It was a hot afternoon at the local swimming hole and the place was already packed. The water refreshing and cool, the 90’s hits blasting from scratchy speakers, and the smell of shrimp grilling set an idyllic scene in the middle of this barrio popular. My friends and I dove off the rocks, laughing and having fun.
Suddenly I felt someone’s fat hand grabbing and massaging my butt like a ball of dough under the water. Then the hand pushed further forward to more intimate parts.
Seconds later, a young man, chubby and pasty with a face like a dinosaur, emerged in front of me. Anger exploded in my chest. “¡QUE TE PASA!” I yelled, my voice breaking with rage. My fists began to fly, raining blows on his face with a precision that surprised even me. Maybe it was fury stored up over the years that fueled me?
More than 50 strangers have grabbed my breasts, butt, or put their hands between my legs over the years. I was just 10 years old the first time it happened at the roller skating rink. Then at 14, a guy at a party shoved my face into his crotch. As I became a young woman in New York, walking down the street felt like running a gauntlet — every few steps someone would sexually harass me. It's not just the city. Since I moved to Mexico, men have jumped out of the forest naked and grabbed my arm as they pulled down their pants.
When I try to make sense of it all, I hear all the usual stupidity. People say everything from, “Watch what you wear,” to “Don't walk alone/at night/in this neighborhood.” But the groping has happened to me while wearing sweatpants, in broad daylight, walking with friends, and in rich neighborhoods.
It happens to women short or tall, young or old, all around the world. A recent study of 16,000 women in 21 countries by Cornell University and the anti-catcalling organization Hollaback! showed that 50 percent of women surveyed had been groped, 71 percent had been followed, and 84 percent harassed on the street. The majority experience their first harassment during puberty or before.
In my ‘hood people used to say, “That’s just how Dominican men are,” but the truth is, it also happens in all cultures. In Mexico City, there is such an epidemic of unwanted fondling that women now have separate buses. In England, the problem is so rampant, the police set up a special force to protect women from groping. We even see it on TV, a few weeks ago boxer Ricardo Mayorga slapped his rival’s girlfriend on the butt. Enough is enough!
We're told it's no big deal or to laugh it off, but it affects us on a deep level. We don’t go outside as much, jailing ourselves indoors to avoid groping. I’ve never stopped walking alone or at night, but sometimes I’ve wished to be invisible. In my worst moments, I even wished not to be a woman. The harassment violates not only our bodies and personal space, but also our sense of safety and well-being.
At the swimming hole, all those years of anger welled up in me. I stormed out of the water, electric and trembling. A lot of people were staring but I refused to let it go.
“Maybe it was an accident,” his friend said. But I knew it wasn’t and I went to find the police.
It was a good move. For the first time in my life, the police actually responded immediately. Within minutes, the guy was handcuffed and cooking away in the boiling hot bed of the police pickup truck facing a punishment of 35 hours in the city jail. This is what many crime experts recommend you do when sexually harassed. Do not try to handle the problem alone and ask authorities for help. If you do what I did, the guy may try to hit you back and you never know what can happen next.
That night I thought a little about my response. Did my harasser not see me as a person, but just a thing? Was it just as bad that I saw him not as a person, but as a pair of disgusting hands? My pacifist mom used to tell me, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Should I feel bad for my violent reaction?
Well, Gandhi once said:
“Although violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man or woman.”
That made me feel a little better.
I imagine what my daughter would have felt if I’d done nothing. She saw me stand up to this guy and defend myself. Maybe she’d grow up differently and maybe he and others who saw might think twice before grabbing another woman or girl. Maybe more of us will be able to live in peace.