A couple months ago, I went grocery shopping at Walmart in my black, Lulu yoga pants.
BEFORE YOU EVEN ASK, “No.” This is not a common occurrence. I do not generally run around without underpants. I am, in fact, a lover of underpants, and almost every pair of my underpants are of the granny variety. I think they’re technically called “boy cut,” like men’s briefs only a bit slimmer through the hip, but still. I have as much fabric in my underpants as I do in my sports bra.
[Sad, but absolutely true. Itty Bitty Titty Committee founding member, call sign “Skittles.”]
On almost-naked-despite-yoga-pants day, I was without underpants for a legitimate reason. I had just finished at cross fit, where our daily workout included jump rope double-unders. Without getting too gross (or segueing into a discussion about pelvic floor exercises), let’s just say “my pants were wet.” After class I slipped into the bathroom, stripped off my underpants, and tossed them in my gym bag.
Wet underpants, but my lovely yoga pants were dry. I’m sure that the scientists of fabric technology designed wicking material for sweat, but whatever. I’m glad for it regardless. My pants (in true LuLu style) were extreeeeeemely tight, but they were comfortable, and modest enough for the drive home.
It was a half day for my kids at school. I drove to pick them up straight from the gym. On my way there, I remembered. “I’m supposed to get groceries. DAMNIT.” No time later. Full day ahead. SONOFABITCH.
A year ago I would have felt extremely uncomfortable, walking around the grocery store in painted on pants. This time, I didn’t feel too bad. I did feel a LITTLE uncomfortable (going from granny underpants to nothing loses you a lot of fabric), but I’d been working out for a few months, my body dysmorphic disorder has been on the mend, and these days “how I look” rarely crosses my mind.
In fact, I don’t really think about how I look at all. After years of anorexic thinking, obsessing about a muffin top that wasn’t even there, not caring about my body is great. Other people have to deal with my tendency to forget to look in the mirror (hot mess train wreck most of the time), but for me, living without thought of or shame over the way I look is refreshing. LIBERATING.
It also means that I let my guard down.
After I got my kids, I stopped at Walmart. (There was my first mistake, right? It’s the closest store between school and home, but I should have considered the people I was about to surround myself with.) Whenever I’m with my kids, I try to make the shopping quick. (I’d explain why, but if you’re a mom you get it.) I got a cart and was powering through the store at a brisk pace. “GITERDUN.” We were making good time.
Five minutes into my visit, I pushed my cart around an endcap toward the cat food and my ears caught a conversation behind me.
Two men. And they were loud.
Man One: “HOT DAMN, GIRL. Get me some of THAT. What an ass!”
I looked to the side a bit, not to see who was talking, but to see the girl they were talking ABOUT. Never one time did I think they were talking about me. I’ve grown and healed with regard to my body, but like I said, I don’t think about it. My body is amorphous and irrelevant. It does not matter. Not bad, not good, it just IS.
I turned my head, and there were no other girls. Just me.
The men talking were not men. They were boys. They were probably in their early twenties, black of skin, wearing gang colors, pants buckled somewhere around mid-thigh.
[How they keep their pants up, I will never understand.]
Man Two (to his friend): “Do you know what I’d do to that? I bet it splits like…”
I stopped listening.
I turned back to face forward, and looked into the face of the six year old, who was sitting in the cart. (He’s a bit big for it, but like I said, I was in a hurry. Moms will get it.) He had been talking to me about his day at school, something important to him, so I flexed my mental muscle and twisted my attention into his story.
It’s been a while, but even in the moment I don’t know I’d be able to relay what my kid was saying. My head was hovering between me and the men behind me.
My senses were heightened. My blood pressure was up, my fists were clenched, I was “at the ready.”
I was fight or flight, because in a very real way I was being assaulted.
I did not turn down the cat food aisle, which is in the very back of the store, dimly lit, and usually abandoned. Instead, I slowly pushed my cart forward toward the cash registers at the back entrance of the store, toward other people.
Not just my safety.
I was protecting myself, for sure, but I was also protecting my kids. They see me a certain way, and it is NOT “like a sex object.” I was protecting my image. I was protecting their perception. And, if shit got real, I was protecting them from seeing me throat-chop a punkass 20-something in the grocery store.
I’m going to say something now, and it’s going to piss you off. It’s going to piss EVERYONE off. I think it needs to be said, though, because it is the truth, and because we cannot heal, grow, or change without the truth.
Hi. My name is Erin, and I have experienced sexual assault, but I am not a victim of sexual assault.
I am not a victim of it, because as a grown adult it is 100% my responsibility to protect myself from it.
If I am a victim of anything, I am a victim of my own poor choices.
I can hear you now.
[“THE FUCK. FUCK YOU. I was assaulted and raped and beaten, and I WAS a victim. WHAT HAPPENED WAS NOT MY FAULT. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t invite it, I didn’t give consent. IT WAS NOT MY FAULT.”]
You’re absolutely right. It was not your fault. Whatever happened to you, it was not your fault. You can’t control what other people choose to do. You cannot control, especially as a child, what another, larger, manipulative, determined, broken human being decides to do with you or to you.
What you can control, is yourself.
It is, and was, still your responsibility to protect yourself.
Think about the last time you drove a car.
You never get in the car thinking “I might get in a wreck today.” You get in the car thinking about where you’re headed, whether or not you’re late, what traffic is likely doing. If you’re a mom, you’re thinking about the kids arguing in the back seat, and “omg are you still not buckled,” or you’re carrying on a conversation about something relevant to kid-size life.
When you get in the car to drive somewhere, you’re thinking about everything EXCEPT “I might get in a wreck today.”
In fact, if you thought “I might get in a wreck today” every time you got in the car, you probably wouldn’t drive at all. You’d avoid the car totally, because being inside of it would feel less and less safe.
Eventually, being in the car would feel like a death sentence.
An almost 100% chance of getting hurt.
At that point, you would be a victim of an automobile accident without it even happening.
When you get in the car, you don’t think about the bad stuff that might happen. Instead, you protect yourself.
Before you even get in the car, you glance around it to be sure there’s nothing in the way. You check the back seat before you open the door. You get in the car. You shut the door. You adjust the seat so your feet hit the pedals just right. You put the key on your not-overloaded, safe from distraction key chain into the ignition. You check the mirrors to be sure you can see behind you and around you. You start the car.
And you fasten your seatbelt.
You protect yourself. You prepare yourself.
Experiencing sexual harassment is a lot like experiencing a car accident. There is a shit end to the stick of reality, and sometimes it gets handed to us. Bad things happen. We can’t control other people. I can’t stop someone from running a red light and slamming into my car, any more than I can stop a douchebag from whistling and catcalling.
What I can do, is protect myself. I can make safe choices.
In my case, with regard to the verbal assault I described above, I could have worn underpants. Or pants that didn’t look (quite literally) painted on my skin. I could have turned around and confronted the men (and I would have, if my kids weren’t with me). I could have been more mentally prepared to deal with an incident like that, by paying more attention to my body and recognizing that “it is possible that it will attract this kind of attention.” Part of what made the situation so uncomfortable was my complete lack of preparedness. I had no idea they were talking about me, or that it was even possible for someone to see me that way.
I felt harassed and verbally molested because my lack of preparedness, even more than because two dumbass kids were running their mouths.
And as an adult, both in auto accidents and sexual abuse, there is a shared responsibility of fault.
If someone bashes into my car because I tried to squeeze through an intersection on a yellow light and they ran a red one, it’s still PARTLY my fault. Not all the way, but some. The bulk of responsibility is theirs, since they did the worse bad thing, and they hit me. I didn’t ask for it or invite it, but I altered the circumstances in such a way that it was easier for them to hurt me.
I couldn’t control them. I can control me, and I chose poorly.
If someone catcalls me and whistles and shouts obscenities because I’m walking down a street I KNOW is filled with less-than-gentlemanly men, wearing a shirt that shows boobs and a tight pair of pants without underwear, it’s still PARTLY my fault. Not all the way, but some. The bulk of responsibility is theirs, since they did the worse bad thing, and they assaulted me. I didn’t ask for it or invite it, but I altered the circumstances in such a way that it was easier for them to hurt me.
Even if the alteration of circumstances was “not mentally prepared,” or “I don’t know my worth,” or “I don’t know how to throat-punch a dickface if he lays a hand on me,” I’m still making it easier for them to hurt me.
I can’t control other people. I can control me, and in order to be sure I’m receiving the respect and treatment I feel I deserve, I must earn it. I must WORK for it.
I must demand it, not with entitlement as “others need to give this to me,” but with merit.
“I need to get this for myself.”
I am not powerless to get what I feel I deserve. I am not powerless to any circumstance created or influenced by any other person.
I am not powerless to catcalls or lameass people who feel my virtue is up for debate or abduction.
I have a choice. I have the power to choose. As long as I accept that and hold on to it with both hands, I am no longer a victim. Not to anyone.
As long as YOU accept that and hold on to it with both of YOUR hands, YOU are no longer a victim.
Not to anyone.
On my Facebook page and in my blog, I talk a lot about victim mentality. I talk freely about my childhood sexual abuse, and I have stories to tell about what it’s like to live as an adult of childhood physical abuse and emotional neglect. I talk about the power of words, and how we define ourselves can determine our outlook.
Beaten down, molested, raped, hated, ignored, I am still not a victim.
I don’t even define myself as a survivor, because to say “I survived” indicates that I almost didn’t, or that the circumstances and experience could have killed me.
They couldn’t have.
I didn’t have to fight to stay alive, as a child. I just lived. “Survivor” is a title for those who made it off the Titanic. Or Jews rescued from Holocaust camps. It is a banner to be worn by those whose lives were truly at risk of end.
No matter how bad it got, I am not that.
No matter how bad it got, none of that bullshit childhood abuse was going to kill me. I wouldn’t let it.
I prefer words like “fighter.” And “soldier.” In my mind, when I think about the obstacles I’ve overcome and the life-lemons life I’ve endured, I think of Death Dealer Selene. Or Katniss Everdeen, or Resident Evil’s Alice, or Ripley, or Sarah Conner from Terminator.
Not a victim.
Even in the grocery store, being cat called and verbally molested by hooligan kids, I was not a victim.
YOU are not a victim, if you have survived.
If you’re reading this, you have.
Find yourself. Embrace your truth. Change your world.