The mall public bathrooms were located down a long, deserted hallway. When I realized a man was following me, I thought, “He’s probably just going to the bathroom, too. Don’t overreact… Listen to your gut. Better safe than sorry.” So, I stopped, turned around to look at him and let him pass me. As he went by, he said in an annoyed voice, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you.”
All I could think is, “Why is he annoyed? I’m the one who has to deal with this every single day.”
Years ago I was the Executive Director of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, and I know the facts — most women are assaulted by someone they know, usually in a place that is familiar. That simply did not help me. Because I also know that women are vulnerable in all kinds of situations.
The word “vulnerable” is an interesting one. The definition is “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” Even if we are not in direct danger of attack, when we worry about being attacked, we are vulnerable; we are under emotional attack.
Throughout the ages, rape and the fear of rape have been very effective tools for keeping men of color and all women afraid, vulnerable, and “in their place.”
That’s why I pay close attention whenever someone says they are concerned about protecting women. Most recently, HB2 was framed as an effort to keep “our women and children” safe in public bathrooms.
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Hundreds of black men were lynched for alleged rape, or even for supposedly whistling at white women. Recently Donald Trump evoked these not-so-old images when he called Latino immigrants rapists.
One out of every six American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Black women, Native American women, and mixed race women are more likely to be raped than are white or Asian Pacific Islander women. And, historically at least, white men raped women of color with impunity.
Rape and the fear of rape are attacks not just on our physical safety, but on our emotional safety and our independence.
Since HB2 passed, I heard one transgender woman describe being on a car trip and using the women’s restroom at a gas station where she was harassed. I have another friend who was sexually assaulted years ago. She plans her car trips to make sure that she can find one-person bathrooms. Both of these women are forced to compromise their independence and freedom because they fear assault. Both of them feel more vulnerable — and therefore are more vulnerable — since HB2 passed.
Years ago we used to march to “Take Back the Night.” Our goal was to demand more safety efforts and, even more, to fight against our own fear. I’m not sure a “Take Back the Bathroom” march would have the same impact. The real answer is to exert our political power and change the face of the General Assembly.