things i brushed off

i hate to go on and on about something that happened years ago, but you know, sometimes  it still hurts and i can’t help that.

when i watched beyonce’s visual album, i couldn’t help but be triggered. i couldn’t help but think about my experiences with infidelity, which were part of my experiences with domestic abuse.

and when i think about my experience with abuse, i can’t help but also think about my work, about street harassment and how it’s connected to other forms of gender-based violence, how people tell us to brush it off.

the first time my ex raised his voice to me, i brushed it off. i thought it wasn’t that serious. i thought we all get drunk and mad sometimes, and it wasn’t like he hit me.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he spat on me and told me i was worthless, i brushed it off. i thought it wasn’t that bad, and anyway he was drunk, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been drunk. at least he didn’t hit me.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he hit me in the face, i brushed it off. i mean, he was really just trying to take my phone away, and his hand accidentally hit my face; it was an accident, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been drunk. he didn’t hit me on purpose.

my boundary was pushed further.

when he choked me and threw me into a table, i brushed it off. i mean, i never should have laughed that way when i walked in on him masturbating. it wasn’t very nice of me, and so i sort of provoked him, and in a way it was my fault.

my boundary was pushed further.

a few weeks later, i walked away. i had to stop brushing things off. i had to ask myself: how much more can i tolerate before i firmly draw the line? how much further could i let him push me past my boundaries, and why couldn’t i say that even a little bit of aggression that makes me feel unsafe and uncomfortable is enough to make it wrong?

Your feminism must include women & girls who are homeless.

I debated over sharing this story.

It’s a story I don’t share often, a story that I have at some points been ashamed to share, ashamed because it’s taken me years to fully understand and therefore explain the choices I made, afraid because it’s not something that I hear talked about in feminist circles as much as I need it to be and I worry that my experiences aren’t shared among people who are passionate about ending sexual violence. But now, as Interim Executive Director of a small nonprofit that’s working to shift its focus toward the most vulnerable communities, I feel more empowered to start this conversation, and because I don’t think enough people with my shared experiences are in positions where their voices may be heard, I feel like it’s important for me to speak up about sexual violence against people who are homeless. So here I go, baring my soul to you.

I was homeless for about two years – from the time I was 15 until I was 17. I didn’t sleep on the street or on public transit every night; sometimes a friend could take me in – for a night, for a weekend, for a week, for a month. When I did sleep on a park bench or on a subway train, or when I sought refuge from the rain or snow in a Chinese food restaurant that was open late, sometimes someone would approach me with the offer of a warm place to sleep. And sometimes I would accept.

On the nights that I was approached, I had a choice to make: Do I want to be cold and at risk of sexual assault, or do I want to be warm and at risk of sexual assault? I had to ask myself: Do I want to trust that this person wants to help me, or do I want to trust that there’s no one out here who wants to harm me? I had to assess the risks: If he wants to help me, and he takes me home with him right now, I’ll be safe, warm, possibly even fed. If he wants to harm me, and he takes me home with him right now, he will be in complete control of what happens next. If he assaults me, I have options: I can leave and sleep out in the cold where I am still at risk of physical and sexual violence, where I’m likely to be robbed of the little I have; or I can sleep next to my attacker and I can stay quiet when he says he’s sorry if that wasn’t what I wanted, and I can just say thank you when he gives me some money in the morning to buy food.

In my experience, if you are homeless and you are sexually assaulted, your attacker knows that there will be no consequences. You won’t report it, and if you did, no one will listen and no one will care; you have already been discarded. If you speak up, you may be accused of doing it for the money; you know this because it’s happened to you before. You will not be protected. You will know the risk going into the situation, and you may take it anyway because you know for certain that you’re not safe in public spaces and so you can afford to gamble with the chance of being safer, or less safe, in the home of a stranger. This is your thought process.

I didn’t turn to service providers for counseling to deal with the trauma of sexual assault; I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t see rape as the problem; I saw lack of housing as the problem, and rape was packaged with the solution. I wasn’t sure if I should feel grateful or violated. And now that I’m an adult and an advocate against sexual violence, I struggle to reconcile these identities as someone who works to end rape culture and someone who may have died on the street without it.

When you don’t have housing, you don’t have time to cope with the emotional trauma of sexual assault. When you don’t have housing, coping with emotional trauma seems like a privilege. When you don’t have housing, you need to focus on getting your basic needs met so that you can prevent yourself from being re-victimized, again and again and again. When you don’t have housing, you’re constantly exposed to physical and sexual violence – so much so that it becomes a fact of your life. When you don’t have housing or you’re on the verge of homelessness, sometimes sexual violence is packaged with the solution – whether it’s a place to stay for a night or long overdue repairs to your public housing unit.

Here are some numbers to think about:

Your feminism must include these women. Your feminism must work to create safe public spaces for them. Your feminism must work to make them safe from sexual violence. Your feminism cannot claim to be intersectional and inclusive if your feminism does not include all women – young and old, cis and trans, black and brown, housed and unhoused.

vigil for people who died while homeless in dc

Intervening vs. ending violence

It’s fascinating to me to think about all the ways that my life in DC has helped me challenge, analyze, and overcome views that had been so deeply ingrained in me — views that were so important to me, views that were so impenetrable by empathy and humanity and, ironically, impenetrable by reason.

I was not a feminist. I was in denial of racism. I was not empathetic. I blamed poverty on people who were poor. And it took me years of unraveling insecurities about my own identity, about my own victimhood, to be able to see the systems in place that keep some people poor and keep others in power. It took total immersion in an ultra-progressive environment, where I befriended and interviewed and chronicled the stories of people who experienced hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness, disability, illiteracy, domestic violence. I had to reconcile my beliefs about personal responsibility with the lived experiences of the people that I’d come to know — and with my own lived experience. I am so different now than I was three years ago. I’m so much stronger now.

Today, I read a few articles challenging the concept of bystander intervention. It’s an idea that I’ve really come to believe in as part of my work to end street harassment. A few months ago, a friend asked me what he was supposed to do if he witnessed someone being harassed on the street, and I shared what I’d learned about bystander intervention. To me, it doesn’t mean confronting the perp; it means saying something to the person experiencing harassment to show them that you support them, that they’re not alone. Something as simple as “You ok, sis?” He raised the point that bystander intervention could be viewed as harassment in itself, or it could even be taken as an insult, e.g. he feared that he’d come off as a chauvinist treating the victim as a damsel in distress. It was an interesting point that I hadn’t previously considered, but I reiterated that it’s important to just show support for the victim without necessarily coming to the rescue by confronting the harasser. Just asking “Are you okay?” can signal to the victim that s/he will be OK while indirectly telling the harasser that the behavior is unacceptable, inappropriate, and even threatening — which I think most harassers don’t even realize.

While reading a few articles tonight doesn’t completely change my views, it does shed light on some of the holes in the concept of bystander intervention. For example, the idea of intervention holds victims and witnesses responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault rather than holding the perpetrator accountable.

“bystander intervention appears less as a weapon in the fight against sexual assault and more like an evolved form of victim blaming.”The Failure of Bystander Intervention

On one hand, I completely understand this point – we don’t need to stop rape victims from being raped; we need to stop rapists from raping. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t we do what’s within our power to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening right now as we work toward a long-term solution to end violence?

“One-size-fits-all intervention models can often escalate the levels of violence far beyond what the initial assault may have entailed.” – TFBI

We know this is true. We saw it in San Francisco, Albayrak’s death in Gemany. But we’ve also seen examples of bystander intervention that directly stopped sexual harassment and assault. Should witnesses feel the need to put their lives at risk by intervening? No, I don’t think so. Ideally, asking a victim if s/he’s OK would not exacerbate the situation, but truly ideally, the situation wouldn’t exist in the first place. So anti-sexual violence activists argue that we need to focus efforts on eliminating rape culture and our culture of violence. The problem with that solution, of course, is that it’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of sexual violence is going to happen in the meantime. Bystander intervention gives you an immediate solution that arguably contributes toward the long-term goal of ending sexual violence.

“A community immersed in bystander intervention not only makes it much more difficult for perpetrators to attack; it also sends a clear message to rapists that what they are doing is not OK, which moves us towards broader cultural change.” – The Guardian

I don’t think I’m going to have an answer tonight, but it’s an interesting question that I want to keep considering.

In other news, I’m getting ready for Max’s first birthday party at the end of this month. His first word was “Up,” so naturally, I’m planning to throw an “Up”-themed birthday party — meaning SO MANY BALLOONS. I already bought a helium balloon tank and some props for our costumes. Max is going to be the Boy Scout from the movie, and I’m working on learning to sew merit badges for each of his milestones, e.g. crawling, first word, clapping, and eating solid foods. The hardest part, though, has been finalizing the guest list. A lot of our good friends are coming to the party — at least 15 people, all of whom have really been involved in Max’s life in so many ways.

And then there’s the question of who shouldn’t be invited.

You’ve done a good job this year, but maybe you’ve already pushed me so far too many times that it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s just too little too late.

Babycarrying & outings.

Today, I had my first “my kid is dead” scare.

I’m not really supposed to leave my house, except for doctor’s appointments, but it was a beautiful day, and I really wanted a chicken caesar wrap (I like chicken caesar wraps again! no more Five Guys!), so I took a much-needed walk to Au Bon Pain, and I thought this was the perfect time to try out my brand new baby carrier.

Image

Max was totally awake when we were inside my apartment. And then I couldn’t have gotten more than 30 feet away from my front door before I checked on him and noticed that his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. I couldn’t hear any breathing either. I poked him a couple of times. No response.

At this point, I’m freaking out — convinced that, clearly, this baby carrier has murdered my three-week-old. I was horrified.

I go back inside and lay him on my bed and start prodding him again when he snores and turns his head away.

Clearly annoyed.

Ugh.

You can just say, “I’m going to sleep, mom.” kthx.

The outside world is so dangerous.

Also, I think I got the weirdest pick-up line while I was on my walk. I mean, there’s always the chance that I misheard him (especially since he was speaking to me from a moving vehicle), but I’m pretty sure he said, “You look really beautiful with that baby.”

Huh?

HUH?

I think this means I’m a MILF.

Last thing: I’m almost finished with this book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. If you ever decide to have a baby, please don’t ever read this book. It’s more than 200 pages, and it can be summarized in 4 minutes. The 5 S’s and also the “missing fourth trimester.” That’s everything that’s in there. Save your eight bucks. You’re welcome.

People feel the need to acknowledge pregnancy.

“Have a good day, ma’am, and take care of that baby!”
Oh? I wasn’t planning on it, but now that you mention it I suppose it’s not a bad idea. Maybe I’ll even feed him.

“That baby ain’t due yet?”
Yes, actually I’m giving birth right now.

“That baby’s gonna come out runnin’…”
This one was actually sort of funny. I haven’t been slowed down very much by the extra 20 pounds, so I still walk as though I’m running away from a mugger, but I have found myself actually tipping over from the weight (it’s hard when you’re little and all of the weight is concentrated in a single place).

I’m not sure how I feel about this, um, pick-up line?

“Excuse me, miss, are you expecting?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Good. We need you to do that.”

I don’t even know for sure what that means, but it makes me worry a little for my unborn child.

I’ve been hypersensitive to sexual harassment lately, just because COME ON, really?! The first few months, I was like fine, how’s he supposed to know that I’m pregnant? It’s just a guy being a guy, no big deal.

But there’s no question anymore. Pregnancy doesn’t exempt you from sexual harassment. It’s just a fact of life for women. And over the last few months, I’ve been starting to think: why do we just accept it?

As I kept walking down the street, someone else started hassling me and then when I ignored him, he asked “You already taken?” And when someone else down the road asked me for my number and I said no, he said, “Why? You married?”

Why? Because if I won’t belong to you, then I must belong to someone else?

I don’t consider myself a feminist. I’m not. I just have basic expectations for, well, dignity and respect.

In other news, I had my first real baby dream last night. I dreamt that I gave birth, and the next day I decided I wanted to go on a dangerous bike ride through some weird tunnel (which is unusual in itself because I won’t even ride a bike down the street in DC). I handed the baby to my friend, Luis, and I set off on this bike. I got halfway through the tunnel before I hit a creepy ramp and decided this wasn’t the best idea after all. I decided to turn the bike around and head back to meet Luis. When I found him, he was with some friends at a restaurant — no baby in sight. I freaked out and asked him where he left the baby, and he looked around and said he just had her; he didn’t know how long he’d been missing. I looked all around the restaurant and finally found the baby in the men’s room of the restaurant, sitting on a diaper changer and crying.

In the dream, my day-old baby could talk so she started telling me she wanted to go home. I told him we’d go home, and I started on my way, but I had to stop a couple of times on the way, and the baby kept crying, “Nooo, you said we would go home!”

At the very end of the dream, I analyzed her face and tried to figure out which characteristics came from me and which came from his father.

Then I woke up.

It was an odd one, but at least I finally met my baby in a dream! Sorry about all the pronoun confusion; this will all be less confusing after the reveal 🙂

The time that speed-walking might’ve saved my life.

I was speed-walking home through the back alley today. I can’t even call it speed-walking because it’s literally just how I walk.

As a native New Yorker, I learned to do everything fast. I walk fast, talk fast, eat fast. I’m always in a rush, and it never makes sense. Except this one time — or hey, maybe there have been other times that it’s helped me, and I just never knew.

I was walking through the back alley today, and a neighbor stopped me. She introduced herself and then said: “Do you know that you almost got robbed the other day?”

I hadn’t been sure, but I had a feeling that I was being followed a few days ago. It was early in the afternoon, and I might’ve had my earphones in, she said. Two men followed me through the alley. She told me I was walking so fast, and she and her husband always see me and they laugh about how fast I walk, but I was walking so fast that these two men actually started jogging to keep up with me.

I wasn’t sure if they were going to rob you or rape you, but they were definitely coming after you.

I remembered seeing two men behind me and walking a little more quickly than usual. I tried to ignore them; I tried not to be paranoid. But I remember feeling a little scared and trying to brush it off.

When I got to my door, I looked back. They had been just behind me, but they never passed. I went inside, a little shaken, but I didn’t think about it again.

My neighbor told me that her husband called the police and another neighbor on the other side had also come out and saw the two men. The men saw my neighbors out there, and instead of continuing after me, they simply turned around and walked back.

I’m so lucky that my neighbors were out that day. Also, I’m so lucky I walk so fast.

I guess that’s the DC life. Not exactly the kind of place you want to stay forever and raise a family. This is exactly why I’m applying for jobs in Honolulu.

Addendum to this post: Honolulu happens to be the #1 place to raise a family. Decision made.