The first time I saw a penis, it was ejaculating onto a sliding glass door, feet away from me and four other 14-year-old girls. The second time I saw a penis was not long after that, when I was forced into my first sexual experience. The penis I saw most recently belonged to a stranger, and he decided to show it to me while I was alone on a hike. That was today.
After a lousy morning, I went to the woods to feel more sane. I went to a nearby nature preserve a friend recommended. I brought my dog. It was 4:30 when I arrived. I texted my partner where I was.
A few hundred yards down the trail, I was already breathing more deeply. Ahead, at a fork in the trail, I saw a man. I tightened. I considered turning around. He was studying a map. I took a breath and chided myself for feeling so nervous. Even though there was no one else really around. Even though I was a woman walking alone. Even though the news is filled with phrases like “I moved on her like a bitch” and “Grab them by the pussy.” I was taking a hike. It was the middle of the afternoon. I said hello and walked on.
In college, I spent a summer trying to take a different hike every day. Sometimes I went with a friend, but often I was alone. I had a book with trail maps, a bottle of water, and my legs. I hiked dozens and dozens of miles that summer, and the years before and after. Alone. I worried about an afternoon thunderstorm or the setting sun. I worried about stepping on a copperhead or crossing a bear cub. But I did not worry about another person.
I worried today, after seeing the guy at the trail map. I sized him up, and noted him to be fit. Six feet. Maybe 180. Strong. Younger than me. So as I walked, I kept stopping to listen for his feet in the leaves behind me. I cleared space on my phone to take a picture, and spent the next several minutes imagining whether I would threaten to take his picture if he confronted and attacked me. Would that make me safer or more at risk? I eventually decided, on this hike in the autumn afternoon, that I would only take his picture if I thought that it was my only hope. Even if he killed me because I gathered evidence, I might be able to text evidence.
I remembered that I used to carry pepper spray when I first went to college. Every woman I knew carried pepper spray on her keychain. I remember when I realized that the pepper spray made me somehow feel more vulnerable. As if carrying a weapon marked me as a potential victim. I stopped carrying the pepper spray. I kept my wits and took a risk.
Walking in the woods today, I wished I had pepper spray. Instead, I imagined what I would do when he lunged at me. Screaming, dropping my dog’s leash and taking off toward the car, zig zagging to try to lose him.
I had spent my entire hike imagining how to escape a dude who was probably also just on a hike. I thought of my partner, a guy of a similar build who goes out of his way to show women that he is not threatening. Walking down the street at night, he can’t decide if he should smile, cross the street, say hello. He sees women grab their purses, pull out their phones, and walk quickly with their heads down. Was I profiling this guy in that same way? Assuming the worst?
I tried to clear my head. I tried to look around me at the Maine day that was stunningly beautiful. I breathed in deeply. I took the shortest possible route and imagined getting home to my partner and our two sons. I had toyed with the idea of going to see Sausage Party, a film rumored to be so crude and outrageous that I had to see it.
I was raised with a group of male friends and have a male sensibility in many ways. I certainly have a sense of humor than men seem to get more than women. Dry. Sarcastic. Ironic. Crude. I remember when fart jokes turned to tit jokes. I remember feeling proud that my guy friends treated me like a guy as we all teased each other about jacking off and boners and coming too soon. We were all virgins, but this was the way that the conversations shifted. I have a potty mouth that I got from these guys as I grew into a woman. Campsites and firepits were the locker rooms of my youth, and the players were almost all men. But I was right there with them. Laughing along. Feeling included. It was all an act to veil late-blooming dorky actualities. And it was funny. So I wanted to see Sausage Party because dick jokes make me laugh still. I had planned to go alone after we put the kids to bed.
My mood lightened somewhat until I turned a bend and saw him walking toward me. I stiffened, grabbed my dog’s leash tight, and leaned into the trail. I nodded slightly to him as we passed. He did the same. Three steps down the trail, I turned to be sure that he was walking on. That he was not the monster that I’d imagined. Instead of seeing him receding down the trail, I saw him staring at me, pants dropped, jacking off.
I quickened my pace. I called my partner, who called the police. I speed walked back to the trailhead and as I approached the parking lot, I saw him already in his car, looking back at me. I ran ahead to get his license plate and he sped off. I only got the model and make, and maybe the last three digits of the plate.
I had been right to be afraid. I had been right to imagine that this man must see me as an object. I had been right that he was a predator.
I should not feel so grateful that he was satisfied touching himself in front of me instead of touching me. I should not feel relieved that I was not raped today. I should not have to explain what I was wearing. I should not have to ask my dad if he’ll remember that I was raped at 15 as he casts his votes for the man who “says it like it is” in a few weeks. I should not have had to convince myself then that crying and saying “No” was enough. I should not have believed for so many years that I had it coming. I should not have to use two hands to count the times that strangers have exposed themselves to me. I should not have to teach my sons to honor another human being’s desires. I should not be relieved that I don’t have daughters. I should not have to assume that in every class I teach, someone has been raped. I should not have to hike with a knife. I should not have to carry pepper spray. I should not have to apologize to the cop for hiking by myself—on a hiking trail, during the day. I should not be so afraid. I should not feel always already potentially raped. But I do.
And as I hear that “boys will be boys,” I think of not only the two boys that I am raising, but also of those who helped raise me. I think of my brother’s gentle logic and quiet laughter. I think of my partner who understands that he is a threat. And I shudder to imagine that they are the exceptions. Is locker room talk just the new phrase for rape fantasies? Are we really raising men to feel entitled to fuck any woman they see? Are men somehow naturally inclined to spread their seed, and must they fight against that instinct?
I believe in the gentle nature of good men. I believe in respectful boys who see women as equals. And I believe that there is hope for more love and kindness and expectation of consent. Just as I believe that it is possible to be a woman who loves sex and feels vibrant and wants to be seen—as a full person with desires and limits.
I do believe, though, that to nurture that woman or that man is an active choice in our culture that teaches girls both to fear sex and to flaunt her body, and that teaches men to sow wild oats and not to back down. In that world, Donald Trump makes sense. In that world, I should not have been surprised to have a hike turn into something that felt like an assault.