‘Community Alerts’ say something about sexual assault culture in modern America

Along with my 'right to know' should come with my right to feel safe walking the 15 feet from my car to my apartment

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For Christmas last year, my mother got me on the waiting list for a really strange present — a four-function pepper spray called the Defender. Spraying the high concentration mace simultaneously sends a silent alarm to the nearest police station, sets off a high-pitched siren and takes a picture of the attacker. It also wirelessly connects to your smart phone and has a GPS.

My feelings toward this Inspector Gadget tool were mixed at first. While I’m all for innovation, dear reader, I was sad that my mother was so worried about my safety that she felt the need to get it for me. I was angry that such an invention was necessary in a town I hold so close to my heart. And I was scared one day I would have to use it.

We all hear about sexual assault happening at bars on the Corner late at night or to a girl walking home alone at 2 a.m. While most women and many men feel for her and recognize that those tragedies should never occur, I think we have the tendency to say, “she was wearing suggestive clothing,” or “she was drunk.” Not only do we inherently blame the victim of the sexual assault, but we assure ourselves we have the sense to not give off the same signs of vulnerability.  

But the “Community Alerts” sent by the Chief of Police this past week prove exactly otherwise. The first attempted abduction that we woke up to on Saturday morning sounded pretty textbook. The woman was alone on Halloweekend, walking home around 2 a.m. But what about the next one, a mere 18 hours later? A young woman was walking at 8:05 p.m. when she was attacked in the same manner.

Fortunately, both women got away. But we can’t take for granted that the next victim will be so lucky. So we can arm ourselves with pepper spray 2.0 and we can either use the buddy system and we can hide behind the deadbolts on our apartment doors, or we can change the culture of our town to keep sexual assault and harassment at bay. Along with my “right to know” should come my right to feel safe walking the 15 feet from my car to my apartment. And while I’m very grateful for the work that police have done in the past few years to put away the rapists and abductors that have haunted Charlottesville, I don’t think it’s enough.  

While rape, assault and abduction are extreme and violent cases of harassment, they aren’t the only ones that leave victims feeling empty and scarred. Lesser cases of sexual aggression still happen all over Charlottesville, and several go unreported.

For example, I was filling up my car last week between classes. I was wearing four layers of clothing, my hair was pulled back and I had on no makeup. When I heard catcalling in the background, I immediately turned to look for the woman being targeted before realizing it was directed at me, the anthropomorphic blob in the puffy jacket. What spawned it then? If I go by the man’s “compliments,” it was the vaguest outline of a hip through my jeans, the only piece of me not marshmallowed. The only piece of me he could possibly sexualize. I didn’t finish filling up my car — I just drove away.  

This type of intimidation affects almost all women — and many men — at some point or another. It leaves us feeling not only objectified, but threatened and preyed upon. How come, then, we feel so unjustified in reporting it? How come we feel ashamed of ourselves?

I think that the root of the problem is how men are taught to view women growing up. Whether through sexualized ads on television or biased dress codes that teach boys that even young girls’ bodies are inherently a distraction, the problem is rooted in what we teach our children.

These are generational changes that the educational system and the media have to actively take on. While both have been bombarded by societal studies, politicians and interest groups for years, this is likely to be a long-term project. In the meantime, we still must take caution by walking in groups and staying aware of our surroundings. But we should still distinguish between looking over our shoulders and looking ahead to a safer future.

While changes take time, we can all start small. We can offer to walk someone home — given that we can get ourselves home safe. We can report sexual harassment of any kind that we might see. If we can all do our part to spread ideas of respect and safety throughout our city, then maybe we can make Charlottesville safer not just now, but for women in the future.

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