Promising Young Woman

CW: assault, gaslighting

In the first three months of 2019, I was attacked three times.

The first time, I was mugged in a coffee shop. Two teenagers came up behind me, one restraining my arms and the other jamming and pulling my arm, wrenching free the phone in my hand. The barista chased them down the street and returned the phone to me.

The second time, I was walking home, and a man on the street started yelling at me. “Why are you looking at me? Why are you looking at me that way?” I hadn’t even seen him, and I jumped back when I heard his voice. He pushed me into the street.

The third time, I was also walking home, and a man came up behind me and started punching my backpack and pushing me down like he wanted me to lay prone on the ground. He was shouting, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

I stopped telling people about these instances because the same litany of questions always sprang forth, regardless of who I was talking to and what I thought their outlook on the world would be.

You may have the same questions. So, here’s what you need to know:

  • In all three instances, I was accompanied. During the mugging, I was in a meeting with a man and woman — a founding team from a startup I was helping. It was 4:00 p.m. During the second and third attacks, both times, a man from my work was walking me home to “make sure I got there safely” because the sun had set.
  • I was not wearing (a) flashy jewelry, (b) provocative clothing, or © politically charged slogans. I am still frustrated that any of these questions matter, that they determine whether I am allowed to be attacked or not.

• • •

Before COVID, I had a reputation in my friend group as “the one who gets attacked.” It’s supposed to be a joke. “Men don’t flirt with Alida at bars; they try to hurt her!” I was never the popular girl — just the one who drove men to violence. Which one of the Sex and the City gals does that make me?

In 2018, on the way to a client meeting in the middle of a weekday, a man followed me for several blocks, ultimately grabbing my ponytail and saying he wanted to “steal my hair.” I carried on with my client presentation, rattled, but I hoped, appearing professional.

While I was in college, two men in a white van started shouting out of their window and laughing before repeatedly trying to run me over on the sidewalk, laughing when I ducked or hid behind a tree. That was only a few months after I had been hit by a car while crossing the street, shattering my full right side.

While these examples happened in public places–coffee shops, sidewalks–I am no stranger to professional environments that make me feel unsafe. I have been kissed on the lips by a team member without my consent, kissed on the ear by a different team member, asked about my sex life, complimented on my “figure” when I removed a cardigan, and actually had my hands held firmly (so that I could not move) while being told “I love you” by a client I hardly knew.

Early on in my career, I learned that when I detailed professional experiences, I would be dismissed, ignored, or told I was lying to draw attention to myself. For example, when I reported an instance of sexual harassment at one workplace, my boss said, “I believe you believe that happened.” Just last year, during an anti-racism training for Ethos, I shared that while I can never know the Black experience, I do know what it’s like to be afraid of the police for reasons related to #MeToo and my own life. I was underscoring the intersectionality of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other movements, and this was my way of saying that we have to especially advocate for Black women. A participant in the training privately messaged me to say that I was being disrespectful of all BIPOC because my assault had nothing to do with race and that I only brought it up because I wanted the spotlight. He said I should be ashamed of myself, bringing assault into the conversation.

Unlike with professional experiences, when it comes to personal ones, people believe me. They just also believe I brought the violence on myself:

“This is on you for always insisting on walking everywhere.”

“You were out late at night, weren’t you?”

“You were alone; you were inviting trouble.”

“You just love ‘bad’ neighborhoods, don’t you?”

In many ways, I have lived my life avoiding being the type of woman who is attacked or harassed by men. I policed myself the way these questions and comments came to police me. I was an academic overachiever who didn’t drink or go to a college party until I was twenty-one and didn’t go to a club until I was twenty-seven. I married at twenty-two. I have always dressed in long sleeves and skirts. I let people know where I am at all times if I am alone; I text my mom, friends, and husband. Contrary to popular belief, I am often (if not always) accompanied. I am hypervigilant of my surroundings, and I am always very cautious. I emphasize my husband in work scenarios to avoid any confusion about my interests, not because I think I am so attractive and will be the object of romantic attention, but because I want to be unimpeachable. Since I was a teenager, I have been more afraid of being blamed for being harmed than being harmed. The latter kind of pain feels more manageable.

I have never put any of these experiences to paper before. When #MeToo exploded online, not once did I consider sharing anything I had been through. I was too used to people telling me it wasn’t enough. I hadn’t suffered enough violence. My trauma, if I could even call it that, didn’t count.

But now, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I have heard multiple people say we are “post-Me Too.” I have also heard people talk about violence and assault as perpetrated by strangers, and while it’s true that strangers have attacked me, I have also been harmed in domestic settings and by people I know. Work has been a center of, rather than a haven away from, violence.

• • •

I am interested in a particular kind of violence against women, one Toni Jensen writes about in Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, namely:

“[W]hen we police a woman’s affect, when we privilege it or equate it with her actions, with what she actually does, we’re engaging in our most pervasive and yet our most quiet form of sexism, our most quiet form of everyday violence. If a man sets a table, he is praised for the doing, for the action. Imagine telling a man to smile while he sets the table.”

I have been told to smile at the man who sexually harassed me to make him feel accommodated and supported so he didn’t cause trouble for my organization. To go high when others go low has always meant being pleasant, presentable, and even-tempered. I still struggle to express anger, and in the moment, it’s often impossible for me to experience anger when with folks not in my tightest, most inner circle.

In other words, I have been conditioned to be a promising young woman, much like what the main character of 2020’s Promising Young Woman is supposed to be. Cassie, despite on the surface appearing lost in a dead-end job and isolated existence, is actually a vigilante pursuing justice for the wrongful rape and death of her best friend. She is also, throughout, shown as polished, put together, and hyper-feminine. Before the personal tragedy, she was a brilliant pre-medical student who knew she wanted to be a doctor since childhood. She speaks softly. She’s a good listener. Even when she gets her “revenge” on unsuspecting men looking to violate her consent, she gives them a lecture, asks them questions.

Cassie became my hero this year. I have a poster of her technicolor pink pout hanging in my office, next to a portrait of Shirley Chisolm, activist art from The Guerilla Girls, and my diplomas. Because Cassie, in her own way, breaks free. She makes people believe her, confront what has happened to her and those around her, and forces them to accept their complicity, their violence. She makes them pay attention to her actions over her affect and holds them accountable for their actions.

• • •

Here’s what I know to be true, according to research from RAINN.

  • Every 73 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • From 2009–2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate, that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.

I believe that every workplace should offer paid leave for victims of sexual assault and violence. I also believe that every workplace should have policies–that they enforce–that protect against sexual harassment and violence, even though Women Employed reports that less than 30 percent of companies have these policies in place today.

I also believe that individuals should learn to ask broad, non-leading questions about how people have been impacted by violence and what would help them, rather than jumping to judgment or disbelief.

In some ways, I think that’s what I have been trying to do with my diversity, equity, and inclusion firm all this time. I want people to understand their capacity to do harm and make choices that minimize that harm. I want to heal people because I genuinely believe that healed people heal people. But more than anything, I want to believe them, validate them, and support them as they look to those around them and demand that wrongs be made right. And for this reason, I offer my story as a young woman who wishes promise upon all those made vulnerable by and to violence.

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