‘Remember that we had no choice, and that nothing we ate, drank, or wore that night had any factual bearing on what was done to us; what was taken from us.’ - Chelsea Levinson, ‘An Open Letter to Poppy Harlow and all Steubenville Rapist Sympathizers’
Chelsea is Jane Doe. But for a passing taxi, I might have been, too. Most women know their assailants, but I was the girl alone on a quiet street, the strange men in a dark alley. Just another silent statistic. We’re all potential Jane Does, and unless we join Chelsea and speak up, nothing will change.
It was winter in Jordan, my last year of university. I remember the timeline vividly because, at 21, I’d just had my first snow day, and the irony of having to move all the way to a Middle Eastern desert for it amused me. The snow was still falling when I left my flat just after sunset to catch a cab to meet the boys for dinner. Walking down the unusually deserted main road of my neighborhood, I texted Matt to tell him I would be late trying to find a taxi as I set off for the major thoroughfare four blocks away.
A block or so down the road, as I passed the alley between two closed cafes, two men emerged and surrounded me. I think we made polite conversation for a second but the wave of adrenalin later drowned the memory. Next thing I knew, I was pinned against a wall and one of them was kissing me.
You always tell yourself that if it happens, you’ll kick them in the balls, gouge their eyes, run like hell. In the moment, I panicked and froze as his hands fumbled under my coat. I said no, tried to turn away.
A taxi materialized on the empty street, full of four women who shouted something at the men. I didn’t understand it all, but I caught an ‘aar (shame) and allah (god) and could infer the rest. They ran and the women urged me to cram into the back of their cab. They were clearly a family - grandma, mother, aunt, and daughter, all with the same eyes, and I was squished in next to the youngest, a woman about my age.
She asked me where I was going and told the driver to detour past Abdoun to drop me off. Then she turned to me and said it wouldn’t have happened if I wore the veil, gesturing to her own hijab and those of her relatives. Still in shock, I couldn’t formulate an argument, but I wanted to point to my scarf and gloves and hat and coat and boots and insist that it amounted to the same.
The details are irrelevant. But I still include them because, deep down, I want to prove I didn’t deserve it, that I did my best to be invisible. I was sober, it was dinnertime, I was covered, I lived in a relatively safe and wealthy neighborhood with street lights and neighbors who knew me.
Telling the story at the restaurant, it was Matt and Fleming who pointed out that none of that mattered, that a crime is a crime. I could have been stumbling drunk at 3 AM, on my way home from a bikini jello wrestling competition after losing my top in the fight, and it still wouldn’t be okay. My right not to be violated rests in being a human, not in what I was or was not wearing, what I drank, or what god I worshipped.
I was lucky. I am lucky. I was rescued before something worse could happen, and my life is filled with men who know that bare skin or a couple of drinks are not an invitation and who are disgusted by their brethren who don’t agree. I love them for it. I love that their outrage prompts me to examine my own internalized guilt.
Millions aren’t so lucky, and they bear far more terrible wounds than I do. I don’t pretend to be able to imagine what Chelsea and Jane Doe have to live with every day. But it’s that self-betrayal, the feeling that I asked for it, that hurts more than the memory of an unwelcome tongue in my mouth, of my back pressed against a cinderblock alley. It’s the fact that we still discuss a victim’s dress or sobriety or past behavior as if it changes the severity of the violation.
I won’t live in fear of being a temptation to some passing stranger, friend, or date. I think more of men than that. I still live abroad. I still travel alone, meet my friends for dinner, show off my cleavage, and sometimes even drink more than I should. But every so often, that moment comes back.
A few weeks ago, I got a flat tire on the way home from a friend’s house. As I stood there, laughing at the absurdity of two grown adults believing they could share a tiny scooter, two men wandered over and stood staring. It was dark on a Sunday night, only a few passing cars, and that tingle of unease returned. They were probably harmless and may have even wanted to help. But I couldn’t shake that gut feeling, that memory of losing control of my own agency, even if only for a passing minute. I yelled at them to go away, perhaps rudely.
I should have felt safe because I was with a 6’2” man, but instead I just felt reminded that I’m not free to feel safe alone, to come home late, to drink until I giggle incessantly, to wear a short dress and cute heels without judgement. That despite our best efforts, the presence of a man can still determine whether or not I deserve respect.
I try to lighten up, to forget about it, and most of the time I can. But then I remember people like Chelsea and Jane Doe, who will never be able to forget, and who could be anyone I know. Anyone you know.
For every person sick of hearing about rape culture, there’s a victim equally sick of being told he or she deserved it or could have prevented it by acting differently. We should teach our children how not to be sex offenders rather than how not to be a victim. Stop treating sexual assault as an inevitability that victims can only try to avoid inviting and start treating it as the deplorable crime it is.
We are all Jane Doe.