*T.W. – sexual violence*
I’ve been thinking a lot recently of an experience I had 2 years ago in the back of an Uber in Costa Rica. I was travelling in the capital city San Jose right at the end of a 6 month travelling trip, going from one hostel to another. I was leaving one hostel due to the discovery that one of the people in my shared dorm was stealing out of people’s bags when they weren’t there, and I was now accustomed to sacking shit off when I didn’t like it; a deliciously selfish lifestyle indeed. I was going to a hostel closer to the centre of the city that I had actually stayed in before, and ordered an Uber to take me the 15 minute journey. It arrived, I placed my huge bag in the boot, got in the backseat and off we went.
I made a point of telling the driver (in Spanish) that I (ironically) didn’t speak Spanish, and so if he were to attempt to talk to me elaborately I wouldn’t be able to engage. Everybody knows however, that you can always understand more of a language than you can speak it. The driver continued to ask me simple questions in Spanish which I could answer: my name, my age etc. So far so good. He was quite a small, slightly older man, and I felt calm. Normal.
Suddenly the conversation switched, and his chat became more lewd. He kept making comments about my body, my face, my age, my hair, my name, my clothes, my smell. I don’t know whether he knew I could understand him or whether he was being so inappropriate because he thought I couldn’t. Either way, I ignored them, feigning ignorance. He then started asking me what I was doing later, tomorrow, the rest of my time in San Jose. He spoke in broken English and so I did the same, simply telling him how I was going to this hostel to meet up with my friend (lie), how I was leaving tomorrow morning (lie), how I would love to see him again but couldn’t due to these circumstances (lie lie lie). He seemed disappointed and sort of accepted my answers, but kept conjuring up new ways we could see each other again. I carried on lying.
We reached my destination and I put my hand upon the door handle to get out. I pulled, and the thing flicked back in my face. Child lock. I turned back to him, gesturing at the door, assuming he’d forgotten to unlock. He had turned almost 180 degrees in his chair so he was now facing me in the back. He thrust his phone into my lap. “Your number.” He pointed at me and then his phone. It was not a request, it was an order. I casually picked up his phone, entered my entire number with the last digit wrong and then held it back out to him, smiling. Instead of taking it, he pressed ‘Call now’. We both sat in silence as he stared at my phone in my lap as it ceased to ring. Before I even had the chance to come up with a series of reasonable excuses as to why the number I had entered wasn’t working, he had spun back around in his chair and we were moving again. I looked out the back window, watching the familiar hostel get further away.
“Oh no! That was my hostel! My destination! Back there!” I calmly told him. He ignored me. I sat back in my chair, unsure of what to do now. My heart was beating slightly faster, but I was mostly embarrassed, not frightened. He weaved us through the city streets, and I made another attempt. “Where are we going?” I asked feebly. “To lunch. I’m taking you for lunch. You will go for lunch with me.” I remember how his accent seemed thinner when he spoke this competent English to me, and how much it scared me.
“Oh no! We can’t! My friend! She will wonder where I am!” I was ignored again.
We drove for maybe another 10 minutes through identical looking streets. I was not super familiar with San Jose and so had no idea where we were or where we were heading, however I had been to the city before. Earlier in my trip, I had gone to a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of the city for the day. It sat next the myriad of motorway and highway roads that veined from the capital city into the rest of Costa Rica. I remember arriving at it thinking ‘What a strange place for a shopping centre, literally on the edge of the city’.
After the 10 minutes of city street driving we emerged, and as I looked to my left I saw the huge looming figure of that shopping centre. Now I had my bearings, and I knew exactly how far away we had driven. I looked around outside the car and saw all the other roads literally weaving away off into the distance, away from the city.
I don’t know if this is just me, but when I think of danger I see a little avenue in front of me, with a destination at the end. Usually, in between me and that destination are all the various obstacles that prevent me from reaching that conclusion. I sat in the back of this Uber and looked at the avenues in front of me. One said murder. One said rape. One said assault. One said mugging. One said trafficking. There were no obstacles between me and these destinations now, all of them had disappeared. No one knew where I was, and wouldn’t for another 5 days until I failed to board a flight from San Jose to Bogota, Colombia, and then another flight from Bogota to Heathrow. Travellers don’t turn up to hostel bookings all the time, so my lack of check in at this new hostel would mean nothing. No one was with me. I was absolutely all alone. There is something so pure about realising your complete vulnerability; it is so overwhelming – a total saturation on your previously neutral reality.
5 days. Nobody would look for me for over 5 days. What the fuck could happen to me in 5 days. I looked out again at the roads. I didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t know this country well, I didn’t have a lot of money on me to bribe anyone. The avenues were breathtakingly clear. Nobody was going to help me, nothing was protecting me. I was completely exposed. It felt like when you fall through the air and you reach out to grab something to stop it – your hand clasps a solid surface and that plummeting sensation catches in your chest. The world is steady. Except there was no solid surface, no obstacle. My hand was flailing and nothing was there, just air whistling between my fingers, and the plummet didn’t catch, didn’t stop. It was helpless tumbling.
The first thing I told myself was to absolutely not cry. Women crying in front of men is a very emotive thing for them, I have realised. Women crying in front of predators is even more so. In predators it usually elicits one of two responses:
- a power hungry, rubbing-hands-together, gleefully violent response – “Oo yes I’ve got you now, look at how weak and scared you are”
- a panicked violent response – “Oh my god oh my god it’s making noise *grabs heavy object* quick hit it until the noise stops *begins to strike crying woman* oh my god we’re gonna get caught” (a lovely call back to the demise of Curly’s wife at the hands of Lenny in Of Mice and Men as I’m sure you’ve all noticed)
Both of those involve a violent conclusion, and so I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen. No tears. This meant I wouldn’t allow myself to really indulge in my situation – don’t think about where you are, what’s happening, what he might do to you. Nope, this is strictly a mental exercise. You’re in the back of a car, how do you get out of the car? Don’t think about why you’re here, just acknowledge that you are in a situation and that you have a goal. Get out of the car.
I looked around me. You’re in this situation because he wanted something (don’t think about what he wants), you didn’t give it, he is punishing you/taking it anyway (don’t think about why this is happening). What do you do now?
As much as men hate women crying, they love validation. You must never make a man feel stupid or silly, particularly not if you’re a woman. They really don’t like that. Even if they are attempting to abduct you in the back of a monitored cab, you must never argue, shame, even disagree with what’s going on. So I didn’t. The entire time I humoured him, refused to acknowledge what the situation currently was, kept pretending like this was perfectly normal, like I even wanted to be there. I was still trying to talk to him, desperately. My fear manifested as a frantic mixture of the 2 languages. I wanted him to know me. I wasn’t going to be some ‘frightened girl’ in the back of his Uber, because it’s easier to do bad things to them. I was going to be a person, because ‘girl’ and ‘person’ are not synonyms. I talked incessantly, hysterically about banal nothingness – I told him about how excited I was to go home tomorrow (lie, remind him people are waiting for you, that people will notice your disappearance), how I hadn’t seen my parents in 6 months (lie), how much I loved that shopping centre we were passing (lie), how nice his car was (lie), how excited I was to eat dinner later (lie), how much my shoes were giving me blisters (lie). A chaotic frenzy of terrible Spanish and over simplified English continued to pour out as I looked around the car. See me as a person, see me as a person, see me as a person.
His phone. It was still in my lap. He wanted something, you didn’t give it to him, he’s taking it instead. Negotiate. Trade.
I instantly typed my real number into his phone and rang it. My phone danced brightly on my thighs as the incoming call pulsed through it. I held them up so he could see in the rearview mirror.
“Look! You have my number now! I’m so sorry, I made a mistake, wrong number, please, I would love to go for lunch but my friend, my friend is waiting for me! Please. I will see you tomorrow definitely! Please, my friend!” My tone was sticky with false kindness, false enthusiasm, false everything.
His eyes instantly softened in the rearview mirror, he smiled, and pulled us off the motorway. Around 20 minutes later we were back outside the hostel.
I heard the clunk of doors unlocking and threw myself out of the car onto the road. You’re out of the car, he can’t trap you now. I remember the feeling as soon as I closed the car door behind me. An obstacle. The car door. My avenues were bulking out. The hardness of the tarmac road beneath my feet jolted me, like when you step off a trampoline or bouncy castle. I had been suspended in air in that car; returning to solids was a sensory punch in the chest.
I waited as he got my bag out of the boot, I smiled as he kissed my hand, I did nothing when he licked my cheek and smelt my hair.
“Bye bye sexy girl see you tomorrow.”
“Bye, thank you!”
I had 5 days left in San Jose, I had plans for my time there. I did nothing. I didn’t make friends with any of the girls in my dorm, I didn’t go out, I didn’t really eat. I sat on the fire escape outside the dorm’s window and read books. Fiction only. I showered constantly.
I had blocked his number from my phone and told Uber about what had happened (I have to this day never received a reply from them). I wanted to go home for the first time in 6 months.
Now more than ever I am angry about what happened to me. I am angry that I knew what to do.
The notion that in the future women will know less is idealistic to me now.
This may sound strange, but I am furious at the fact that I knew exactly how to be a victim. I am absolutely not victim blaming anybody else or myself, I am angry because that dynamic existed in my mind. Existed strongly and clearly enough that I was able to get out of it. Why do I know and understand that situation so well? Why was I so efficient at my role as abductee that I knew the ways to de-escalate the situation and strategically end it?
Of course, to resent the qualities that ‘saved’ you sounds ridiculous, ungrateful, stupid. I am not resentful of the fact that I successfully utilised a tool belt of knowledge to escape, I am resentful of my ownership of such a tool belt. Women understand our place in the world as other people’s victims so easily that we know what to do when that happens. That sounded like progress for such a long time, but now it sounds practically dystopian. An entire sex so unflinchingly aware of our capacity to be attacked, preyed upon, abused, that we have dormant mental frameworks of what to do when it happens. I say when, because the degree to which we are aware is only possible when the experience is universal. I would dare to say every woman has had to dip into the mindset I had in that car, if even in the most mild of ways. How to strategically avoid the wrath of somebody who felt entitled to you, your time, your body.
There is something so perversely utopian about a generation of women who have no idea that men can view them in that way. It might sound like blissful ignorance, but in reality it would be the result of women in a society where sexualised violence is so rare, they have never been taught how to deal with it. Because that’s what it is – dealing with it. Not stopping it. Dealing with it. When it happens.
We can see now that the arming of victims is usually the first step in a slippery slope of apathy for a situation. Instead of tackling the problem, we will ‘alleviate’ the symptom. Self-Defence classes, women’s only spaces in the gym, pepper spray, rape alarms, location tracking apps, moving in groups. Paracetamol to the illness. The moment you arm the victims, you are treating the abuse as inevitable. I shouldn’t have to be so knowledgable about all my various ‘vulnerabilities’, they aren’t vulnerabilities. Travelling in a taxi alone shouldn’t make me vulnerable. This idea of constant paranoia faced by so many as totally normal, that we should regulate our behaviour to accommodate for the wildness of others. Women are constantly being told to shave down their worlds, narrower and narrower, to carve out all of the ways other people might hurt them. Fuck. That.
This barely scratches the surface of all the countless demographics of people who have been told that blind hatred of them is inevitable.
Believe it or not I have faced comments bordering on criticism when I have told people the story of the taxi journey. Many people asking why I didn’t phone the police if I had 2 phones. Ah yes, if only I had thought of the emergency services in the midst of my emergency. It amuses me greatly when people offer up these seemingly blindly obvious answers to people in crisis – particularly women being attacked by a man. Funnily enough, I did think of calling the police in that car, and didn’t, for so. many. reasons.
Reasons Why I Didn’t Call The Police In That Uber:
- I didn’t know the emergency service number
- As clarified I speak very little Spanish and didn’t hold out much hope that the operator would speak plenty of English
- I had literally no idea where I was and so couldn’t help anyone locate the car
- At the realisation I was in contact with the police, the driver could have literally driven off the road at high speed, killing us both
That last point always provokes eye rolls or huffs from people, but for me it was absolutely the single biggest reason I didn’t attempt to ring anyone. This man had already decided off the back of a 15 minute car journey he was going to take me somewhere against my will, in a taxi designed as part of a business model to prevent things exactly like this from happening. Clearly, this guy flies by the seat of his pants with little to no concern for social norms, his job, authoritative figures and the law. The idea that I could draw some kind of logical boundary in the back of that car is fucking laughable. “Oh yes, well he is demonstrably the kind of person who will attempt to abduct a young woman in a tracked taxi who claims to have people who know where she is, but he is definitely NOT mental enough to kill us both in an attempt to evade the law.”
And that’s my point. I don’t want to have to assume that every person driving me from place to place, walking behind me at night, working as my boss, is going to do the unthinkable to the furthest degree. Because when you’re in that situation that is exactly what you must do – call it catastrophizing, but imagine how naive it would be to do literally anything else. “Well yes, he did sexually assault me, but I never imagined he would have punched me as well.” I’m told to constantly pre-empt these things enough to spend money on products to protect me, classes to teach me, cars to transport me, but when I am in that situation I am told to stop being so dramatic.
Violence against women is treated as normal, inevitable, unsurprising. And I know this is not the most original point of view in our post-MeToo climate, but that is proof of my words. We had an entire campaign literally named after the phrase that indicates solidarity and shared experience, and yet everything in this blog is still true. I am not resentful of my writing this piece, but simply of the knowledge itself.