How we learn to smile and wave
Moving to a big city is exhilarating. So many possibilities, so much to see, to do, so much freedom and opportunity.
Growing up in a rural part of Bavaria, in a very small town near the Austrian border, moving to a bigger city for the first time — first during my stay in the United States, where I spent lots of time in Memphis (TN), Philadelphia (PA), and New York City, then coming back to Germany to start university in Munich — is mind blowing. Suddenly cultural perks like going to the opera, the theatre, to (classical) concerts and similar events is not a big deal anymore. You’re already so close to the venues, buying a ticket and riding your bicycle through the bustling city to enjoy said perks becomes a must.
When I first moved to Munich, I had just returned from being an Au Pair in the aforementioned cities in the US. Sure, I had been warned about how it’s dangerous to walk alone at night when I made my first trip to Memphis. I witnessed two shootings in front of jazz clubs close to Beale Street in Memphis, I passed East Harlem during one of my “adventure-walks” in New York City, but nothing ever happened to me — and why would it? I grew up in a town where everybody knows everybody, I had never experienced anything else but safety.
Even then, face down on the ground until the police had broken up the fight and shackled the man who had fired the gun, it didn’t occur to me that big cities are a dangerous place. I placed it in the memory box labelled “So, this happened to me — weird” and never felt any reverberation from it again.
Having just moved to Munich, however, after only living in this beautifully charming city for three or four weeks, I got attacked on my way home from visiting a friend. Walking down the road, passing a casino in one of the backstreets close to the main road, where the bus stop was already waiting for me, I heard footsteps behind me. Turning around I could sense that the man walking behind me was drunk and looking at me weird. I phoned my flatmate, as you do, just to make sure someone knew where I was. Even then, with this man’s breath almost in my neck, I didn’t really feel scared, just weirded out. I ended the phone call, because I could already see the light of the bus stop, and put my phone back into my pocket. Too overwhelmed to comprehend what was actually happening, I was in a state of shock when I was grabbed from behind, something sharp (as it turned out later, it must have been the man’s fingernails that had left some ugly, bloody marks on my chest), yanking me backwards — the only thing in my head was “Kick him in the balls as hard as you can, and then run”.
I did turn around and just kicked wherever I could reach, pushed the man away from me, and ran.
Only sitting on the bus did I realise I was shaking, what had just happened and how much of a close call this had been.
One of the first thoughts that went through my head was: “Stupid, why did you have to take the shortcut when you knew it was already dark out?”
Almost too scared to tell anyone, I asked my best friend to accompany me to the police station the day after. When I, almost inaudibly, told the young police officer at the counter what had happened, he lookad at me exasperated and asked me if I could identify the man. Telling him no, it’d been too quick to really look at the man’s face, he went on to tell me: “Listen, if you want to file a report, you can do that. But in the end, nothing really happened and we won’t be able to catch whoever did this.”
Nothing really happened.
His “nothing really happened” turned into wide eyes and a mumbled: “Let me get my superior officer real quick” when I opened my blouse and showed him the nasty marks on the left side of my chest.
However, with a bit more sympathy, his superior told me that, even though I could file a report, this was one of the cases that don’t tend to get solved. He assured me to send patrols to the casino more frequently — and I left.
I left with my ugly wounds, left with a little less of my pride — and with a mountain of fear sitting on me.
After the incident I didn’t leave the house when it was still dark and didn’t stay out later than dusk, for months, always asking someone to accompany me back home. I only told my flatmate, my best friend and after months I told my family.
Nothing really happened. And it’s true. It could’ve been much worse than this. But then again: it could’ve not happened at all.
Ever since this first incident my senses have been hyperaware of everything around me when I walk around at night. I make myself as small as I possibly can, scare at the slightest weird sound around me and at the same time try to put my confident-face on. On the outside I look stern, almost angry, as to tell everyone around me, they better not mess with me. Inside I am so small I almost vanish.
Talking to other women who have had similar things happen to them, one thing became abundantly clear: each and every last one of us tried to find an explanation for what happened — and the explanation always centred around something we did wrong.
“I guess I could’ve worn a longer skirt.”
“I should’ve known better than to walk home from that party ten minutes from my home, at 1 A.M.”
“Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Here’s a newsflash for you and me:
Being attacked is not some god-given consequence of anything we do or don’t do.
The other day I read an article by Gretchen Kelly about what the reality for women actually is, and why it is important to listen when someone decides to open up about it. She writes:
“We learn at an early age that to confront these situations could put us in danger. So we minimize and we de-escalate.”
“Mastering the art of de-escalation” really hits home for me, when I think about how I walk with my keys between my fingers, ready to be used as a weapon when I walk alone at night. How I always have a friend’s contact open, ready to dial their number, just in case.
How I don’t want to ask if there’s a possiblity that maybe just today — but what I really mean is “please, always” — my friends escort me home.
People have told me before: “Just try to avoid certain areas that you know could be dangerous/avoid being dismissive of comments directed towards you, stay polite — don’t anger anyone/dress differently to avoid sexually dangerous situations” — and of course that’s only reasonable. They’re right, I know which places to not even walk past when I’m alone, be it night or day. I wouldn’t walk around being rude to people. However, what else this statement installs in me is:
“If you behave a certain way, you will not be attacked”, when the statement should entail “It shouldn’t matter what you do, nobody has the right to attack you.”
Most of the time it doesn’t matter what you do/say.
Just a couple of months ago I was waiting at the well lit underground station in Munich, when I already saw two young men walking towards me. I immediately tensed up (which is something that I cannot control anymore).
After asking me to take a drink with them, which I declined politely, and a second attempt to convince me to come with them, which I declined politely, yet more firmly, one of them walked up to me and past me, so close, his arm was brushing against my chest.
I took a step back and turned the other way, but he turned around and did it again. So, despite being scared as hell, I told him to leave me alone. Apparently this simple request enraged him. How could any woman, just standing at an underground station, have the audacity to tell him not to breach her personal space if he wanted to do so?
He pushed me so hard, I fell backwards and hit my head on the concrete floor. Someone who had been downstairs at the tracks came running up the stairs as the two men ran away.
Nothing really happened. That’s what I told myself. And yet this deep fear installed in me booted up and lit up my brain, running the safety protocol, i.e. not going out late at night alone.
My friend, when I told him two days later, asked me why I hadn’t just gone downstairs to the tracks straight away instead of staying overground? Even though that qustion was not meant to blame me in the slightest, it somehow did. In my mind I immediately went: “Shit, he’s right. Stupid.”
I cannot blame myself — but I also cannot blame my friend for reacting the way he did.
“They have heard of things that happened. They’ve probably, at times, seen it and stepped in to stop it. But they likely have no idea how often it happens. That it colors so much of what we say or do.”
The harsh reality is that 13% of women in Germany have experienced “relevant forms of sexual violence”, like (physical) assault, rape or attempted rape after turning 16. ¹
That means that 1 in 7 women has experienced some sort of sexual assault.
If I read that sentence again I can’t help but wonder what “irrelevant forms” of sexual violence entail. Being catcalled? Being verbally assaulted? Being eyed like prey?
The harrowing effects all of the above have on someone, are what becomes the reality for many women, what makes them afraid of walking home at night, denying a compliment or smiling at a stranger who tells them they have “nice tits”.
I am aware that, sure, it would be easy to just turn around and tell the pervert to shut his mouth or leave you alone, but if you have to decide whether to invite a potentially dangerous situation or simply swallow the comment silently, with a polite smile on your lips — the decision is usually a quick and easy one. Because if you stick up to the “complimenter” and something happens, it’s your fault for provoking him.
It’s a vicious circle I myself haven’t yet figured out how to escape. Some people may say that I am overdramatising an issue that “rarely occurs”, but if I had a Cent for every time I have been catcalled or have witnessed someone being catcalled, I could easily pay a month’s rent — and then some.
Whether a situation is harmless or not, is usually not for women to decide. Which is why avoidance is our key strategy. Even if it takes ignoring nasty comments or slimy come-ons.
Years ago I read something that rings true today:
“When a woman yells, we just wonder what’s wrong with her. When a man yells, we wonder what he might do to us.”
All of the above only covers a small portion of what women have to deal with on a daily basis. It robs you of some of your freedom, inhibits you in social situations and dictates the way you behave when you’re alone. I thank God that I am relatively sheltered, and surrounded by people I can trust to listen to me when I voice my concerns. I advise you, whoever you are, to start listening when women are speaking up about “casual sexism”, let’s call it. It’s not something women should have to deal with — but it’s our reality. Hopefully one that changes over time.
Exclaimer: I realise that assault is not an issue exclusively relevant to women and that plenty of men experience similar things, too. However, I am a woman and have centred this article /report around what I know to be my reality and the reality of friends and other women I have spoken to.