BY: ANNA WILLARD
A couple Sundays ago, I finished a beautiful nine-mile long run while camping in upstate New York. I arrived back at the campground where my husband, Bob, was already packing up from our five-day stay. Realizing we had a long day ahead, and threatening rainstorms, I quickly headed up to the small women’s room to shower. Walking in, thankfully, the one shower stall was unoccupied, as more than half of the campground’s 25 campsites had been vacated. As I showered, I replayed the wonderful week we had had in the Thousand Islands, feeling mentally and physically refreshed.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an object move. I shifted my gaze and saw a cellphone poking under my shower’s stall door. I could see from the 12-foot distance that the phone was on selfie mode and that the camera was capturing my own body.
Shocked, I paused for a moment and waited for some sort of explanation. My first thought was it must be another woman, maybe a younger girl (as there were many at the campground) who was too shy to ask if I would be done soon. But when I didn’t make any declaration that I was aware of the cell phone, the owner became more bold and put his face under the stall door. Even with half of his face obscured and turned sideways, I was certain he was a male. I saw his brown hair speckled with gray, closely cropped. I saw his lightly tanned skin and his green or hazel eyes.
“Can I f****** help you!?!?” I yelled.
He quickly retreated and silence ensued. Was I alone in the bathroom, or was he waiting for me to open the door? I stood there, covered in suds, listening intently, with my heart and mind racing. When I felt confident that I was alone, I wrapped my towel around me and closed the main entrance door that had been propped open. I quickly finished showering, got dressed and hustled back to the campsite to tell Bob what had happened.
I felt disgusting as my eyes scanned the campground for the offender. I realized then that countless people at the campground fit my weak description - middle-aged white males with green, or hazel, or possibly light brown eyes. Even my own husband’s hair was roughly the same color as the perpetrator’s.
We spoke with the manager who seemed clueless on how to handle the situation, saying that nothing like this had ever happened there, and promising to ask around to see if anyone had seen a man entering or exiting the women’s room. Unsettled, but realizing we had an eight-hour journey ahead, we departed.
The following week, back in the safety of my own home, I started to feel a deep rage building inside of me. Why didn’t I yell when I saw the cellphone? Why hadn’t I kicked the man in the face? Why hadn’t I pursued him immediately? Why hadn’t I gone from campsite to campsite demanding to see the cell phone of each man?
Mostly, why hadn’t I been braver?
I always thought that if I was under attack or if somebody was taking advantage of me that I would respond heroically. But when it actually happened, I was only afraid, and I didn’t know how to save myself. I was left feeling a sickening anger, at the perpetrator and also mostly at myself for not taking action in a way I always thought I could.
Trying to digest both what had happened and my reaction to it, I relayed the story to the athletes that I coach and to my friends and family. Everyone reacted almost identically: disbelief then dismissal. Disbelief that anyone would try to take advantage of me, and then dismissal because I would be capable of handling anyone who meant me harm. What an air of confidence and bravery I must convey! Most of these conversations devolved into jokes of what could have been. My alternate universe super hero was often a sudsy avenger streaking across the campground in hot pursuit of the criminal.
I recognize this is a small assault, a juvenile act, a Peeping Tom and that there are so many others who have been violated in ways that I can’t even imagine. But that does not change that it was taking something from me that I did not consent to give.
What I know for sure is I was not the first woman who was victim to this specific voyeur. He was brash. Not only did he enter a public women’s restroom in daylight with many other people in full view, but he exposed his face to the woman he was spying on. This is not covertly taking pictures from across the campground. He chose a high-risk situation with a large chance of being caught. That also makes me certain I will not be the last woman he violates.
Now thinking back to this moment I feel like it was a wake-up call. No one is impenetrable or invincible. Crimes of all kinds occur every day, even to the strongest of us. I have no desire to live in fear: fear of where I should or shouldn’t be, fear that I cannot take care of myself, or fear that something terrible is going to happen. I refuse. So I’ve signed up for Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense seminar.
I want to understand how to protect myself and be my own savior. I want to respond to situations with intelligent bravery, not in fear. I want to live and run freely.
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