“Within 5 feet: Battling sexual assault up close”

Friday, 7/20/2012
Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

This piece was originally published by WTOP. It has been republished by CASS with permission from the author

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The 25-year-old photographer was walking in Dupont Circle on a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon when a man pulled up behind her on his bicycle. He reached up her skirt and through her underwear.

“He laughed and biked away,” she says. “That was it.”

Gorman was stunned, but not into silence. She chased the man, and called police when she couldn’t catch up. The next day, Gorman decided to take further action and wrote an essay for Collective Action for Safe Spaces about what she calls the “10-5 rule.”

“I am walking alone and see a man walking towards me at 10 feet. Maybe instead of looking straight ahead into the distance, I move my eyes to the ground. I slump my shoulders slightly … At 5 feet, I take a small breath and one of two things happens: nothing at all, which I consider a small victory or…something.”

The essay instantly went viral. The Washington Post, Huffington Post and DCist are just a few places that picked it up.

Women from throughout the region wrote in to express their support and also to share their own stories. It wasn’t long before Gorman realized she had tapped into something that was boiling just beneath the surface. She wasn’t alone.

“This is not just about me,” she says. “This is about the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

Lisa, a D.C. resident who asked WTOP to withhold her last name for safety reasons, is one of the many people inspired by Gorman’s account. She felt an instant connection to the story not only because she has been a victim of harassment, but because Gorman’s incident happened in her neighborhood.

“You forget that this is something that’s not supposed to happen,” she says. “There’s no reason that people should feel ashamed. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were just going about your life.”

More than a year ago, Lisa stepped out of a friend’s house near 3rd Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest to wave down a cab. A van full of men pulled up near her and started “leering and taunting.”

“Hey sweetie, we can take you where you want to go. Just get in,” they said.

She was scared and didn’t know what to do. In hopes of not angering or provoking them, she pretended she was “in on the joke” so they wouldn’t get out of the van. Eventually they left, but the experience haunted her.

“It was only a couple of minutes, but you think a lot about how wrong that could have gone,” she says. “It’s threatening, and a lot of people don’t always realize that it’s not flattering, it’s not nice. It’s unwanted and it’s inappropriate and it’s unkind.”

Gorman’s post and the subsequent wave of support made Lisa “proud seeing that so many women feel that they’re in control of their lives and that this is not something they want to take.”

Chai Shenoy, co-founder and executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, is seeing a new wave of victims coming forward. Where some women used to accept harassment as a part of daily life, many are no longer keeping quiet.

Since 2009, Safe Spaces has received more than 700 posts from women who were harassed or assaulted.

“The idea that sexual harassment and assault is a private thing comes from centuries of women and men not talking about these issues,” she says. “It’s a very new phenomenon through social media and through the Internet for people to be sharing these experiences.”

What made Gorman’s account so unique is her willingness to not only post her name, but also link to her professional bio. By not hiding her identity, she made others feel empowered to do the same, Shenoy says.

Chai Shenoy, co-founder of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)

“I think the online space is a real tool for empowerment for a lot of people,” she says. “There is a sense of wanting to reclaim the Internet for different genders. This is just another avenue of people wanting to reclaim what happened to them.”Earlier this month, a 20-year-old Minnesota woman posted a picture of herself smiling and flashing a bandaged hand that was injured after she punched a man who threatened to rape another woman.

“I hope your mother/girlfriend/sister/friends/everyone asks what happened to your nose,” she wrote in a blog post. “I bet you didn’t think that the girl who was walking in front of you would turn around and punch you in the face.”

The original post has since been taken down due to threats to the author, who turned herself in to police.

Jeenie Yoon, a volunteer for the D.C. Rape and Crisis Center, says that women typically respond to harassment in one of two ways: ignoring or “going crazy on the harasser.”

“Neither of them are all that effective,” she says.

While commuting to work one early morning, Yoon fell asleep on the Metro and woke up to a man sitting right next to her, though the train car was mostly empty. She tried to ignore him, but he kept inching closer and closer until his leg was touching hers. She felt trapped.

“You need to move to a different seat right now,” she said loudly enough for the four other commuters to hear.

The man swore and cursed, called her a racist and didn’t budge at first. Yoon stood her ground and kept repeating her demand until he left.

“It was frightening and adrenaline was rushing through my body,” she says. “My heart was beating fast and I had a little sweat going, but it worked.”

These types of stories are nothing new to the millions of women who endure catcalls, or worse, while walking down the street. But the new wave of victims coming forward signals that a bigger conversation is looming, Shenoy says.

The online community has proven to be a source of support for some, and courage for others.

But for Gorman, she was just trying to recover from the shock.

“I was really angry,” she says. “I didn’t think I would get this kind of response – I wasn’t going out there trying to get on the evening news – this was just my way of dealing with it.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)