Intersections – Dark Alleys

Posted by December 10, 2014
Nicki Salcedo

Nicki Salcedo

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.


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  • Smitty

    Great article, Nicki. I’m glad you shared it with us, and I agree that boys and men need to be included in this discussion.

    • Nicki Salcedo

      Thank you for reading. Men behaving badly are boys. They need to stop.

  • DecaturFem

    When you believe, or disbelieve, a story solely based on the gender of the person speaking it… you are sexist. It is that simple. When you assume a story (ie – rape accusation) is true just because a woman is the one speaking… that’s sexism.

    Also, women are not weak. We need fewer “advocates” like you who paint us as victims who are at the mercy of men. You describe men as having all the power and choice. No. Women have power and choice.

    I’m sad for you that you choose to live your life in fear, but that is not the way women must live. It is not our lot in life. We can choose to take control and be strong instead of waiting for “men to stop this”. That is the language of victimhood.

    Personally, I carry a gun. I don’t need to run. I don’t have to fear men. Even a 300lb linebacker stops when Smith speaks.

    • Nicki Salcedo

      Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your view point and know others feel the same way. I won’t explain the subtleties of my use of the word fear. I’m at the grocery store at all hours. (Damn you, big Kroger. Thank you for the convenience of midnight shopping without my kids.) And I frequently take the train. No fear in my life but the truth. I would love to see your strategy in action in a frat house or boardroom where it is needed most. Hope to hear your feedback on future columns.

    • Maggie Coughlin Worth

      Nothing about rape culture in America is simple. Actually, I could remove the word “rape” and that sentence would still be accurate. Much as your opinion terrifies me, I respect your right to hold it and express it. I’m vastly uncomfortable, however, with allowing your last paragraph to remain uncorrected. I’m not at all anti-gun, though I don’t personally carry because I’m a terrible shot and no amount of practice has every been able to remedy that deficiency, so it would be utterly irresponsible for me to carry. However, I’ve spent my life around weapons and people who use them regularly, either professionally or for hunting, personal protection, or recreation. I know no police officer, soldier, or intelligent gun owner who would support your confidence in your ability to stop a linebacker with an S&W. It simply does not work in far too many cases. It’s why professionals are taught to go for the center of mass and keep shooting until the assailant goes down and stays there. Adrenaline, drugs, a high pain threshold — dozens of factors play a part in the degree of stopping power behind a bullet. If you told me you were packing a sawed-off shotgun, that would probably be different. It’s a rare case, however, when anything lesser knocks a person tail over teakettle, TV and the movies notwithstanding. I can speak from personal experience, incidentally. I’ve been shot. Twice. The second time I weighed all of 110 pounds. .357 Magnum to my dominant shoulder. Didn’t slow me down a single step. I wasn’t even sure I’d been hit until someone else saw the blood. Further, while a firearm will discourage a certain type of potential attacker, if you have to aim it or pull the trigger, a gun is unlikely to help you a whit. And let’s just hope your rapist, as he will quite probably become, does not take it from you.I realize you may need something to hang your faith on in order to maintain your mantle of fearlessness, but I entreat you to think twice before leading others down the path of false security.

      • Jana

        I agree, Maggie. I do hold a Concealed Carry Permit and I know that the majority of the time my gun is not the thing that will protect me. Some situations, yes. But to assume that it is the sole reason I won’t be a victim is not realistic.

        • Nicki Salcedo

          Maggie and Jana, thank you so much for your perspectives. I respect and admire you both. My weapon of choice is the pen. I do not have permit to carry one. Shhh.

    • Chris Billingsley

      Thanks DecFem. I was going to react/respond strongly to the writer but I found your reply more than satisfactory. This tragedy does not reflect a lack of communication between fathers and sons but with how free Americans must use their God-given rights to not only to protect their INDIVIDUAL freedom but also how we should send a message to the tyrants, thugs and hand-ringers that we will not become slaves to confusion and fear. I will have none of it.
      I will continue to pray for the soul of Ms. Pearce and that her family and friends find peace during this difficult time but I also want justice. The swifter the better.

  • Cecilia Dominic

    Beautifully said! It’s hard to prepare for those moments between when a situation becomes potentially threatening and when it becomes dangerous. I also agree that men need to be taught that gestures they may consider innocent aren’t necessarily as innocent as they think. Like the hand on the knee – ew, no, that’s a boundary violation. Yes, let’s include the men in this discussion.

    • Nicki Salcedo

      Everyone I saw this week refrained from hugging me. Ok, y’all can hug me. Just not the creepy hugs.

  • Eric

    I am a white middle-class American heterosexual man, and I have never felt your fear. And I doubt I ever will. This makes me one of the most fortunate people on earth. It is impossible for me to imagine what women, racial minorities and LGBT’s go through every single day, and reading pieces like this help me understand it just a bit more.

    My promise to you is to instill in my boys respect and personal responsibility, so that they never create a situation where someone experiences your fear.

    And Maggie…damn good post. I occasionally carry, but I’m under no illusion that my .380 would always be able to stop a determined attacker.

    • Nicki Salcedo

      Eric, fortunately I feel an overabundance of joy all the time. It can become irritating to those who like fear and unhappiness. I hope too much joy will also be the case for your and your boys. Thank you for reading.

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