I rarely think of myself as a victim. When I’ve faced challenges in my life, I’ve tried to avoid the word, thinking it sounded self-pitying and indulgent.
But all that changed when I was sexually assaulted and mugged last month and was abruptly introduced to the culture of victim blaming.
I’ve seen some strange things during the five years I’ve lived in New York. I’ve seen a woman throwing a man’s clothes out of their fifth-floor window onto the street. I’ve witnessed half-nude men and women doing unmentionable things on street corners. I’ve watched people fight in public and make up moments later. But I’ve never had anything truly strange or dangerous happen to me until the night I was mugged.
It had been a fun, laid-back night until I took the subway home. I met up with a friend for a drink after work, and around midnight I got on the subway to go back to my apartment. I had recently purchased a condo in East Harlem. When I decided to buy the place, many people asked me if I thought the neighborhood was safe. I said yes without hesitation. There’s the potential for danger in every neighborhood of New York, I thought. How was Harlem at 2 a.m. that different from my old neighborhood, the Upper East Side, in the middle of the night?
About one block from my apartment, a man began following me. “Oooh, I know a drunk white girl when I see one,” I heard him say. He grabbed me and forcefully kissed me. I was so shocked that I couldn’t move for a moment. Then he lifted my purse from over my shoulder and ran away with it.
Without thinking, I began running after the man. He didn’t make it very far, and I caught up with him quickly. I grabbed him and began punching him and hitting him with my knees.
“What the f*** do you think you’re doing?” I yelled. “Give me back my purse!”
He dropped my wallet, which he had taken out of my purse, and pointed to my keys, which had fallen on the sidewalk.
“Here are your keys!” he said, tossing my purse to the ground and running away. I grabbed my keys and ran to my apartment as fast as I could, looking behind me to make sure I hadn’t been followed.
The moment I was inside my apartment, I called a friend to tell her what had happened. “You have to call the police,” she said. I didn’t want to; I had heard terrible stories about how police treated women who had been assaulted. I didn’t think they would treat me any differently. But my friend convinced me that I needed to report the case, and I finally dialed 911.
Within a few minutes, several police officers — both men and women — had shown up at my apartment. More and more kept coming; at one point, there were nine cops in my living room. I repeated my story several times and went for a ride in the police car to see if the man who mugged me was still in the neighborhood.
I was told I would be called the following day to arrange a time to go into the station and look at mug shots. My phone rang the following morning at 9 a.m. The officers had not left my apartment until after 3 a.m. the night before, so I was still asleep. The policeman on the phone wanted me to come into the precinct that morning, but I had an appointment that I could not miss, so I told the officer I couldn’t come in until the following day (Friday). He did not seem pleased; he kept insisting that I come to the precinct that day. I repeated several times that I couldn’t make it until the following day.
“Ma’am, are you sure you can even identify this man?” he asked, sounding annoyed. “It says in the record that you were intoxicated.”
That woke me up. “Yes, I can identify him,” I said. “I just can’t do it until tomorrow.” He finally arranged to meet at the precinct at 10, the following morning. I called the station to confirm the time before leaving my apartment the next day, but no one answered the phone; when I arrived, the officer wasn’t there. No one knew where he was or when he would return.
Three more days passed before I was able to meet with an officer and look at mug shots. I called the precinct on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but no one picked up the phone. I kept calling, hoping I could get an officer’s name or at least a case number. I even contacted a friend of mine who used to work in the police department, asking if she had any suggestions about how to get an officer to return my call.
I wanted to look at mug shots. I wanted to identify the man who had attacked me. I wanted to do everything I could do help prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else. On Monday, I finally spoke with an officer and said I needed to come into the station that night. When I met with him, we had to start from scratch. There was no written report of my case, even though nine different police officers had been at my apartment asking questions the night I was mugged. I told my story again and finally looked at some mug shots.
I made it clear that I was annoyed it took so long for me to meet with an officer, and when we sat down together, the officer told me my case was “very important” and the department would do everything it could to catch the man who attacked me. But when I asked why, if my case was so important, I had to pursue the police and no one would return my calls, no one could answer me.
The night I was mugged, the only person who told me “This isn’t your fault” was my roommate. In the following days, I was increasingly grateful for his words, because I came to feel that I was to blame for my assault. When I told family members and friends what happened, they asked if I had been drinking, what I had been wearing, and why I took the subway so late at night. Some friends even scolded me, saying I needed to start taking cabs more often. Several people patted me on the shoulder, saying, “I’m sure you’ll be more careful next time.” I know this was meant to be consoling, but instead it made me angrier than I already was. I wasn’t sexually assaulted and mugged because I wasn’t being careful. I was sexually assaulted and mugged because a person chose to attack me.
Blaming victims of violence and sexual assault is nothing new in our culture — especially not in New York. Following a string of unsolved sexual attacks in Brooklyn this summer, police officers began stopping women on the street, questioning or commenting on their clothing choices. One woman told the Wall Street Journal that an officer asked her, “Don’t you think your shorts are a little short?” and said her clothing might make the suspect think he had “easy access.”
Protesters had this incident, as well as many others, on their minds during October’s New York SlutWalk. SlutWalks, which have been held in more than 60 cities across Europe, Australia, and North America, were inspired by Toronto Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s comments about women’s safety from sexual violence. While speaking to a group of college students, Sanguinetti said, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this — however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Attended by thousands of protesters, SlutWalk is credited with raising broad and much-needed awareness about sexual violence. According to the American Medical Association, sexual violence, and rape in particular, is the most underreported crime. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted — some 213,000 victims every year. More than half of rapes go unreported, and 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a single day in jail.
Victim blaming is prevalent in our society and in the media. When CBS Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating” while covering the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square, prominent war journalist Nir Rosen made appallingly uncouth jokes on Twitter. Rosen tweeted that Logan “had to outdo Anderson” (CNN’s Anderson Cooper was punched while covering the protests) and “it is wrong what happened to her, of course, but it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.”
According to Rosen, “she was probably groped like thousands of other women,” and that “at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified, we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.”
After being taken to task for his insensitivity, Rosen scoffed over “all these people with no sense of humor” and apologized with the caveat, “I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get.”
When New York Times reporter James McKinley covered the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, he insinuated the girl was to blame for her own rape. He reported that residents of the town said the victim dressed “older than her age,” wore makeup and clothes “more appropriate to a woman in her 20s,” and socialized with older boys at the playground. He also included quotes from residents asking, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” and wrote:
“The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”
People should not ask what drew young men to gang-rape a child, and they should not ask what someone was drinking or wearing when she was assaulted. Victims should not be told to “be more careful” after being attacked. I was not assaulted because of what I had been wearing or drinking. The assumption that I should have known better and wasn’t being careful is insulting. The circumstances surrounding my assault shouldn’t matter. What matters is that I was assaulted.
The culture of victim blaming has to stop. But it won’t until members of law enforcement — and society at large — change their attitudes.