Women are not born with powers of lustful bewitchment that follow us through life untamed. We do not unconsciously control the thoughts or actions of men by enchantment. We are not sirens who sing men to their deaths by merely dressing, acting, speaking a certain way. We are human beings.
I was setting out the most current installments of the local newspapers, just like any morning, when a man approached me. I was already accustomed to waiting on patrons with mental inconsistencies, and I misinterpreted his strange behavior as one such personality. Little did I know that this man was in full charge of his mental capacities.
As I walked from rack to rack, the man accompanied me. I realized it was increasingly difficult to maintain distance from him, as he kept moving closer and closer. Finally, I felt his hand brush against my backside and I quickly finished what I was doing so that I could return to my desk.
I wrote the touch off as an accident. My insecurity won over my sense of worth and I gave him the benefit of the doubt where there should have been no doubt in his actions. He left soon after, and I was relieved that I didn’t see him again for a while.
My entire life had been preserved in abstinence and purity, and I had worked hard to maintain that preservation. Sure, it was difficult at times, but I for one never regretted it. I guarded my thoughts, my eyes, and my innocence as much as I could manage since I was young. Unfortunately, I was naive.
A couple of weeks passed before the man returned. This time he spoke to me again and situated himself in front of my desk, blocking me from the exit. He began to insinuate that he was a police officer monitoring the exchange of drugs at the library – a claim I wrote off to my assumption that he was mentally ill. I thought he actually believed he was an officer and therefore I didn’t think anything of it.
It wasn’t until I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was behaving strangely that I felt a hint of fear set in. As I write this even now I feel a sense of guilt wash over me and I must remind myself that the actions of this man were not provoked by anything I did. The guilt is a lie that victims like me must negate with truth over and over again:
it was not my fault.
I did not ask him to expose himself to me. I didn’t ask to become unmovable with fear as he stood between me and the door. I didn’t ask for him to sit in front of me with children and families behind him and boldly assaulted my innocence.
I was frozen, unable to think of what to do. Hindsight tells me exactly what I could have done, and the answer is so elementary. But in the moment, I felt trapped.
Hastily, I got up from my desk and went into the back room that held the rest of the computers. I assisted patrons who looked as though they needed help, but it wasn’t long enough for the man to leave. When I returned to my desk, he was standing there waiting. He approached me.
“Am I bothering you?” he asked kindly, but his voice had a threatening undertone. I didn’t know what to say. I kept my eyes on my work. “Miss?” he insisted, “I asked if I was bothering you”.
“Why would you be bothering me?” I stuttered, barely audible.
“I was just making sure. I wouldn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable”, he said with a sarcastic tone.
“No”. I lied hastily, scared of what would happen if I told the truth. He was towering too close over me and all I wanted was for him to back away.
He turned around and I was hopeful that he would leave. Instead, I was horrified to see that he sat down in the same seat he had taken before and resumed his disgusting activity, motioning for me to watch. Little did he know that I had never seen what he was showing me.
I remember that my hands were shaking and I felt as though I would vomit. I got up and ran past him for the door and didn’t stop until I was in the employee lounge. With tears in my eyes, I told the only other person occupying the lounge that I had a problem, and that a man was in front of my desk revealing himself to me. She called the police, and they arrived a few minutes later.
When the police asked me to describe the man, I barely got out a few sentences before they turned and ran out the door saying something to each other that sounded like “that was him“. They had seen him leaving and suspected he was their target.
They never found him.
For the longest time I blamed myself. He had asked if I was bothering him and I said “no”. I punished myself for having given him permission to fill my head with horrifying images. I told myself over and over that he knew I didn’t want that, he knew he was forcing it on me, and I didn’t believe myself. I believed it was my fault that he had traumatized me. My skirt was too short…the length of my skirt invited him to disrespect me…I didn’t tell him it wasn’t okay to commit indecent exposure…I didn’t leave fast enough…I was too nice…
Then I remembered something I remind myself of every day:
I never asked for this.
It wasn’t in my heart to deliberately request this attention from men, no matter my clothing choices or my kindness to people.
All my life I had been told: “cover up“, “don’t make it seem like you’re flirting“, “those shorts are too short“, “that dress is too tight“, by people all around me. Friends, strangers, family, media, everyone was telling me that I needed to be careful so that I didn’t invite unwanted attention from men. One wrong move, and I’ll be “asking for it“.
What kind of disgusting world demands that beauty be hidden so that others cannot perceive it perversely? What kind of demented trap do we lay for warning women not to be “too nice” in order to avoid giving off the wrong “signals”? What kind of unjust society do we live in that victims take the blame for their trauma?
Once I realized that it wasn’t my responsibility to guard a man’s thoughts or to dictate his actions I was liberated. I no longer walk in guilt and shame for being built with feminine form. I no longer feel like a dirty object that requires covering.
I wear bikinis in the summer and dresses that flatter me. I smile at passing strangers. I am loud with my friends and quiet around others. I have no power to read or to control the minds of anyone.
I’m a woman. And it isn’t the same as a siren.