Letting go of fear–and that pink tube of pepper spray

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While this (obviously) is a food blog, today’s post addresses some of my thoughts on important issues surrounding women’s safety and social perceptions surrounding sexual assault and harrasment. We’ll be back to your semi-regularly scheduled recipes & photos next week! ~Ala

silk closure

Image courtesy of the University of Missouri.

– one –

I am sitting at one of the counter seats at Starbucks, laptop out and a messy pile of blue examination books sprawled out on the narrow wooden surface. Outside, it’s dark, though the low buzz of the cafe and the artificial lighting mean that I can–and intend to–stay for at least another 3 hours before heading home for the night. I squint my eyes, trying to decipher the illegible scrawl in front of me that is attempting to make a vaguely coherent argument about the psychiatric relevance of Winnie-the-Pooh. I have just read something about Pooh’s undiagnosed case of OCD when somebody pulls out the stool next to mine and sits down. Unconsciously, I shift my seat away just the tiniest bit to the left.

Focused as I am, another five minutes pass by in silence before I begin to notice: that feeling that jolts you slightly from the back of your head down your neck when you suddenly realize that somebody is looking at you. Or maybe it’s just that my peripheral vision is working. Whatever the case, I can feel a pair of eyes studying me as I work, a face turned in my direction rather than poring over a book as all the other faces around me are.

Then a voice: “Hey.”

It’s not a suspect “hey” or anything: not the sleazy “hey” you might get at the bar when your girlfriend goes to the bathroom and hasn’t come back yet; not the gruff “hey” of the guy sitting on a stoop leering at me as I hurry past, staring hard at the ground; not the catcall-type “hey”‘s that are hurled out of open car windows as a group of boisterously laughing and whistling men drive by. It’s just a casual “hey” of the guy sitting next to me–and anyway, I’m in a well-lit, fully-occupied Starbucks on a Thursday evening, not a dark abandoned alleyway occupied by a stray tabby and miscellaneous riffraff scum of the earth. Nothing bad is going to happen here, so I am not uncomfortable. Yet.

I turn to face the speaker. He’s wearing a fitted, dark blue blazer, his hair has been neatly trimmed and brushed, and his hair loss problem also gone. He is around my age, maybe a bit older, and there is an enormous Dental Admission Test book sitting in front of him. It is unopened.

“Are you a teacher?” he asks genially, nodding to my pile of blue books. He’s making small talk, which is perfectly acceptable in a college town cafe. Everybody here makes small talk, and as it so happens, I enjoy small talk–though perhaps I’m a bit surprised, since I’m rarely interrupted when it’s clear that I’m in the middle of something. Nevertheless, it would be impolite not to respond, so I smile. I tell him I am. And when he asks, I tell him my name.

From there, the conversation takes a fairly typical course for two strangers who have just met in a cafe: we chat about what we do, why we’re in the area, why we’re sitting in that particular cafe (he’s a former student who plans to take the DAT and apply for dental school the following year). As we chat, he receives a text message on his phone. He pauses from our conversation, briefly checks it, then lets out an exasperated sigh, coupled with a conspicuous eye roll made, I’m sure, mostly for my benefit.

“My friend just texted me to say that she’s taking an Uber from here downtown,” he explains, unasked, as he slips his phone back into his pocket. “She wants me to go with her because she doesn’t want to ride in an Uber alone to downtown at night. What a drag. Why can’t she go by herself like a normal person without trying to drag me along?”

He says “normal person” with annoyed disgust, like he’s just been invited to join the Cannibals’ Society for their annual banquet gala.

“I don’t think it’s your friend’s fault,” I reply without missing a single beat. “I would ask my guy friends to do the exact same thing. I don’t like riding Uber alone at night by myself and if I have to do it, I text my friends a screenshot of the driver and car before I get in.”

My conversation partner’s eyebrows edge upward in polite but obvious surprise. I’m surprised myself, to be frank–normally I’m not one to push issues in conversations with strangers, but something about his blase tone and easy dismissal of his friend’s request put me on edge a bit.

He smiles, shrugging. “Do you? I ride Uber all the time at night on my own and nothing’s ever happened to me.”

I mention the string of incidences that have been peppering the news recently, about women who have been assaulted while traveling alone by their Uber (and other lift service) drivers. Again, he looks only mildly surprised.

“Oh? I didn’t hear about those. That’s a shame,” he adds, as if I’ve just told him that my kid cousin missed some free throws in her latest junior league basketball game. But of course, sexual assault news is nothing like a missed free throw or a lost game.

Even in our brief ten minutes together, it’s clear that this stranger’s experiences haven’t prepared him to have this conversation. He has never gotten into the front seat of an Uber and been immediately asked about his relationship status in insinuating, borderline distressing ways that make him dread the next hour-and-a-half of road ahead. He has never felt his knuckles tighten around the tiny plastic bottle of pepper spray in his pocket as he steps out onto the street in the middle of the night after a party, because his friends are either too drunk or too tired to walk him home–or maybe because he’s just too polite to ask them to do so, and they take that as him “being okay” with walking home alone after dark. He has never had to pretend that he’s in a relationship just to avoid the uncomfortable prospect of giving his number to a perfect (but perhaps insistent or overconfident) stranger. In fact, I know that this is true, because ten minutes later he gets up to leave and, as he does so, asks me for my number.

“Here. We should get coffee sometime,” he says, handing me his phone to type in my number like I’ve already consented to pass it out.

And the funny thing is, I put it in. Not because I objectively want to–in fact, our exchange has made me somewhat wary of this guy’s views of what it means to view the world through an egocentric, patriarchal lens–but because I want to avoid the awkward situation of refusing my number to someone with whom I have just been carrying a 30-minute conversation. It’s not a good or even acceptable reason, really (I could write a whole other post about how men and women say–or don’t say–the word “no”). But I do so that he’ll leave, which he does, and I never respond to the text that he sends to my phone 10 minutes later.

Three hours later, I pack up my laptop, making sure to leave my headphones inside my bag since it’s well after dark, and prepare to make the one-mile walk home. My keys and pepper spray are clutched in my right hand.

– two –

I’ve always had trouble articulating to men what it’s like to feel vulnerable doing something about which they wouldn’t think twice, like walking home at night or catching an Uber on my own. While I think it’s important to acknowledge that men face real risks, too–including sexual assault–it’s equally important to recognize the circumstantial dangers and social particularities that women face by virtue of one simple fact: being women.

Many of these thoughts were sparked by a great Buzzfeed article that I read and shared on Facebook yesterday. In it, the author writes about the difficulty explaining to men–in this case, her boyfriend–why she’s so on her guard all the time in new or potentially unpredictable situations:

“Risks to his body are different than risks to mine. My boyfriend worries about work, the state of Kyle Lowry’s elbow, and finding time to ride his bicycle. I worry about men — the ones I know, the ones I don’t.”

And it’s true. Men–and I’m generalizing here, but from my experiences with both men and women–men don’t think about their bodies and safety in the same, often hyper-vigilant way that women do.

Don’t get me wrong: the men in my life are generally sympathetic to women’s uneasiness when it comes to things like walking home alone. In fact, most of my guy friends insist on walking me home when it’s late at night, a fact that I truly appreciate–though many of them also seem self-conscious that this might come off as an overly chivalrous gesture. Usually, they’ll preface the request by saying something along the lines of: “I know you’ll probably be fine on your own, but I’d feel better if you let me walk you.” This level of awareness is also appreciated, because it shows that they recognize the real dangers that I, as a woman, face walking home at night–dangers that, moreover, can be alleviated by their mere presence–without trying to smother me with grand notions of antiquated chivalry.

Lone women are targets, and that’s the sad truth.

Still, it’s difficult to explain exactly how these dangers feel if you’re not a woman experiencing them firsthand, daily, minute-by-minute. Of course, it varies by degree and disposition. I’d personally rank myself high on the scale of hyper-vigilance, but that doesn’t mean I walk around town in broad daylight with a can of mace at the ready for the next man who casts a slightly shifty look my way.

But the important thing to understand here is that it’s not about relative power, or size, or my ability to win in a fight against an attacker if it comes down to it–all of which are points that men in my life have raised as counterarguments to (what they sometimes perceive as) my “paranoia” about unpredictable situations or saying “no” to men. At the end of the day, it isn’t about whether I have the campus police’s number on speed dial or whether it’s “only” a ten-minute walk home in a safe neighborhood. It isn’t about that particular man we passed the other day or that one shady alleyway that we can simply avoid on our route home.

It’s fear. It’s the constant, looming awareness that my status as a woman already puts me at risk the moment that I step out that door after the sun has gone down. It’s scary to think about. If there was a medical condition that, every time you hopped into the pool, made you 11.3 times more likely than other people to experience extreme psychological and physical trauma, wouldn’t you think twice before getting anywhere near a pool, too?

– three –

Yet sexual assault–especially the gendered imbalance surrounding sexual assault victims–isn’t the result of a medical condition. It is a social condition and one that, increasingly, gains visibility through statistics. This past week on our campus, flags were scattered all across the lawns to represent the number of women (1 in 5)–and men–who have been or will be sexually assaulted in some form during their four years at university. Clotheslines filled with colored t-shirts went up all over the central campus quad, each t-shirt representing a different type of sex crime and the victim’s testimony surrounding that experience. Our school newspaper did a spot-on job covering the events of Sexual Awareness Month and advocating real action to prevent future sex crimes.

What it didn’t address quite as fully was how these discussions affect us as women on a daily basis, not one month out of the year. After sharing the Buzzfeed article I mentioned earlier, a (male) friend of mine left the following comment:

“I remember learning this sometime in high school. That because men sometimes hurt women, I could be perceived as a potential threat. And that my intentions (or lack thereof) really mean nothing if I’m walking a few steps behind a lone girl at night. But the reality of the actual danger never really sunk in until the first time I took public transit at night in drag. I was suddenly vulnerable, a target almost. And I realized suddenly that this is how many women feel ALL THE TIME. Now, if I find myself walking behind a woman at night, I cross the street.”

Men’s self-awareness of how their actions might affect women–not at an individual or personal level but within the framework of a much broader and more problematic culture of male violence against women–is critical. As my friend aptly puts it, ultimately, it’s not about men’s intentions (or lack thereof), because some situations will feel risky or threatening to women just by virtue of the players involved.

My friend once told me about a book she read, in which a man offered to help a woman carry her groceries late at night outside of her apartment complex. Not wanting to appear rude, she allowed him to help her to the gate. He insisted that he just help her to the door, which she allowed him to do, despite her uneasiness at this idea–then he said that he would just help her get them onto the counter. After she opened the door to her apartment, he raped her and locked her up, and it was only through a random stroke of luck that she managed to escape at all.

In the subsequent interview that the survivor gave, she recalled all of the red flags that came up throughout her interaction with her attacker, and the increasing alarm with which she allowed him to talk his way up into her apartment. She said that above all, however, her sense of not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful held her back from saying “NO,” even when she clearly perceived that she did not like the direction in which the interaction was headed. I retell this story not as a moral lesson about the dire consequences of women put into situations with bad men, but because women are socially conditioned at so many levels to appear “agreeable” or “amenable,” even under completely incongruous (and dangerous) circumstances. Personally, I have a really difficult time saying “no” to unreasonable situations, many of which are determined by unequal gender dynamics and unsolicited advances. Knowing this, I have had to make a conscious effort recently to simply walk away from uncomfortable encounters, without allowing the worry of “how I might come off” affect my actions. It’s something with which I still struggle on a regular basis. For instance, just a few weeks ago, my friend had to remind me not to use overly friendly punctuation in a text reply to a guy who had asked for my number under the pretense of sharing lessons information with me, but who then opened his first text with “you’re beautiful” and kept pushing to arrange for individual lessons, even after I told him that I was seeing someone. In the end, his intentions may have been completely innocuous and well-intentioned–but it took a firm reminder from a female friend for me to delete that exclamation mark and simply say “no, thank you.”

– four –

And in some ways, that’s the idea to which this whole post has been leading up. All things considered, women behave in certain ways, and in certain situations, because they experience the world differently than men do. Sometimes perceived risk and real danger go hand-in-hand, a fact that becomes all too proximate when you’re hurrying home alone at night and have to wonder whether the man walking behind you is going to turn the corner or–your heart suddenly hammers against your ribcage–catch up to you. Your fingers grip your keys a little bit tighter between your knuckles, and you silently lament the fact that your friend didn’t say before you left: “Text me when you get back safely, okay?”

Of course, most of the time he’ll turn. Most of the time nothing will happen. But most of the time isn’t enough to make you let go of your fears and your pink tube of pepper spray.

There are ways to mitigate those fears and make them more tolerable, though. Talking about them, for one thing, and recognizing that we as women share these daily fears not as a result of our individual nuances, but rather out of socially conditioned necessity. That we aren’t simply paranoid or too cautious or whatever slew of labels that the world chooses to throw at us, but enduring survivors of a much more serious epidemic that continues to dog our footsteps on nights when we wish we had worn tennis shoes rather than high heels. That it’s possible to share–with people of all genders alike–our fears of personal safety without having to experience fear of personal judgment, too. And that, at the end of the day, our ability to discuss these issues for what they are, rather than the labels and the stereotypes that they seem to represent, is only the first step we can take to fight back against these fears.


I realize that this post might evoke some difficult subjects and/or responses. If, however, you’d like to share your thoughts and stories with others and myself below, please do–I look forward to reading each and every one of them.



12 Replies to “Letting go of fear–and that pink tube of pepper spray”

  1. This post reminded me of two incidences:

    A few years ago, one of my friends told me about an overnight bus ride she took and how when she was sleeping, she was woken up because the guy sitting next to her was caressing her arm or leg or something. She was totally shocked and didn’t know what to say or do, so she didn’t say or do anything. I guess the guy eventually stopped. When she told me this, she said that at the time, she was totally embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. I think she might’ve mentioned that she thought she was dreaming or something. And I remember getting really mad when she told me. I wasn’t mad at her, per se, but at the situation that she was in and the socialization of women and how we’re taught to sort of accept these situations. At the very least, we’ve been taught to excuse these sorts of transgressions.

    The second memory that this prompted:

    A few years ago, some friends and I were on the metro in Paris en route to the Eiffel Tower for fireworks to ring in the new year. We got split up within the cars because the trains were jam packed that evening. There was a guy in front of me and to my left. The first time his hand brushed against my thigh, I thought it was by accident, because we were packed in there like sardines. Then it happened again. And again, I dismissed it as an accidental brush of his hand because of our close proximity. But when it happened yet again, and I realized that I was just making excuses for him. Angrily, I made eye contact, said hey! and pushed him. He got off at the next stop.

    So I can see why my friend was shocked into inaction. I hear about a lot of instances where people (women in particular) experience unwanted attention, but I didn’t really ever see it happening to me personally. So naturally, I was surprised and wasn’t sure what to do at first. I’m glad I did something, though.

    I’m interested in what some of your other readers can share on this topic.

    1. Fong, thanks again for sharing this. I read through again and still feel angry when I think about what happened to both of you. The paralyzing surprise/shock that your friend felt is something that I have definitely experienced as well, though maybe not at such an explicit level. And the excuse-making–it’s absolutely ridiculous from an objective point of view, but I find myself doing that ALL the time. It’s people-pleasing to an extreme (and frankly harmful) degree, and I’m glad you ended up reacting, even if your reaction was delayed. I don’t know how I would have reacted. A former male student of mine (I think I’ve told you this story) was being really uncomfortably physical after the school year ended–I ran into him at a cafe and he kept patting me on the thigh when I was wearing shorts. He later commented that I was “so bubbly and happy”–and I realized that my defense mechanism was to put on a bigger smiling face and pretend nothing at all was wrong. It’s definitely something I need to be more firm about, and something on which I’m still working now.

      1. Yep I remember you telling me about that. It still gets me riled up. I’m glad that you’re aware of this and actively working on it. I still have to finish The Gift of Fear, and when I do, I think I’ll mail it to you. I promise it won’t be like when I told you I’d mail you that book from Seattle 😛

  2. Really thoughtful post. Thanks.

    1. Of course–thanks for reading, John.

  3. Ala, such a well written, thought provoking post. I’m so glad you have a supply of pepper spray, but worry about you walking alone at night! That said, I did it ALL the time in college—somehow I was too naive to feel vulnerable even though I cut through “Pervert Park.” Thanks for sharing the female perspective.

    1. I know–it’s a little bit scary to consider, isn’t it? I used to be a lot more conscientious about this when I was at Cal, where nighttime wandering really did feel dangerous. Yet I know that there are incidents in our area too–so I’m trying to be better about traveling alone nowadays. Often it’ll be on my way back late at night, mostly because it’s a ten-minute walk–but even then, I’m much more alert than I used to be. Thanks for sharing your perspective as well, Liz!

  4. Aleitha, this is such a difficult topic to talk about, and you did it with so much grace and clarity. I have often tried to explain this feeling to my husband. I know he does his best to understand, but it is impossible to convey the way concern for safety permeates our daily decisions. We live in a neighborhood with a lot of cat calling, and it’s wearying. There certainly needs to be a culture shift, but how or where that begins, I’m not sure. I don’t know what the answer is, but talking about it in this way–with openness and honesty is certainly a start. I always appreciate your heart. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Courtney! Feeling vulnerable on my own is already a daily drag–I can’t really imagine what it’s like to have to worry about the safety of my family and the environment in which my children are raised, too. Is the cat-calling a pervasive/daily thing? (Ugh.) That sounds terrible, and I’m really sorry that it happens. I don’t really understand what some men think they accomplish by cultivating a culture of objectification and discomfort (if not outright danger) for women, but thanks again for reading and sharing.

  5. I remembered, as I read your post, how naive I used to be a few years ago. I am afraid that like death, sexual assault too is often seen as something “that won’t happen to me right now”. I certainly used to think of it that way. Many times I have thrown caution to the winds and put myself in situations that would definitely be considered dangerous – simple things like getting something to eat late at night after losing track of time in front of the computer or stepping outside a club alone for a few minutes to receive cell phone service. I used to argue with my father about stepping out at night, not realising the true extent of his worry. He would say things like “you’re a girl, don’t go out alone after a certain time at night” and I would rant against it, completely missing the point, saying things like “boys should be raised differently, girls shouldn’t be restricted”. But then he explained to me that change takes time, and while there are many amazing men who respect women and make them feel safe, the world right now still has people who unfortunately aren’t that amazing. While it is still in it’s current state, all my father can do to keep me safe is caution me against the dangers. Thanks for writing this, it was a good way to keep us alert!

    1. I really loved reading that last bit of wisdom: that while there ARE many amazing men out there who respect women, the world is also filled with folks who are not as amazing, and that expressing concern about women’s safety from that perspective isn’t a way of judging women–it’s a harsh reality. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Moupi–I really appreciate them and would love to chat further about it sometime soon!

  6. Over the last 5 years I’ve lost a LOT of weight. When I was obese, I felt that my fat protected me from sexual assault. I have been lucky enough to not experience any sort of physical assault, but there have been times where men have made me nervous. I used to work at a grocery store for a closing shift and I’d be out in the parking lot pushing carts, and a regular customer came over to me and asked me if they’d let me wear skirts to work because he knew I had great legs. If said inside the brightly lit store surrounded by other people I would have thought nothing of it, but at 11:30 at night in a poorly lit parking lot it was scary.

    Since I’ve lost weight and gotten fit I worry more. I don’t even like taking my dog out after dark, although having the dog generally keeps people away from me. (He’s a scaredy dog Boston Terrier but he’ll bark at people which helps.) It makes me sad that now that I’m at a healthy weight I have to worry more. I can’t go for a run too early in the morning. I get in my car and immediately lock the car doors no matter where I am.

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