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Accepting The Fact That Women Are Prey Can Empower Us

A few weeks ago I talked with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of The Nation about my experience as the victim of an attempted date rape in 1986. (I also wrote about the experience in a post titled: It Happened To Me: A Letter To My Daughters About Date Rape.)

In discussing my experience with the young, female producer at NPR prior to the interview, something jumped out of my mouth that startled both of us. I said, “We have to accept the fact that women are prey.”

The producer seemed to recoil from the notion and even I instantly wondered if — as a feminist — languaging women’s status in this way was somehow belittling women? If this nomenclature might undermine the proposition that men and women are equals?

During our discussion Neal Conan referenced the 15-year old girl raped in Nova Scotia who ultimately committed suicide due to the fallout of having the photos of her alleged rape posted online and a similar incident that occurred in Steubenville, Ohio. Both girls were attacked when they were incapacitated by alcohol and incapable of defending themselves.

As a mother of two daughters this news is devastating to me and I instantly wondered if it’s possible for me to protect my children from a similar fate.

So I sat with that notion of women as prey. And once I got over the repugnance of correlating women with animals that are low on the food chain, I realized that taking ownership of this idea could be empowering. Perhaps if we know we’re prey we’ll stand differently in the world. We’ll make a plan and have our own backs, rather than relying on the kindness of strangers.

(To be clear. Sometimes rape simply can’t be avoided regardless of all precautions taken and I am in NO WAY suggesting that rape is a woman’s fault. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should never blame the victim, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss what women and young girls can do to stay safe.)

A few months after I was the victim of an attempted date rape, I was walking to my car alone from a club on Sunset Boulevard on a Saturday night. It was late — 1 or 2 in the morning — and I was heading down a dark side street when I noticed a black man wearing a hoodie standing quietly in a driveway I had to pass with his hands shoved in his pockets.

Prior to my attack I would’ve passed right by him, because I would’ve worried he’d think I was racist if I didn’t trust him. But, post-attack my desire to be politically correct was trumped by caution. I stopped dead in the middle of the street a safe distance away and just stood there openly staring at him.

After a moment he said, in an erudite, British accent, “Sorry, luv, I’m just waiting for a ride. Hope I didn’t give you a scare.” His willingness to acknowledge my need for safety put me at ease. And perhaps I’m a bit of an Anglophile who thinks anyone with a British accent is above reproach. Either way, I felt safe enough to continue walking to my car.

Here are other habits I’ve acquired having accepted the fact that I’m prey:

1. When walking at night on secluded streets I stay off the sidewalks and walk down the middle of the road with keys protruding from the fist of my right hand, ready to fight or flee.

My statuesque German friend Bettina does this too, but adds a colorful bit of dialogue for potential predators in her heavy Bavarian accent, “You try to grab me and I punch you in the face and then I kick you in the balls!” (I would NOT mess with Bettina).

2. I also make a lot of noise when I walk home in the dark. I sing loudly and badly because I don’t think predators want noisy prey. I know I must look and sound ridiculous, but I just don’t care.

3. I’m married now so I don’t have to be out there in the dating world. But if I do find myself in circumstances due to business or travel where I might be socializing with a man or men I don’t know well, I stay sharp. I avoid alcohol or anything that could render me vulnerable.  This is particularly important for young girls and women who haven’t learned yet to drink responsibly and can often drink too much or be given drinks spiked with the date rape drug.

4. I don’t enter remote locations with a man or men I don’t know. For college girls this remote location could simply be upstairs at the Sigma Chi house on-campus. Men in a group, particularly young men, are capable of behavior they would never engage in if they were alone. They can often incite one another to the extremes of date rape as a way of showing off.

5. When I have Mom’s Night Out I make plans with my fellow moms to keep each other safe. For me this means having a designated driver, or walking home together. In college or while dating in groups this could mean having plans not to leave each other alone in vulnerable circumstances. To watch each other’s backs.

My attempted date rape occurred on a deserted beach at night because my girlfriends left me alone there with a boy we’d just met. They didn’t know me well enough to know I didn’t want to be left alone there. Had we made a game plan prior to going out I wouldn’t have ended up struggling for my life on that beach.

6. I don’t step into an elevator, or a stairwell alone with a man I don’t know. I was taking summer classes at UCLA the year prior to my attempted date rape. I noticed a male student who seemed to keep popping up outside my different classrooms and the cafeteria where I ate lunch. As I walked to the parking structure at noon, I noticed the same student behind me.

My animal instinct TOLD ME this young man was stalking me, but my social contract not to be unkind, not to be aggressive or confrontational won the day. As I entered a stairwell to get to my car three stories up, the young man was right behind me. I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe he would dare attack me in broad daylight on a busy campus. I was thinking this right up until the moment he shoved his hand under my skirt.

My reaction was to spin around and punch him in the face, knocking him down one flight of steps, dropping my purse and running down the stairs at him screaming, “I’m going to kill you!” I was emboldened by the fact there were other people nearby and I was taller than my assailant. Had the campus been deserted and the student twice my size I guarantee I would’ve had a less successful outcome.

Here is a comprehensive list of 25 Things to Do to Avoid Rape from WikiHow that really are a map for keeping women and girls safe.

I feel fortunate I escaped my attack with only a few bruises and bite marks. It was a cheap price to pay for an invaluable lesson. But I don’t want any other women to garner their streets smarts by being attacked.

We need to make it clear to our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends that we are prey and must behave as such; aware, alert and prepared to take measures to have our own backs.



15 comments

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  1. Megan
    Megan 23 May, 2013, 10:52

    I’ve been followed home on more than one occasion, but I have been fortunate. When I was younger I was very tiny, which made me look weak, but somehow I managed to avoid trouble because I was very aware of how vulnerable I was. I started walking with my keys between my fingers many years ago.

    I agree with you – we should never blame the victim, but we need to empower our girls to make it much harder to be victimized.

    Also, educating our boys is just as important. Maybe moreso.

    Reply this comment
    • Barbara Shallue
      Barbara Shallue 24 May, 2013, 11:54

      Megan, you’re right about educating the boys. I made sure to teach my boys that ‘no means no’ but what about the men my daughter will encounter in her life? I hope their parents taught them the same lesson.

      Reply this comment
  2. Lori
    Lori 23 May, 2013, 11:55

    Shannon – I completely agree with you. It’s tough to avoid the blame-the-victim approach, though it appears to me that you’ve come up with something that makes a whole lot of sense.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 24 May, 2013, 09:55

      Thanks Lori. It’s unfortunate we live in a world where we have to be vigilant.

      Reply this comment
  3. Ginger Kay
    Ginger Kay 23 May, 2013, 11:57

    Well said. Knowing we are vulnerable and taking precautions is not the same as blaming the victims.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 24 May, 2013, 09:58

      Good. I didn’t want to come across as critical toward victims. I was so mad at myself after my attack. I felt like I’d been foolish. It took time to forgive myself and I suspect it takes no time for perpetrators to move on.

      Reply this comment
  4. Cathy
    Cathy 23 May, 2013, 12:46

    Thanks for writing this Shannon. Important information. We ARE all vulnerable. I always think that as well. I never go shopping at night unless I have to. Always have my keys read, and walk at the same time as other. When I worked in Manhattan I followed many safety strategies. What a world, eh? I’m sorry for what you had to endure and suffer. You have courage to talk about it; I’m proud of you for doing so.

    Reply this comment
  5. Cathy
    Cathy 23 May, 2013, 12:47

    Sorry I didn’t proofread the above before I sent it~

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 24 May, 2013, 09:58

      My work is FULL OF TYPOS. My kingdom for an editor. Thanks for reading, Cathy and commenting!

      Reply this comment
  6. Carpool Goddess
    Carpool Goddess 23 May, 2013, 15:56

    This gave me the chills. Good advice, Shannon. Important to always stay sharp and have a buddy system.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 24 May, 2013, 10:00

      Hello beauty — a buddy system is key. Do you remember the story of the female Lara Logan, the journalist who was raped in Egypt by hundreds of men. It was a group of Egyptian women who saved her, surrounding her and covering her so the men couldn’t get to her. We women have got to stick together!

      Reply this comment
  7. Ellen Dolgen
    Ellen Dolgen 24 May, 2013, 11:28

    so sorry you had to go thru that -thank god it wasn’t worse and you are ok. but definitely smart to take precautions as a woman. It’s unfortunate we even have to be on our toes about this…

    Reply this comment
  8. Barbara Shallue
    Barbara Shallue 24 May, 2013, 11:49

    Thanks for writing this. I’m sending it to my 21-year-old daughter as soon as I finish my comment – and will tweet and share on FB, too, because it is definitely something that needs to be said. We all too often are afraid of offending anyone – which isn’t bad, but we have to watch our backs, as you said. I wrote about a similar experience, although it wasn’t a date, just a stranger in a parking lot, for the Scintilla Project a few weeks ago. http://barbarashallue.typepad.com/musing_in_long_hollow/scintilla-project/

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