How to not get raped. This was the first lesson I sat through upon returning to campus in September. It started before I even stepped foot in Harvard Square, during the trip from the airport to Cambridge. I’d spent most of the cab ride discussing the United States’ coldhearted capitalism with the driver. Which was a conversation I was fine with. And then, as soon as we crossed the Charles, the conversation took a disconcerting turn, morphing into a monologue on sexual assault. The cause of sexual assault, according to this taxi driver, is men’s seemingly uncontrollable urge to get into any and every young college girl’s pants. His assumption throughout the entire interaction that rape is solely a heterosexual phenomenon with exclusively female victims and exclusively male perpetrators was just one of many upsetting implications.
At some point it stopped being a conversation. All of a sudden, I was being lectured. This man recited to me a nice long list of all the little things I am expected to do to ensure an assailant rapes someone else: don’t walk alone, always watch your glass, don’t accept drinks from strangers—though really I shouldn’t even be drinking in the first place. And what could I do but politely nod from the backseat? His words appeared to be coming from a place of care and concern, and he seemed to be genuinely trying to help me. He just wanted to look out for me, after all. Offer some helpful advice.
Unfortunately, delivering these little tips was about the least helpful—and least welcome—thing he could have done. Warning me of the perils of putting a drink down at a party is not a kindly stranger looking out for me. It’s a kindly stranger telling me to look out for myself. His parting words, as I exited the taxi, only further confirmed that I am the one wholly responsible for preventing rape: he took my hand, looked me hard in the eyes, and warned, “I’ve driven a cab for many years, and I’ve seen everything you can imagine. A lot of bad stuff. Watch out for yourself.”
This final admonition unsettled me. His intention, perhaps, was to demonstrate one last time that he was one of the good guys, on my side, with my safety at heart. In reality, he implied the opposite: though he assured me that he had seen “a lot of bad stuff” he never mentioned doing anything to stop it. Instead of leaving me feeling as though I had an ally, it left me believing I had none, picturing him driving future girls and their future rapists to future crime scenes. Girls who drank too much, girls who put their glasses down for a second, girls who will be described by members of their communities as having “brought this on themselves.” For all his talk about rape prevention, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had ever taken the time to stop during one of these “bad” situations and ask his passenger if they were all right, if they knew who they were with, if they wanted to be there.
As can be imagined, I was uncomfortable, confused, and pissed off. After all, he effectively told me not to forget even for a second that the halls I now call home have always been, and continue to be, called home by rapists. It was a warning I neither wanted nor needed. No matter how many shady, late-night cab rides he gives, I will always understand the fear and threat of sexual violence better than he will because I have been forced to think about it at length, to constantly keep it in the back of my mind, because of people like him. People who feel that what is likely the only interaction we will ever have should be dedicated to repeating the same sexual assault prevention lesson I have heard a thousand times before. People who feel obligated to point out that sexual assault happens to one in four women on college campuses nationally, to remind me that because I am a woman I am weak and vulnerable and at-risk. People who feel it is not just their duty but their right to tell me how to be—or more accurately how to not be—sexual.
I already live in a society which constantly reminds me that sexual danger lurks around every corner—both the well-lit and the dark and seedy ones. I have been taught dozens of times—in official and unofficial capacities—the myriad things I’m supposed to do, not do, and remember in order to prevent future sexual assault. He wasn’t giving me any brand-new advice. Actually, he left quite a few pointers out: wear comfortable shoes, cut your hair short (it’s harder to grab hold of), never leave home without your appropriately intimidating male friend/boyfriend, never leave home. I don’t need another person—a complete stranger—reiterating this, further perpetuating the world of fear we have so carefully crafted and forced women to inhabit. A world where you must always be on the defensive, ready and waiting to flee from an attacker at any moment. A world which blames survivors for crimes committed against them. A world which tells them, “Well, you really shouldn’t have been walking there at that time all alone”–as if occupying public space as a woman is a crime and not a basic right.
In a way, that’s all this speech really accomplished: instilling fear in me while reminding me that being noticed is risky behavior and visibility is danger. We inhabit a culture which thrives on the threat of sexual violence against women, obsessed with shows like “Law and Order: SVU.” We have built ourselves a culture that normalizes fear, even encourages it. That tells women it is good you are scared to go out alone at night. You should be scared. You don’t belong there.