I had been in graduate school for over three years but hadn’t taken a night class. So when I started teaching Psych 280: Community Psychology from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm, it was very possibly the first time I had found myself walking alone at night across campus. For the first week, I followed my autopilot footsteps – the same path I walked home every single day.
In the daylight. Of daytime.
One night during the second week, two skinny young twenty-somethings on skateboards came careening toward me on the sidewalk. Per usual, I made room for them to pass. The second one leaned toward me as he sped by and sang,
“This is how it starts, two lovers in the dark.”
And then he was gone.
In the first instant, I felt smug – into my thirties and still getting flirted with by skinny little college boys.
In the second instant, I thought, ‘Shit. This is the road where all the sexual assaults happen.’
And I never walked home on autopilot from that class again.
As a matter of fact, I changed my entire routine, taking the much longer trek across several well-lit campus paths to the less sketchy road that would take me home less directly. My 17 minute walk became a 26 minute walk. I wouldn’t say this was a life-altering change, but it was irritating. Every freaking time I walked home that longer way in the subsequent four months, I did so with an angry inner monologue swearing up a storm of outrage in my head.
“It’s not fair that I have to change my routine just in case.
“It’s not fair that a flirty kid on a skateboard precipitated this change – he wasn’t a threat and he certainly didn’t threaten me. And for that matter, it’s not fair to him! He would probably (hopefully) feel badly if he knew some random woman is going through months of rape-alertness because he flirted with her for two seconds.
“It’s not fair that if I did walk the sketchy road and someone did actually harm me, that some people would wonder – why did she walk that way? Didn’t she know it was a sketchy road? Didn’t she know she might get raped? Isn’t it kind of her fault?
“It’s not fair that I have to absorb into my everyday psyche the hypothetical blame for a sexual assault that did not happen.
“It’s not fair I’m stuck with the daily, irritating reminder when I have to walk a different way home to avoid said hypothetical assault and said hypothetical blame.
“It’s not fair that I have to spend months refuting misogynistic accusations of hypothetical people in my head.
“I am not to blame for my hypothetical sexual assault!
“It’s the hypothetical rapist’s fault!
“Why don’t you hypothetical people blame him?!
“Why doesn’t he have to take the long way home to avoid hypothetically raping people?!”
All this and more streaming through my head for 26 minutes. Every. Single. Night.
Months later, close to the end of the semester, I was booking it through campus after class one night. I was in a hurry to get home so I could go back out again. Fun times awaited. Drinks. Friends. I was doing that thing where you’re technically walking, but only because it’s not socially acceptable for adults in professional dress to be giddy and run. Nor is it practical, for that matter, with a laptop in your bag.
I was walking, but I was walking fast.
A man, older than me this time, maybe 40, laughed as I passed him, and made some crack about how fast I was going. “Let me get out of your way,” he offered. I laughed too. Something in his voice, or his demeanor… he was friendly. It was a friendly moment between strangers. We didn’t know each other, but for that one moment as we crossed paths, we were friends. We wished each other a good night. Moments later I was out of sight.
I sped across the well-lit paths and down the less sketchy road on my less direct route home. Almost there, slightly out of breath, I stopped at a crosswalk to wait for a light. A small group of pedestrians was already gathered. I had seen them waiting, standing around during my swift approach. One of them turned toward me. His jaw dropped. It was the man, my stranger friend, who had been ambling across campus while I was nearly running. He gazed at me in amazement.
“Now how the hell did I beat you here?” he laughed.
I shrugged, laughing, “No idea… Oh.” I knew how he beat me. “You took Dole Street, didn’t you?”
I spread my hands. “I’m a woman so I can’t go that way at night.”
The amazement died off his face. I didn’t go into all the nuances of my decision to take the long way home even when I was in a hurry, or mention poor campus security, or rape culture, or the unfairness of victim blaming, or the fact that it also sucks for men that we women must constantly be on our guard against them, or what it means to women to be constantly considering how to not get raped when we could be busy considering other things, or about my inner monologue of obscenities that had an awful lot to say about gendered politics.
But I watched his face fall, my stranger friend, as he realized that in all his ambling that night, it had never once occurred to him to not walk down that sketchy road because he might be sexually assaulted. Because we two lived in different realities, even as we stood together on that street corner.
He looked like he was going to apologize, but he didn’t.
And I didn’t tell him that I didn’t find him threatening. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t find the kid threatening either, the one who sang to me on that sketchy road months ago. I didn’t tell him that it was not his fault, that it was no one’s fault really. That’s the problem with rape culture – it’s not caused by any one person, like you could get rid of it if you just talked sense into that one guy. It’s an accumulation of a billion instances, scattered across intersecting lives.
The laughter had drained from our rapport, but we were still stranger friends in that moment, and we understood each other.
We wished each other a good night once again, and I sped away across the street.
- Laura Kati Corlew
Kati Corlew is a Community and Cultural Psychologist, a researcher on the psychology of climate change, and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine at Augusta. She conducts workshops on test and math anxiety for students, mindfulness and meditation, as well as disaster and climate change preparedness. She is a scientist, a spiritualist, and a writer. She recently published a book of poetry and psychology titled, “Finally, a Song from Silence (poetry from when I was young).” She lives in Maine with her spouse and two dogs. Visit https://songfromsilence.wordpress.com/.