by Kat Kelley
It has taken me one year to write this.
I write all of the time. I open Untitled google docs, I scribble in the margins of everything from syllabi to take-out menus, I have countless notebooks and post-its (digital and print), I write and write as my mind threatens explosion. My head races and if I don’t write, it circles the track, lap after lap, thoughts and musings, demanding that I reflect, express, and act.
Yet, it has taken me one year to write this.
First, I entered a period of denial. I flourished in denial. I looked back on my summer in India fondly. I remembered the curried shrimp of Goa, teaching Ubuntu-At-Work’s female employees to use a power saw, clambering atop an elephant in Mysore.
But then there was the man who told me I was beautiful and asked me for change every single time I entered the CVS on Dupont Circle. And for a second I would cringe, but I was in power now. I was in power, here, in my city. My blazer, my Georgetown education, my assured and effortless gait gave me power over this homeless man. I did not have to give him change. And he certainly did not get to call me beautiful.
I did this so many times, it became routine. Until one day I realized that every time I walked into that CVS I was in survival mode. I was tense. I was not engaging. I became cold to a homeless man, merely because he called me beautiful. I became cold to a beggar, merely because I was triggered. I used classism and my confident stride to assert my power over a homeless man because he had the audacity to call me beautiful.
No, I am not a survivor, I told myself. I am not a survivor. A survivor is someone who experiences, well, realsexual assault. I catch myself again. This is absurd. All sexual assault is real. And in working with survivors of sexual assault, I frequently aim to validate their emotions, remind them that what they experienced is realsexual assault, and that their reactions are normal, perfectly acceptable.
No, I am not a survivor, I told myself. Survivors must self-identify as such. Survivors have had their power taken away from them, their control, their bodily autonomy.
But my power was taken from me. Time and again. The male gaze, my god. For 10 weeks I felt unsafe, objectified, sexualized. I felt the stares, the leers, I felt nearly every man in my path take my power away from me. He knew, that in his culture, he was entitled to my body. He was entitled to look, to enjoy, to imagine. He had the power, and no matter how I did or did not respond, he still had the power.
My power was taken from me on a bus. When the man next to me slyly stuck his hand down my dress. He cupped my breasts and when I told him to remove his hand, he informed me, “It is okay. I do this. No problem,” in punctuated, broken english. And I pushed his hand away, as his other hand found its way onto my thigh and I pleaded with him to leave me alone. I pleaded until I could take no more. I stood up, and climbed over him, cursing myself for choosing the window seat. I felt his hands attempt to explore further as I climbed over him, and I stood in the aisle, where I had to inch away, through the crowded aisle, from another set of wandering hands.
My power was taken from me by a child. He was maybe 7 or 8. He showed me his homework. This boy was learning English in school, and he showed me his neat cursive. I smiled broadly, signaling that I was impressed, despite the language barrier. He noticed my necklace and touched it lightly, murmuring “ahni” or “elephant.” His hand moved from my elephant pendant down my shirt, and lightly squeezed. I stood up abruptly and shouted at him. He stared blankly and I pointed at the door, he ran to the door, feigning confusion, but then he leered, that leer I had yet to see on such a young face, as he walked through the door frame. He was merely 7 or 8, and yet for a moment, just for a moment, he challenged my bodily autonomy, he took my power from me. He knew, at the age of just 7 or 8, that his Y chromosome gave him an irrefutable power over me.
My power was taken from me, just like this, countless times every day, every week. Hands, stares, caresses, squeezes, all inescapable.
Yet, I was not a survivor. No. What happened to me was not sexual assault.
If everyone woman who was groped, who felt fingers slide deep down their pants, who were held up against a wall, were all survivors of sexual assault, then literally 100% of women would be survivors.
One in four women experience sexual assault. It seems that statistic is a bit limited in scope.
I could not own what happened to me.
I could not admit that someone had taken my power from me. I could not acknowledge my loss of power because I was afraid. I was afraid- not of another hand, another caress, but of myself. I was afraid, because in acknowledging the countless experiences of sexual harassment and assault that I had experienced, I had to admit that I was not always in control.
And I was afraid of my own judgement, my own disgust with this rampant aspect of Indian life. Was I racist? Was I judgmental? Maybe I just needed a good dose of cultural relativism. I was so used to telling myself to see things in the context of their own culture, to not passing judgement upon another culture, that I was unwilling to call my experiences what they were: sexual harassment and assault.
It has taken me one year to write this. I write this on a plane to Manila, as I swallow an itsy white anti-anxiety pill. I feel my chest grow taut, I feel like there is something pushing on my chest. I feel the panic coming on, as it has ebbed and flowed over the past week. The pill is so tiny that I imagine it sliding straight into my stomach, but I know it will take at least 30 minutes to help. I breathe slowly, staving off hyperventilation.
And I am forced to acknowledge my trauma.
I breathe slowly and remind myself I am not returning to India.
The land of nearly one billion people- who am I to feel traumatized? Who am I to feel so terrified and disgusted?
My assault, my harassment, my trauma and yet I feel guilty.
The Philippines is not India, I remind myself. You love traveling, you love exploration, you love being challenged as you discover new landscapes, new cultures.
And yet it seems that everything threatens to trigger my trauma, my fear, my loss of power and control.
To hear more from Kat Kelley while she’s abroad, visit Reclaiming Vagabond.