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.
A thoughtfully-written and unfortunately-timely piece. I’m sorry this happens (was going to write “happened”) to you but applaud you for writing about it and sharing. Thank you.
Oh Meredith. I am sitting here crying for you and the violations which happened to you. It was not ” right”. Not you- wonderful Meredith. Not you!
I also sit here crying for myself and the number of times I was also sexually violated. I managed to get away from all of them except one. He was the youth minister of a local church and I didn’t physically push hard enough and he won the struggle by penetrating me. It was not right. Not Me!
I was young and in high school and college during a time when society defined two types of girls. There were the good girls, and the wild girls. I was one of the naive, church going , knew almost nothing about sex, “good” girls. I was taught to be polite to everyone. I believed that I could trust the ” good ” people in the world. I was wrong. Most of the perpetrators were Ministers, because churches in church related activities were where I spent most of my time. Because I led many church activities, it was not unusual for me to be alone with various men of the cloth.
Did I tell? Of course not. Have I told? Who would believe me against them? The fear of the women making the recent accusations was correct. They have not been believed. My fear was magnified if the minister was well known in local, state or national religious settings. If he was well respected he had a sense of power which caused me to be certain I would not believed. Often I had to continue to be in his presence, smiling and hiding my tears.
Was I at fault? Of course I believed that I was. Did I smile too much? Did I laugh too much? Was I too pretty? Were my clothes too pretty? I had no answers, except that it was my fault.
This was a long time ago. Yet as I listened to the women who were recently trying to explain the advances made by the Presidential candidate, I understood them. I understood it all. It was the same.And they were right. No one believed them.
Of course they waited a long time. So did I. I’m doing it now. I’m thankful for this opportunity to share.
Thank you. You are brave. I’m so sorry this happened to you. In church, especially. Jesus weeps.
Incredibly powerful essay. It reminded me that when I was a very little girl my mother warned me about rape every time I went to a birthday party, sleepover, field trip or stayed after school for any activity. These warning conversations took place years before the traditional “birds and the bees” where the narrative was anchored in lovemaking and consent.
Wow, good for your mom. All other moms should follow her example.
Fabulously written article, Meredith! — and scary and infuriating and poignant, and as timely today, unfortunately, as it has been for centuries.
I think you saw my one-woman show, Shirley Valentine? At one point Shirley’s best friend, a feminist, tells Shirley, “. . . every man is a potential rapist — even the Pope!”
Is that true? Well, Yes and No. I once tried to explain the rape culture and women’s vulnerability to a male friend, who just “didn’t get it.” He argued that a woman can always protect herself if she really WANTS to, as there are guns and pepper spray and karate chops. Trying to control myself, I told him, “The only way you would ever understand a woman’s feeling of vulnerability among usually-bigger/stronger, often “self-entitled,” sometimes predatory men: Suppose you, a strong male, walk into a room full of other men, each of whom carries a sharp knife. These strangers — a variety of personalities and body-types, with expressions kind, menacing, neutral — know you are unarmed. Perhaps most would never entertain the thought of threatening or attacking you, and might even ridicule any expression of vulnerability or disbelieve any mention of previous knife-encounters, because you have no visible scars.
A poor analogy, maybe, but I was trying to explain how many women feel in the presence of men who are usually physically stronger and who often have been culturally programmed to use that strength when and if they will.
Gloria Steinem wrote that, while walking in the city of Tokyo, she was surprised to realize that she felt less threatened, more relaxed, freer in Japan than in New York, simply because she was taller and larger than most Japanese men.
I was in eighth grade when a school janitor molested me. It wasn’t a violent rape, but I was violated and didn’t tell anyone for two years because I assumed that — because I pitied him and was friendly — I had invited the molestation.
It was difficult, trying to teach my daughters, “Be brave! Be adventurous! Go wherever your Self takes you!” and also, “Be careful, because I know from experience that women are vulnerable.”
Thanks for the article, Meredith!
Meredith, thanks for being so brave, raw and honest. I was nervous to read your piece because of the opening lines, but because I so implicitly trust your super smart and kind brother and your amazing partner that I decided to give the article a chance. It is so difficult and terrifying for me to be raising my 7 year old daughter without her deceased father who was a wonderful example of how men should treat women. I really appreciated how you talked about how rough it is to grow up as a girl in this world. Sadly, hope I can impress on her the need to be careful when it comes to boys and men. At the same time I need to assure her that many people (hopefully most) are raising their boys right with deep respect for women and regretfully, that’s pretty much all I can do, hope.
What can anyone say except thank you for sharing from the depths? If our culture has come to a point where lack of respect is the norm, we’re in deep trouble and need to find ways out of this swamp. When you”re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp.
With all respect due to another human being who hasn’t a clue: YOUR brain needs washing.
Wanda’s comment was, of course, meant for that guy who doesn’t have a clue. 😉
What a load of rubbish–I can guarantee this is totally fictitious and a product of a a brainwashed feminist–SAD!
How could you possibly guarantee this did not happen? Are you omniscient? ILLOGICAL!
Yet another man blaming a woman for “her”deficiencies. YOU are a sad example of the male population being referred to in this article. You are in denial of the realities women face and you are so egotistical that you feel this must be bogus instead of being the kind of man our society needs; one who will stand up for a woman instead of belittling her. Shame on you!
Feminists can totally guarantee that Charles Edward Fitzgerald III is a load of rubbish.
Thanks for this. Ok, this reminds me of when my cousin was in fourth grade, seven years ago. I was asking her about her day, and she told me that a boy in her class pulled his pants down and showed her his penis. Another boy in her class called her a slut because she had seen boy number 1’s penis. I told her how important it was to report them. She was reluctant, and I said that if this sort of behavior goes unchecked, it can escalate, and boys can graduate to more aggressive behavior if they don’t understand that there are consequences for their actions. She told her teacher, the boys got in trouble, and their moms didn’t come to the situation with that “boys will be boys” crap. The other day, I thanked her for doing her part do dismantle rape culture.
Chuck Eddie Fitzgerald XIV….what are you afraid of? Getting caught with your dick in your hand???
This writing is so brave and haunting. I’m so grateful that it is a part of a long needed conversation about how women move through this world that does not value our voices or our bodies or our brains. Thank you, Meredith for your courage and your voice.
Thank you, Meredith, and the others here for sharing your stories. Please know that I and so many others are humbled by your courage to speak up in spite of those who might try to silence you.
Thank you for your courage and tenacity, Meredith. I am angry and sad this happened to you, and I respect and admire you all the more for sharing. This article is not only significant to me because it resonates with the experiences in my own life, but also because of these are issues countless other women face on a daily basis. I grew up with a brother, and mostly hung around him and his friends, so “campsites and fire pits” were also “the locker rooms of my youth.” I was also groped as a preteen and sexually assaulted as a teenager. In one of the odd jobs I had before returning to school (delivering car parts), I was subjected to sexual harassment on a daily basis by the men I worked with: dirty jokes, talk of what they would do to this woman and that, pictures of dicks being drawn on cardboard around the warehouse and even in the dust on the truck hubcaps I was required to drive to deliver parts. And although I found these men repulsive and crude, it was a part of the narrative of my normal. This was just the way some men talked. Thankfully, that perception has changed for me, but for so many, the normalization or dismal of moments like this are just a locker room phrase, just a lone hiking trail excursion, just a dickhead blog comment away.
Much love to you and your partner.
Thank you so much for this. As a frequent solo hiker, I’ve always hated my reaction to male hikers: that instant clenching in my gut, planning escape routes, wondering how quickly I can flick open my pocket knife. On or off the trail, the moments after such encounters are then filled with guilt that I stereotyped what was (I like to think) probably just a nice guy, out enjoying the woods just like me. I never talk about these reactions to anyone because of that guilt. We need courage such as yours to inspire these conversations, now more than ever.
Is there a culture in the world where women can freely, safely walk alone–without the need to look over their shoulder(s)? I doubt it. Do men look over their shoulder(s) as they walk?
Maybe “Chares,” if he weren’t fictional, would start doing so now.
When are we going to get to talking about how to fight back? Pepper spray? Knives? Words? Like, “Am I supposed to be impressed?”Yelling incoherently while rushing the man? Standing there and screaming?
Yes, I agree that we should work toward a more rational culture. However, women/girls do need to know that males & females in the animal world “think” differently with regard to being around someone of the opposite gender. Is it realistic to hope for a world in which evil and “natural instincts” will not be displayed?
No, it isn’t realistic. We need to stand and fight.
[…] are a people who still justify violence toward women and children, sexual and psychological violence as well as pure brute […]
This article rang so many bells!! I come from a third world country and I always thought this kind of thing happened only in our part of the globe. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s, there was little interaction between the sexes, not until you got married. College used to be a nightmare. We had to constantly dodge groping hands. If walking on a deserted road, and a lone male walked towards us, a buttoned-up fly was such a relief! In movie theaters our bottoms got pinched by the perverts sitting behind. Sometimes we used to jab the offending hands with pins we carried in our bags. In buses, we ground their feet with our shoes if they got close to us. My parents owned a small business and my mother supervised the ladies’ unit. One evening a flasher came in, his flaccid penis in full display, furiously trying to wank off. The fact that there were ten infuriated women inside the workshop did not deter him at all. One of the boldest grabbed a knife, and waving it wildly, confronted the male shrieking “It’s time to chop it off!” We experienced such a high seeing the man bolting minus his lower garments! 🙂
[…] that women travelers need to be aware of our surroundings, to use caution when meeting new people. There are risks to hiking alone, for example, but how can they be weighed when the alternative is staying at home and seeing […]
A wonderfully written article. I never walk alone at anytime in deserted parks and I really resent the fact that I can’t feel or be safe as a woman in this violent world.