I would like to share a story.
Yesterday I travelled from Breckenridge, Colorado to Sulphur, Oklahoma. I followed a friend most of the way because my phone was broken and I did not want to get lost and have no way to contact help. My friend will only drive the speed limit, never over. I am a firm believer in the 5 miles over is the speed limit rule; especially after 12 hours of driving. Because of this, when we got to Oklahoma City I decided to go ahead of him because I basically knew the way home from there. Bad idea.
If you know me at all you know I am horrible with directions, so of course I ended up going back west on I-44 instead of south on I-35. When I realized I was backtracking I took the first exit I saw and pulled into a gas station. I was in South Oklahoma City, near 70-something street and Penn, alone and without a phone. I needed gas so I tried to pay with my card. It would not let me even though that is how I had been paying the entire trip. The machine told me to go in to see the cashier.
I had chosen this gas station because it seemed well-lit and there were multiple cars. Somehow, by the time I was walking in there was only one car parked in the shadows and two guys sitting out on the curb smoking. I was wearing a t-shirt dress. It was short-sleeved, covered my collar bones, and maybe an inch above my knees. Suddenly I felt very exposed. I carried a twenty and a ten, planning on putting $25 in. When I entered the store there was nobody behind the counter. I could feel the eyes of the two boys on me from behind.
I turned nonchalantly, because I was NOT afraid, and walked towards the door. “Are you the cashier?”
“Yeah,” he said taking a drag of his cigarette, not budging, “You gonna put all that in?”
“No, just twenty-five. I need a five back,” I replied walking back to the register.
As I paid, the other guy walked in behind me. I couldn’t fight the feeling of a trapped animal. I was acutely aware of any skin showing and the eyes going up and down my body, as well as the glances shared between the two strangers.
“Thanks,” I said feigning confidence and tried not to run to my car. I put the gas in, realizing my tank could only take fifteen of the twenty-five I paid. I did not go back in for the ten, broke as I am.
I share this story because it was the worst experience I’ve had in all of my experiences traveling alone. There have been seemingly worse scenarios; walking alone at night in Limoges, London, Edinburgh, Paris. Those night I was scared, yes. I didn’t have a working phone then either. I had even walked past hooting groups of guys before, I had stayed in hostels where I was the only girl, obviously alone. But there was something different about this night, I never felt so close to a horrible experience. There was difference in the looks of their faces.
I believe in traveling alone. I believe in not living in fear. I believe in overcoming gender expectations.
I also believe in being smart. In being careful and in listening to your gut.
I share this experience because I think about if something had happened what the responses could have been. “She should not have been traveling alone.” “She was wearing a dress, maybe if she were wearing something less revealing.” “She should not have left without a phone.”
And sure, these things are all good pre-cautionary things. But when does that end? What should I do, hole myself in after dark? Never leave the house? Find a husband so I am never alone without a male to protect me? Get a gun, keep it on me at all times? These are real questions women are faced with, and blame shifting seems to be the answer most of the time.
I think of what MY response is to the experience, “Those boys probably did not have dads who taught them to respect women.” “They should know the fears of women alone and try to alleviate them with respectful behavior.” “Do they even realize the fear they instill? Do they like it?”
I hope as parents, educators, role-models, or whatever you are to those around you that you teach others to respect and empower those who have been dis-empowered, I hope that you realize the truths of what it is like to live as the other gender.
Driving home I thought of how lucky I am to have a car, to be born when and where I was, to have had the education I have had. I thought of the millions of unfortunate around the world, male and female, who have not had these fortunes. It is an overwhelming and helpless feeling. But this can change. Through a change in the cultural perception of men and women. The change in value system of sex and of others. I know I am a drop in the ocean, but I come in contact with countless other drops, and so do you.
Rejecting long-held notions such as “boys will be boys” and sending the clear message that buying sex is wrong is not just a task for governments, but will require partnerships throughout society, including the faith and business communities. Business leaders can adopt codes of conduct that prohibit purchasing sex. And leaders in civil society—from teachers to parents to ministers—must foster the belief that it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part to reduce the demand for commercial sex. It is especially important to reach young men with a strong message of demand reduction to help them understand the exploitation that permeates the commercial sex trade.