So, on a Saturday afternoon I witnessed something really disturbing. Afterward, I thought for a few minutes that I would not share it with others except for the two people very close to me whom I had already told. My thought was that I should keep it to myself because, honestly, I felt ashamed. I was so embarrassed by what I saw. Humiliated! But I shouldn’t be, because it was not my fault. I realized that other people, other women like me, must feel this way about a number of situations over which they have no control; and that this attitude of embarrassment, is a big part of what contributes to creating a society in which sexual violence in its various manifestations can continue to occur. I know that what happened to me during my afternoon walk could have been so much worse, which is also a reason I’m sharing my experiences. Maybe someone will read this and know that it’s okay to speak up. If we don’t, nothing will ever change.
Well, here it is: On August 2nd around 4PM I was walking my dog on the bike path. It was warm out and I had passed several people already biking and on foot. I was catching up with a friend on the phone as I walked past a bench, one of several that line the path where I live. Sitting there was a young man, but the bench faced the direction I was heading, so I could only see the back of his head and shoulders. As I passed him, I didn’t even turn around. I was enthralled in my phone conversation and kept my eyes forward. I walked about a quarter mile more and then doubled back to head home. As I approached the bench again, I saw the same man, and began to notice that he was holding something in his hand, on his lap. My friend and I were still on the phone, so the man still didn’t have my full attention, and it wasn’t until I was close enough to distinguish his facial features, close enough to notice his dark blonde hair and stocky build, and close enough to observe the baby-face of an 18 year old kid, that I realized what he was holding on his lap – his genitals. He had it all out there!
I don’t know if he knew that the shock on my face was in reaction to him. After all, the phone conversation that my friend and I were having had been pretty lively and my eyes were covered with big, dark sunglasses. But as I began to react with an “Oh my god! What the f***?!” he started to masturbate. He was looking at me, watching me, listening to me react as he smiled and chuckled.
For a few seconds, I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. I had thought so many times about what I would do if I ever encountered a stranger with ill-intent while alone on the bike path, here and in my previous town. But this particular scenario had never haunted me. Kidnapped? Sure. Raped? Of course! Killed by a stray hunting bullet? You bet. But, witnessing an exhibitionist? Unwillingly becoming the source of someone’s sexual pleasure via shock and disgust? This was not a scenario that had ever crossed my mind.
This particular day wasn’t the first time that I had felt humiliated, frightened, or disgusted by someone’s inappropriate expression of sexual desire, dominance, or frustration.
While living in Latin America catcalls were plentiful. We’re told that the come-ons of machismo, which range from an innocent “princesa” all the way to much more degrading comments, have nothing to do with the recipient. It’s about men showing off to other men, but it can still be very disturbing.
I remember walking past a construction site on my way to school in Ecuador at 19 years old and seeing camera phones pulled out to snap my picture. In the same city, two different men chased me down two different streets while yelling at me in English. The first one was shouting “I can see your panties, baby!” (Um, no, actually, he couldn’t) the second one was older and angry that I had rejected his invitation for coffee, which he had so respectfully given me by shouting it across the street.
Back home in Ohio several years later a man in my favorite bar shouted in my face that I needed to “get f***ed” after I refused to give him my real name or tell him whether or not I had a boyfriend after he rudely interrupted a conversation that my friend and I were having over a beer. He was probably drunk, and I was humiliated and terrified. I remember thanking the universe silently that we were in a crowded bar and that everyone turned to look as he shouted at me, but also wishing that I was invisible…
…the same way I wished I was invisible as I got chased down by an older teenager on a bike while jogging with my dog one night on a busy street. Similarly to the bar scenario, he wanted to know my name, where I lived, and where I was going. He had first passed me going the opposite direction and we had both said hello, I thought out of politeness. He later doubled back and approached me with his intrusive questions. I did tell him my name. He was nice enough and, who knows, maybe he just needed someone to chat with. But to all of his other inquiries I responded with “why are you asking?” repeatedly. I could see his face turn from friendly to angry and I began to run. He followed me, so I ran to a gas station where I stayed for a while until he was out of sight.
I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked at how scared I felt. I had already told him to leave me alone, but I was embarrassed to tell someone at the gas station, perhaps scared that my concern wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now I wonder how many women have been hurt due to that same attitude that we see perpetuated time and time again in the media. My mind was racing as I thought of how easily he could hide, follow me home, and break into my house. Only a couple of minutes passed before he stopped riding circles in the parking lot and left. I noted his direction and ran home to call the police. They told me I should have called sooner.
This time around I called 911 immediately. The masturbating man was still, well, masturbating, when I hung up on my friend and started to dial 911. He began to run away, disappeared into the tree line, and then returned to go the opposite direction just as I was connected to a dispatcher. I explained what happened, described the young man and where he was headed, and agreed to wait there for an officer.
As I waited I felt… victimized.
Just the night before an acquaintance who I had only met once offered me some lettuce from his garden, which I accepted graciously along with a few other veggies. I returned home and a couple hours later, around 11:30, there was a knock on my door. It was him, completely wasted, with two beers in his hands, asking to come inside my apartment so we could drink them together. He had never come on to me before, but as our brief conversation began and ended he eyed me up and down again and again in that way that can either make a woman’s cheeks blush or her stomach churn. With a polite smile, I assertively refused his invitation. He seemed perturbed, but thankfully one of my neighbor’s friends was simultaneously approaching our shared porch. I greeted him as if I knew him, and my uninvited guest half-stomped, half-stumbled away.
Maybe Friday night’s creepy come-on is part of what made Saturday afternoon’s disgusting d**k sighting feel so violent.
After the police officer arrived and I answered his questions, my shock started to subside and I began to cry. I just moved here a month ago and this path is the one that my dog and I walk every day, twice a day. It had been, so far, my favorite place in my new town. It had felt peaceful and invigorating but now, as I sit here writing this and contemplating why my dog has not bothered me for her walk yet this morning, the thought of that place makes my heart race and my mind ache. My space has been invaded. My freedom has been violated.
I think it’s okay to feel this way, for now. Hopefully I will opt for a different walking route only for today. I don’t want to avoid that space, just like I don’t want to avoid speaking my truth about this event and others like it. The only thing I do not want to feel, the only thing that no one should ever have to feel about unwanted attention of any kind, is shame.
I am not culpable for someone’s psychological abnormality. I am not responsible for the way men choose to look at me. I should not feel ashamed to refuse to answer intrusive questions from strangers. Perhaps most importantly, no one should ever have to feel embarrassed to relate her experiences to others. Let’s drop the shame and guilt so that we can de-normalize these kinds of behavior!
To end things on a lighter note, after my exhibitionist encounter I went out with some friends. I did end up telling them about what happened, and I’m glad I did, even though the first response I got was actually really offensive. She said, “At least now you know what they look like” (um, please). But, I was extremely thankful for the other, tasteful jokes that got me laughing about my experience rather than holding back tears. (My favorite of the evening is pictured below. My friend handed me the CD and said, “They wrote a song about the guy you saw, but they misspelled the last word. Track 5!”)
About the Contributing Writer:
Carolyn Crowner graduated in 2012 from Ohio University with a love for language, culture, and social justice along with a BSEd and MA in Spanish. She is driven by a firm belief in the importance of travel and cultural exploration in personal growth and social responsibility. When she’s not teaching, Carolyn volunteers with Planned Parenthood of South West Ohio, spends time outside with her dog, and experiments in the kitchen. She is inspired by The PRC’s mission to empower women and girls to reach their full potential and realize their tremendous worth.