Content/Trigger Warning: Sexual assault
Ever since I was young, I have always believed people are inherently good. Whenever someone has done something hurtful to me, or someone I love, I have always tried to find a reason in my head for what that person may have been dealing with to make them treat someone else badly, or decided that they made a mistake and they didn’t mean it. At times, I even decided that maybe it was my mistake for thinking there was any bad treatment (especially of myself) at all, because surely everyone in the world tries to be a good person and do the best they can for others. But recently, something happened to me that has led me to question everything I once thought about it being inherent in human nature that people are good and kind.
Two weeks ago, on the 5th of May, I decided to go for a walk around Jerusalem, where I am living for 4 months as part of my 10-month gap year program with my youth movement. For the 3 months I have been here, I have always felt as safe as I do in Australia and could walk the streets in the day by myself and with a friend or two at night without much worry.
As I was walking on one of the main streets in Jerusalem, I was approached by a man. He said, “Shabbat Shalom” and waited with me at a traffic light. He was wearing a suit and a beret, with ice blue eyes, grey hair and smile. He seemed like a nice man. I felt a twinge of anxiety in my chest when he began to walk with me, but I told myself that this instinct was wrong; that this is how you meet people and hear their stories while you’re travelling and it would be rude to walk away, and of course, he must be a good person, because why would he not be? I kept wondering if I should cross the road to get away from him, but I was worried it would hurt his feelings and that it wouldn’t be a polite thing to do. I realised too late that sometimes my instincts need to be listened to. We were mid-conversation when he pulled me onto a bench. I felt myself go completely limp as he put his arm around me and began to sexually assault me.
For the first while, I tried to lean away from him; I couldn’t say no because I didn’t want to believe that anyone wouldn’t be inherently good and compassionate and that a stranger could use my body for his own pleasure. Each time he kissed my neck, he blessed me in Hebrew and the part of me that wanted to see the best in everyone put me into a state of shock that led me to believe that this was an “Orthodox thing, and I should just sit still and let him do it in case I offend him culturally”. I said this to the woman who pulled me off him afterwards, but she shook her head and told me gently that he was a “crazy pervert”, a term I would have denied the validity of before, but now I wasn’t sure.
Things got worse and worse and as he did more and more to me, I could see, even in my state of shock that I needed to tell him to stop, and when he didn’t listen, even as I begged him. I told myself that there was a chance he didn’t understand the words “no”, “stop” and “please” in English, despite his long and very fluent discussion with me just a few minutes earlier. I even told myself that him gripping onto the back of my head to keep it in place as he continued to assault me was his way of comforting me and being gentle. On some level I still want that to be true.
As the assault got more intense, people just walked past. I remember so clearly staring into a woman’s eyes, begging her to help me and seeing a glint of compassion in her eyes. I remember almost lifting myself out of my fog of shock, ready to be rescued. But I was quickly thrown back into it as the woman gave an apologetic smile, turned away and carried on with her Saturday afternoon. I think that was the most helpless I have ever felt. The belief that people were good was something that was so important to me because it made me feel like I would always be protected, but somehow this belief had failed me.
I wondered at the time if it looked to strangers like I wanted this extremely intimate interaction on a bench on the side of the street with a man who was clearly at least 50 or 60 years older than me. But surely it didn’t. I wonder if the trauma I continue to experience; the panic attacks, the sense of complete hopelessness, the constant fear this will happen again, would have been different if someone had stepped in sooner; if he had done just one or two things less to me.
The woman who pulled him off me was just 24, the same age as my older brother. Only 5 years older than me. The friend she was with called the police and she took me to sit down while we waited for them to arrive. She held my hands while I cried for half an hour as the police asked me question after question in Hebrew, and she translated my answers to them. She explained to me gently what pressing charges would mean, and that it could mean it wouldn’t happen to another person. She helped me to call a friend so I would have someone I knew to go with me to the police station. She explained to my two friends who came what had happened, so I wouldn’t have to. She came to the police station with me and gave a witness statement. Afterwards, she sat with me and translated for me to the police until my leaders from my gap year program arrived. She told me that something had happened to her a month before, like what had happened to me. I feel a lot of guilt that she was the first one to step in; that she had to re-experience the horror and traumatising reality of sexual assault and possibly be badly triggered herself, just to help me.
It makes me so frustrated and feel so misunderstood that I, as an obviously young and vulnerable person could be assaulted for around half an hour in a busy public place and it would take another victim of sexual assault to help stop it. Victims shouldn’t have to be the people responsible for other victims; our society should play a part in fighting against this, and the simplest thing that can be done is to help a person being sexually assaulted on the street. It should not have needed someone who has herself gone through trauma to kindly put active effort into helping me. If someone isn’t sure whether another person is comfortable with a physical interaction in public, it’s easy just to ask. Or call someone else; ask another stranger to ask them with you; even call the police. It’s never overstepping if you’re looking out for someone’s safety; the worst that will happen is they’ll say they’re okay and don’t need help.
The couple of weeks since I was assaulted have been some of the hardest of my life. Something has changed in my mind; I don’t feel like the same person. I don’t feel like a person at all actually, and this is making it increasingly difficult to function. I’m not even angry, I just feel defeated. I’m just really sad and really frustrated that this could happen to me and that I won’t be the last person that it happens to.
The culture of objectifying girls and women; seeing their bodies as being created for the pleasure of men and the attitude that this is an inevitable fact of life needs to end. There just can’t be more people having to go through this. My mum has been asking me if I want to buy a sexual assault whistle or pepper spray, or take self-defence classes. I know it might make me feel safer, but a part of me doesn’t want to do any of this, because I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to go out onto the street armed with preventative measures, because it is inevitable that men won’t be able to control themselves and I’ll be hurt. I know it’s been said so many times, but we need to stop teaching women to take preventative measures so they don’t get sexually assaulted and start teaching men that it should never be an option to sexually assault anyone.
I was walking in daylight, in a crowded street, I wasn’t intoxicated, I wasn’t wearing very revealing clothing. But even if I was doing the opposite to all those things, they wouldn’t be reasons for me to be assaulted. The only reason I was assaulted was that the man who assaulted me chose to do so. And in the end, I probably will buy an alarm or whistle and I will take self-defence classes because I want to feel like I have something to keep me safe. But the sad fact is that these measures still won’t be able to fully protect me against being assaulted again.
I have questioned over and over since it happened if I should stop trusting strangers and even people I know; if there is a chance that inevitably they will use me in whatever way they want, and I won’t be able to recognise it as a threat unless I stop seeing the best in people. But for the one man who sexually assaulted me on the street and for the people who walked past for half an hour and turned their heads away, so many more came to help me afterwards. There must have been over 30 Israelis crowding around me when the police came, giving me more water bottles, rolling me cigarettes in case I wanted one, giving me advice and even running up the street to look for the man with the police.
The woman who pulled him off me was the biggest restorer of my faith in people being good. She was unquestionably good and kind and the awful things that happened can’t take away from the incredible support she provided. Through this situation, I also realised how unconditionally supportive my friends are: staying up through the night with me, coming with me when I need to walk somewhere and just being there, even when I don’t think I need it, just in case I change my mind. My family has also been a huge support, even though we are living thousands of miles apart.
I don’t want my belief in people being good to be ruined by what happened, and these people in my life are helping me rebuild that belief every day.
I can’t change what happened to me, but I know I want to fight against this happening to anyone else. Society’s complacency towards sexual assault needs to change; it is not and should never be portrayed as an inevitable occurrence for people, particularly women. Consent culture is incredibly important, and educating on consent from a young age is how we will break this cycle. We need to call out social and cultural complacency towards sexual assault any time we come across it. And hopefully, the next generation of women won’t have to carry whistles or pepper spray, or take self-defence classes to feel safe.