Sexual Assault in Columbia Heights

I am a California native, and I’ve been living in Washington, DC for the past 3.5 years. I have been astounded time and time again by the level of street harassment that goes on here, as well as the type: It is not just excessive in terms of frequency, but it is also usually very verbally aggressive and hostile, in addition to overly vulgar.

From the moment I arrived in DC, I began attracting an excessive amount of negative sexual attention from men on the streets. I have had an abundance of uncomfortable experiences, ranging from simple, sexually explicit comments thrown my way, to men exposing themselves to me and masturbating to the sight of me in the park, and guys grabbing my butt while they ride past me on bikes. I am a 32 year old, 5’’8  female with a curvy figure. I am attractive, but no more than any other female in this city. I do, however, seem to generate far more harassment than my friends, and I have to attribute it largely to the curves. Whatever the reason, the frequency has concerned everyone in my life.

On the night of Thursday, August 12th, just slightly after midnight, I was walking with my friend back to her apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. We only had a 5 block walk to go, and we were together, so we didn’t think it was necessary to take a cab. We were carrying groceries in both our hands. A mere half a block from her building, I heard a sudden rush of footsteps behind us, then felt someone’s body slam into my back. I then felt myself 100% bound, as the person wrapped their arms solidly around me in a strong bear-hug hold.

Because the brain does not process things normally when in shock, the first thought both I and my friend had was, “Oh, whose that? Is that a friend I know that’s just surprising me with a hug?” We had just said goodnight to a friend, so I thought perhaps it was him.

The attackers grip suddenly changed, and though he still had me bound, his hands suddenly gripped my breasts very hard. My arms were pinned to my side. I could not move. And to be honest, I didn’t even realize just what was happening to me.

–That is until his left arm shifted to hold me in place while he shoved his right arm between my legs, placed his hand over my vagina, quickly rubbed it aggressively and then attempted to shove his fingers inside of me over my dress. I heard an utterly disgusting sound of sexual arousal leave his mouth in that moment– I think that sound disturbed me even more than the molestation. It has certainly been the part of the experience that has haunted me the most.

It was only then that the shock gave way to an understanding of what was happening to me. According to my friend, I screamed “Get off of me!,” then dropped my weight to the ground. I don’t even remember doing this. And that’s when she realized just what was going on. Even as my body fell away from his grip and onto the ground, he was still struggling to hold onto me. When he let go, I looked up to see my friend struggling with him and pushing him away from me. He grabbed her hair, yanked her head back, shoved her and ran away.

The entire thing probably lasted a total of 10 seconds. This person knew exactly what he was doing. He worked my body with such precision that he clearly had the attack down to a routine. I was in shock for nearly the entire thing. I didn’t fully understand what had happened until I saw him running away.

We called the police, but he was long gone. During the entire episode, there were approximately 10 men sitting on the porch to an apartment building just 2 houses down the street. They witnessed the entire thing, made no attempts to intervene, didn’t move at all to run after the attacker, and, when it was all over, sat passively in place watching me weep in a ball on the sidewalk. When the police questioned them, they said they saw nothing.

It has been a week, and I feel NERVOUS. Everywhere I go. I don’t want any man walking behind me on the sidewalk, even if he’s simply going to work, I don’t want any many standing behind me on the bus, even if he’s reading. I don’t even want any many looking at me. I cannot relax AT ALL when I leave the house.

The sexual violation isn’t even the most traumatizing aspect to the experience: Sadly, I’ve been expecting something like this to happen for a long time, and I’m frankly surprised it’s taken 3.5 years given the level of harassment in this town. What has been the most traumatizing aspect of it is feeling like anyone who passes by me could attack me at any moment. As I lay there on the sidewalk crying that night, I wasn’t crying because some stranger had tried to shove their fingers inside of me: I was crying because I felt so utterly outraged and helpless. The violation of my power as a human being and my right to not be dominated feels even more intense than the sexual violation as a woman.

I have owned pepper spray since I was groped by the cyclists last year. I have spent the past year with it clutched in my hand, switch on, finger ready every single time I’ve left my house. 4 days before this attack, my spray broke. I had been walking around DC feeling extremely naked and vulnerable and scared without it, but I tried to tell myself I’d be okay for a few days until I got a new one. –Irony at its best.

Having said that, even if I’d had my spray: Given the way he had my arms and hands pinned to my sides, the pepper spray would have been useless. In fact I wonder what, if anything, WOULD be useful in a situation like that: We all think we’re going to act like cheetahs in these situations. We carry pepper spray and take self-defense classes and think we’ll be ready. In fact I once took a self-defense class geared precisely toward what to do if someone grabs you from behind and pins your arms down.

The fact of the matter is: When it’s happening to you, you just go into SHOCK.

I am very surprised that this man attacked me with another person at my side, but I’m very thankful she was there. I’m positive I would have been raped had she not been.

Though they are illegal here, I have ordered a stun gun and I intend to begin carrying it in my hand if ever I have to walk in DC at night. The fact that I have to resort to this infuriates me, and the reality of never being able to simply go for a walk in the city I love and reside in, without feeling perpetually on guard and defensive and nervous, makes me really sad.

I don’t know what it is about this city, or me, or the combination of the two that makes this type of thing so very prevalent, but I want it to stop, and I don’t know what to do.

Submitted by B on 8/25/2010

Location: Columbia Heights, 16th St. NW between Oak and Spring, near The Woodner apartment building

Time of harassment: Late Night (12A-5A)

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19 Responses

  1. D

    This is absolutely horrific. I’m so, so, so sorry this happened to you. Thank God your friend was there — but give yourself credit for having the presence of mind, shock notwithstanding, to fight him off. I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk around this neighborhood knowing something like that happened to you. I’m already on the defensive when I’m walking around here, but now I know to redouble my efforts. That’s no consolation to you, but please know, just by keeping other women alert, you’re doing something huge.

    If you don’t mind and get around to reading this, (and please, for safety’s sake, no need to be too specific) what part of Columbia Heights did this happen in? I just moved to the neighborhood. I almost want to set up some kind of neighborhood watch on my block, but I don’t know how much good that would do.

    • Golden Silence

      D, the location’s listed at the bottom of the story.

      B, I read your story at Stop Street Harassment and I echo my sentiments from there. Karma will get the scumbag who did this to you. Stay strong.

  2. FFF

    I’m speechless. It’s hard to think of a worse scenario: the vile attacker, the pathetic observers who did nothing to help you, the having to live in fear.

    Thank God your friend was there, but I wish she’d been carrying a stun gun.

    One with multiple charges, because one isn’t nearly enough for what that “man” deserves.

  3. B.

    Thank you for your response/support. It is strangely cathardic.

    Where did you move here from? Another neighborhood in DC, or a different state?

    This happened on 16th St. NW, on the left side of the street (if facing North), between Oak and Spring St., but closer to the corner of Oak & 16th. We had been walking from the Columbia Heights metro station, so it’s possible he’d been following us from there.

    Columbia Heights doesn’t have the best reputation, but it certainly doesn’t have the worst, and I have several friends that live there, enjoy it and feel relatively, and I stress relatively, safe. When the cops came, I asked them if this happens a lot in that area, and they actually said no, that they were surprised, because it happens more toward Adam’s Morgan or other parts of Columbia Heights/Mt. Pleasant– Which again, leads me to either think he’d been following us from another part of the neighborhood (we’d walked from a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant to the CVS by the Columbia Heights metro station to 16th & Oak), or that there’s just something about me that tends to attract sexual deviation, even if safer areas.

    I think setting up a neighborhood watch is BRILLIANT. And I suspect the residents would be on board. And I do think it would do some good– It will put everyone on guard, and communicate to the predators in the neighborhood that the eyes around them are watching. You could have weekly or monthly meetings to share stories, and document where incidences are taking place, even if it’s simply a matter of certain corners where men are hanging out and staring hungrily at women as they walk home.

    In the meantime, I strongly suggest you buy some pepper spray: It’s legal in DC, and you can either order it online or buy it from a store called “Mila” at 14th and U, NW. They carry it behind the counter. Don’t carry it in your purse when you’re out– Carry it in your HAND.

    Also, please don’t walk alone there at night. I know cabs can add up, but once it’s dark you just really need to splurge on one and avoid walking or busing.

    I might be leaving DC for a few months, but if you’re serious about starting the neighborhood watch program, I’d be interested in helping you. I don’t live there (I’m staying with friends right now), but I’d be happy to help all the same. In fact, it might be good for me.

    • hollabackdc

      Thank you B for having the courage to share your experience.

      D, or if anyone is interested in starting a neighborhood watch program let us know. We have been in the process of figuring out how to mobilize all the volunteer interest we have and want to start an anti-street harassment squad. We could start in Columbia Heights – we know we have a lot of volunteer interest in the Columbia Heights/U Street area.

      • B.

        If we really are interested in doing this, I know a lot of people in the city, have some good resources and have a knack for organizing/mobilizing. I’d be very interested in taking this on as a project. I think it might help me feel like I was regaining some of my power.

        We could appeal to local establishments to donate things like pepper sprays, whistles, etc.– I have found businesses to be very open to these types of requests, and pleased to receive the recognition.

        My mind is always popping with ideas, so please let me know. I’m attending the book release next Thursday if anyone would be interested in meeting to discuss the possibilities.

        • hollabackdc

          B, we will in in CA presenting at the National Sexual Assault Conference next Thursday but our board member, Josef will be there. Anyone who is interested in organizing something in the Columbia Heights/U Street Neighborhood, email us at so we can start talking about this and maybe figure out a time to meet up in the next few weeks.

  4. Josef

    Absolutely atrocious and one more reason why the collaborative work of groups like Stop Street Harassment and Holla Back DC! are doing such important advocacy on this issue.

    I’ve sent this post to many of my friends, regardless of gender, as a reminder of how we all need to remember to work together to heighten safety in the streets of our neighborhood.

  5. Nikki

    I’m so sorry, girl. Wish I could hug you. I live in CH now and I don’t ever feel safe. Never have, but I hope that changes for all of us soon.

  6. Muk

    There are some really great therapists and also fighting schools nearby. Both have helped me a bunch with the aftermath of similarly bad things. *hug*

    I am so sorry this happened to you.

  7. Liat

    This is so awful, and I’m so sorry that you had to go through this.

    I’m sure you know this, but just so it’s said out lout (or via internet): This was in NO WAY your fault. There is no word vile enough to describe that man. The only problem here is that he committed sexual assault; he has the issues, not you.

  8. JRo

    So, so, so sorry this happened to you. I am awed by your positivity and refusal to let this attack paralyze you. I will send this to my female friends who live in CH and will pay more attention myself when I’m in the neighborhood.

  9. Jenna

    I am so sorry this happened to you. How terrible! And the men that saw the whole thing and said/did nothing!? Shameful.

    You’re right about being prepared. Who can really prepare for something like this? How can you prevent something like this from happening? You can’t, it’s terrifying. The sad thing is it seems people spend more time warning women to be careful than they do telling men to TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT.

    Feel free to contact me if you need help or if you need somebody to talk to. My thoughts are with you.

  10. Golden Silence

    The sad thing is it seems people spend more time warning women to be careful than they do telling men to TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT.

    Typical “blame the victim” mentality. People need to hold these men accountable for their actions!

    And you’re right, there’s no way of knowing when and where you’ll be harassed. It happens out of nowhere.

  11. T

    Hey, Hollaback admins, can we put content like this (detailed descriptions of sexual assault) behind a cut and include a trigger warning next time?


    • hollabackdc

      Thanks for the suggestion, T. We will include a trigger warning on all detailed descriptions of sexual assaults in the future.

  12. E

    This is INCREDIBLY horrible – I’m SO sorry you went through that. Any description of the person who did this??? What were the suggestions from your self-defense class for how to fight someone who holds you like that off?

  13. K

    How horrible. So sorry you had to go through that. I was harassed A LOT walking through Columbia Heights when I lived there and had to run into my apartment more than once because a guy was following me. I also NEVER walked home after dark in CH except for one time with a guy friend because I was scared of the harassment I got during the day. I always, always cabbed home from wherever I was. I know it sucks that we can’t just walk around without fear because of some sick perverts.

    I now live in a different neighborhood in DC and feel so much safer. I have also been assaulted on the street, though not in DC, and it’s so scary. Hope you are doing okay.

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