, bitch, or prude. I only wanted be the girl who likes Star Trek and Scrabble. I was only prepared to defend myself from strangers.
Even now I find myself in uncomfortable situations.
I am not a hugger. I don’t like being touched. I pretty much give off the vibes not to come near me ever, and yet it happens in professional situations. A few years ago, a man put his hand on my knee at a work function. I’m sure he, the married man, thought this was an innocent thing. I didn’t. I had to stand up and walk away while using the cheese tray across the room as my excuse. It was on me to deflect unwanted advances, with a smile.
If I say, “Don’t touch me,” I am being too direct and abrasive. Why am I worried about the feelings of the man who put his hands on me?
If I say, “My husband really loves The Cowboys. . .” I am trying to distract. This says that I am not the right victim, but he can direct his advances to another woman. Why is this acceptable?
If you have not been in these situations, you have wonderful advice for how I should have asserted myself. You don’t know. Far too many women do. The moments before rape are often subtle. So our reactions. How do you shout “No!” and rage when it started with a smile and playful tug on your shirt?
Women are coming forward with rape stories, both recent and decades old. I tend to believe these accounts. I remember the moment when I felt the tenor in the room change. I remember the split second I had to assert myself, with a smile, and get to a safer place. Not all women have that chance.
Women know how to walk through an empty parking garage, but not how to safely exit a frat party or professional situation. Forget dark alleys. How do I warn my daughter about the boy sitting next to her in Chemistry class? Or her work colleague?
When my husband asked me if I’m ever afraid, I should have told him that I am. I should have told him I’m afraid in unexpected places.
Stay alert. Carry your keys. Never use your body to hurt another person. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Don’t be afraid to shout or rage or make a scene. Don’t be afraid to exit quietly, with a joke and a smile.
Boys, whether they are seventeen or seventy, have a split second choice. Power and dominance and fear. Or kindness. They always have a choice, when we don’t.
I want men and boys to speak up. We are all accountable, but only men can stop this.
The news has been troubling me. I haven’t been raped, but the stories feel familiar to me. I’ve stayed quiet. Silence and hesitation is the problem. I want to be gracious, silent, and cautious. I want to be those things, but I can’t anymore. I buried silence. For me. For my family. For anyone else who needs to be heard.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.