No fear in love
Once upon a time I was standing on the sidewalk at San Pablo and 45th when a man forcefully swiped my breasts. He had been sitting outside Arizmendi’s asking for food when we initially made verbal contact; I offered to buy him something, he asked for some baked goods, when I delivered them he groped me hard and walked away with the food.
I didn’t know what to do. I got in my car and drove to Home Depot because I had an errand to run, and once I got there I called my sister to tell her what happened. She was furious. Should I confront him? I asked. She said yes you should, what he did was wrong, and you'll be mad later if you don’t confront him right away.
I drove back to look for this man, fretting the entire way over what I was about to do. He was older. He looked like he could have been homeless or experiencing other severe financial hardship, which meant there was a power dynamic between us that I didn’t know how to parse. Yes, I am a woman, so there is a gendered power dynamic in which I am the weaker party. I am also financially secure and he is not, so there is an income and class dynamic that puts me at an advantage. When I couldn’t find him on my first pass down San Pablo I almost decided to let it go - I could stand to be nice to a hungry man on the street, I thought.
But “nice” is not the same as “loving.” In this moment, the classic “What Would Jesus Do?” question that I have retained from years of youth group and Sunday School brought some clarity. Jesus let people know when they were behaving like a den of vipers so that they would have the option of listening to him if they hoped to ever behave otherwise. Niceness blandly tolerates people as they are; Love is intent on setting people free to live as God created them to. In David’s words, love “gives people the opportunity to make righteous decisions.” I prayed for the courage to love this man by confronting him and giving him a chance to repent. Then I drove around San Pablo until I found him on 40th street.
“Hi. Earlier when I saw you, you grabbed my breast. Why did you think this was a good idea?”
(He laughed and waved me off)
“No, let’s have a conversation. You grabbed my breast. I didn’t invite you to do this, so maybe you can explain to me why you thought that was a good idea.”
He began to look sober. “I can see that I offended you.”
“Of course you offended me. I didn’t ask you to touch me. If a woman doesn’t invite you to touch her, doesn’t say that you can touch her, doesn’t give you permission to touch her, then you shouldn’t touch her!”
At this point I was yelling. He apologized. “I’m sorry I offended you.”
This was a half-assed apology, but I took it. “What you did was wrong, but I forgive you. Never do anything like that to anyone, ever again.”
There was another incident. I was sixteen, it was summertime, and I was with friends of friends at a campground. A boy chatted me up by the bonfire. It was late and I was tired, so I ended the conversation, got up to walk to the dormitories that were hidden in the trees surrounding the clearing, then noticed he was following me. I walked back to the bonfire. When he seemed absorbed in conversation with the rest of the group I began walking to the dormitories again, and sure enough, he got up to follow me. I went back to the bonfire, and we repeated this dance a few times.
I eventually made it back to my building and thought I had eluded him, but there he was, sitting on the front step. I had a strong value for giving people the benefit of the doubt so I acted as if nothing in our dynamic was strange and conversed with him for a bit. At some point in the conversation I said I was tired and ready to call it a night. I turned around and began walking up the stairs briskly, which is when he began to chase me.
I ran. He ran after me, yelling “I just want to talk to you!” Maybe this was true, I reasoned, but the risks of testing the veracity of this statement were very high, so I decided I should keep running.
It seemed that everyone was still at the bonfire because the building was completely empty. I rounded a corner, hid in a bathroom stall, and heard him sprint by. I retraced my steps and let myself into one of the many bedrooms, none of which had locks on their doors. I huddled by the door and heard his steps echoing up and down the walkway. At one point, the building fell silent, so I opened the door a crack - and saw him silhouetted by the light at the end of the hall.
I don’t know how long I waited, but eventually he stopped looking for me, and I headed back to my own room. A group of girls passed by, returning from the bonfire. I opened the door and asked them to come sit with me for a moment. They surrounded my bed, laughing and amongst themselves, while I sat rigid and waiting for my pulse to slow while I thought about what had just happened.
The more I thought, the angrier I became. How dare he follow me. How dare he ignore me when I had said repeatedly that I was tired and wanted to go to bed. How dare he chase me and terrify me. The anger began to simmer and bubble - and then I heard a knock at the door, and his voice.
Emboldened by the presence of multiple girls surrounding me, I flung open the door in time to let my anger erupt. I don’t remember what I said. I mainly remember feeling adrenaline and rage and triumphant satisfaction that I could bring him to account for how he had behaved. I described his actions, how stupid I thought they were, how badly he had frightened me, how angry he had made me, and in doing so drew a small crowd. By the end of my tirade he was on the ground apologizing, no doubt feeling the pressure to do so from the circle of observers. I think he asked if we could still see each other the next day. Obvs no. I slammed the door.
God has, in other instances, rebuked me for being too harsh with people when I should have been gracious to them in their weakness, but I never felt him check me when I was sixteen and yelling at a boy who had chased me through an empty building in the night, or when I was taking a man to task for groping my chest. I’ve felt uneasy about my own behavior, but all I’ve felt from the Lord is an invitation to refine my theology: if God is as committed to the sanctity of his creation, as jealous for his people’s purity of thought and body, as visionary as his Word claims, he must rage against any man’s violation of me.
Love isn’t toothless affection, and God loves me. He formed my body and has always held me with tenderness. In validating my decision to stand up for myself, I feel that he was validating my choice to align my thoughts with his: this body of mine is precious, and any assumption that it can be treated otherwise needs correction.
Love is also not a zero sum game, and in defending myself I loved the men who wronged me by giving them the opportunity to choose righteousness. I hope the boy my sixteen-year-old self yelled at cried himself to sleep afterward. I hope the memory of having his behavior called out in front of a group of people made him writhe, and that he developed some sobriety around his treatment of women. I hope the man on San Pablo hesitated the next time he considered acting like a damn fool. I never saw either of them again so I have no idea how or if they remembered our interactions, but I’m glad I behaved in ways that pressured them to decide whether or not they would continue their behavior.
I have stories that ended differently: there is the one about the carful of men that slowly cruised beside me as I walked down an empty street by myself at 11pm, the boy who slapped my butt and quickly walked away, other scenarios that ended with me speechless, humiliated, and afraid. I don’t think that women should expect themselves to respond directly to each instance of sexual aggression. Doing so can be dangerous, and I also strongly believe that it is not our responsibility to tell men to act with decency, so I’m sharing these two stories not as recommendations but to make a point --
In so many instances, I have hesitated to retaliate (when I was set up to do so, being in a public place where others were present and where there were quick avenues to safety) against men who were mistreating me because I was afraid of being unloving. I think God is continually challenging the dichotomy I’ve created. I think this principle holds in all human interaction, and it seems especially salient here: when I choose what is loving for myself, I also choose what is loving for the person I am interacting with, because God’s goodness in any given situation encompasses all people involved. I had some ambivalence about these memories before, but now, I’m glad I yelled. I hope the need to do so never arises, but if it does, I plan to do it again.