life Reflections women in computer science

Fear and Safety

Credit: flickr /  robinsoncaruso
Credit: flickr / robinsoncaruso

My friend and I went to Bangkok for the long weekend. We relaxed in the spa, swam in the outdoor pool, explored the shops, got lost and wondered around the city. Rode in a tuk tuk.

I wondered, why it was that we spent more time at the hotel than I would usually. Than I did, say, when I was in Copenhagen last year. I realized it was the stress of being out and about, and worrying about things that we don’t usually have to worry about. That guy being helpful? Hoping he is just practising his English, until he tries to send us to a “special” mall with a “special” sale on, where if we were to go along with it, we would be pressured to buy overpriced jewels. Worrying about where our guide was, after he took us to watch precious stones being polished and oh, we do find ourselves in an overpriced jewelry store. Because that is a trick, apparently, they disappear, and you’re stranded, and voila, you can’t get away until you buy something. We found him, we didn’t buy anything, it was OK. But I don’t usually have to worry about that. I don’t usually have to bargain everywhere. I know I’m paying over the odds – I live in Australia… but so is everyone else.

It occurred to me how I took my safety like that for granted. From there, I went on to India where I actually ran away from someone who insisted on “helping” me and then followed me wanting money. I crossed the road – one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. Leaving India, on the way to the airport, I’m running later than I want to be (checking out was incredibly inefficient) and the driver asks me if 45 minutes to an hour is OK. I say, get there as fast as you can (not the best thing to say to your driver in India)… he gets there in 30 minutes, in a zooming, honking adventure. This part is important. It’s the last thing I remember doing, when I was not afraid.

When I teased the boy about the tuk tuk, asking if he worried about me, he said he just worried about me being in Thailand and India full stop, and why didn’t I vacation in a rich country instead. So at the airport, the developing countries part of my trip over, I messaged the boy, and told him he didn’t need to worry about me anymore.

The next time he hears from me, I’m crying hysterically and filing a police report.

It’s soon after takeoff, I’m so tired because the flight was at 4am and it had been a long day and I was so jet-lagged, having left Sydney about a week previously. And the guy sitting next to me, I guess the selection of movies was insufficient for his entertainment, because he starts touching me. He puts his hand on my leg, and I’m so tired and I have an eyemask on, so I can’t see, and, I think he must have just mistaken it for the armrest, and urgh but I’m so tired I don’t even really get what is going on. He puts his hand on my breast, and I tell myself I must be imagining things, is missing the boy making me crazy?

But by the second time his hand is on my breast, I know I’m not imagining things. And I know I’m not imagining his finger drawing circles on my back, and when he moves backwards and forwards and something hard touches my leg… I know I’m not imagining that.

And I’m weirdly calm. I just keep moving away, and I’m fixated on, well I can’t possibly sleep with this going on, and the next time he touches me I’m going to have to go and tell a flight attendent and get them to move me.

I wait.

He puts his hand on my breast again. I move, more sharply this time. He pretends to wake up like I’ve disturbed him, and I put on my sneakers. I get up, and he’s talking about how he’s so uncomfortable. I walk away, pretending I’m going to the bathroom. He follows me, telling me about how uncomfortable he is, some back problem, and how he is going to ask them to move him.

At the back of the plane I find a hostess but he’s behind me and starts talking. She sends him back to his seat, saying the plane is full. He goes back to sit down, and I say I’m going to look for a bathroom, and get away, walking around the back and up the other aisle.

It’s horrible when someone creeps on you, but on a plane, it’s extra terrifying. You’re trapped, there is no way to walk out. You’re powerless, hopefully the flight attendants will help, but what if they don’t believe you? What can you do? I wonder if this is why I waited so long, had to be so sure.

I find a bunch of flight attendants eating. And then I start crying. I’m hysterical. I speak at first to a female one – she’s nearest, and I think she will understand, but it is a male one who is more helpful. They sit me down, tell me I won’t have to go back. The creep arrives, and looks concerned – asks me if I’m OK. I lie and say I’m just having a panic attack. The male flight attendent gets physically between us – I was so grateful for that – and scares him away. I say, “that was him”. Someone gets the most senior flight attendent. More crying. Someone gets my stuff. More crying. They put me in business class. The male flight attendent tells me, “these men think they can get away with this, but they shouldn’t”. I can’t seem to stop crying. Luckily I have some stuff to take the edge off long haul flights – I take it. And cry, until I eventually pass out.

In the morning I wake up, surrounded by 15 dudes. It is business class, after all. And I’m still very upset, but calmer, and I tell myself – some men behave in an appalling way, and they will probably get away with it, but I am done making it easy for them.

So I tell a flight attendent I want to file a police report.

The plane lands. I am kept on board, so is the creep. I see him walk by. I feel dirty. The police come on. I write everything, ask for an extra page, and then another. I call the boy, and one of our friends, and cry. I don’t remember what they say. The male flight attendent is so kind, but eventually he has to go, and I’m distraught, and alone, in Germany, with 3 more flights and countless hours to California. I give the paper to the policeman, and he tells me the female (he makes a point of letting me know this) judge has already decided, there’s not enough evidence – my word against the creep – and she is letting him go.

And I knew this would happen. Eyes open, I filed that report knowing nothing would happen. But it’s still shocking to me that he’s not even put in a holding cell at all, he’s just had a minor 30 minute inconvenience, really. And I understand it’s his word against mine, but I could no more make it up than I could fly. It was so horrifying to me that I wasn’t even sure it was happening at first – I mean, who does that? Who does that?

Really the message is that he can try and sexually assault a minimum of one woman on his way to every country?

They let me off the plane, and I make my way through the airport. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with my next flight, and it’s hours away. The boy calls me, and I cry some more. When I get to further into the building, I can see the desk where I can try and change my next flight, I pull to one side, against the wall, to finish our conversation.

And the creep walks past, sees me, and comes towards me. I panic, and run away, accidentally hanging up in the boy in the process. And I’m really stupid, I run in the wrong direction – he’s approaching me from the direction where the people are, and so I run to a place where it is deserted. And I am terrified. I am not someone given to being physically afraid, but I was. I really was.

And that is stupid. I am very fit. Physically extremely strong for a woman. I remember him as being toad-like, short, soft, wide-nosed, old enough to be my father. There is no question in my mind that physically, I could hurt him. But I ran away.

I called this emergency number we have, and someone talked me through the airport, into the lounge, looked at the map and the layout and told me he wouldn’t be able to get there given he was en-route to the US and I was travelling within the EU. Tried, but failed to change my flight. I waited in the lounge, spoke to my friends and the boy. Tried to calm down. Got on the next plane, sat in the window seat with two random dudes in the other seats, and spent it pressed against the window, sobbing.

My parents picked me up from the airport in the UK, and I cried some more. Slept – a little – and the next day was on my way back to another airport, trying to get to California. And I was panicking. I had submitted my upgrade request, but I didn’t know that I had got it and I was terrified. Unsure if I would manage to get on the plane if I didn’t. Freaking out about getting a taxi by myself at the other end. Thankfully I got the upgrade for the long flight (and the short one, as it turned out) and a friend messaged me saying she would be at the airport. I picked up chocolate and shortbread for my friends, and the guy at the counter complemented my henna. I did not freak out – I took this to be a win.

And I made it to California, exhausted, shaken up, but feeling that I had proven something to myself in having done that. But so weirded out by the change in me – that I had gone from being someone who would travel alone in India, tell the driver to get there as quick as he could, to this shaking, crying mess, who was afraid to take a taxi, period.

All week in California, I was kind of functioning, mostly focused on the flight home, and how I wasn’t sure I could cope with it, but also just desperate to get home to my friends and the boy. And of course I came home, and shortly after crashed. Before I realized, I knew my friends were worried, my manager was worried, and so I went to see my doctor, and he seemed oddly concerned as well but I was like “statistically, most women experience something like this” and then the next day I go to the gym early in the morning, 45 mins cardio, spin class, and 20-some laps and then I’m crying in the hot-tub not wanting to go to work.

And my experiences in a male-dominated world, another recent no fun thing that I had to go through and – statistically – most technical women do – were all jumbled up in it. And so my doctor sent me to see a shrink, and gave me some valium for the anxiety and panic I was feeling. The first time I saw her, I had taken valium the night before, and I think she thought I was basically OK. The second time, I wa not dosed up, and at the end of the session, she tells me, I’m angry.

And it’s like, of course I’m angry. I’m tired of making this choice – be a bitch, or be a pushover. I’m tired of the things that men feel it’s OK to say to me, the things they feel it’s OK to do. Tell me my opinion – on something entirely subjective – is worthless. Behave like a jerk, but then ask me for a favor. Tell me what I should think, how I should feel, what I should do. Suggest I should be a product manager. Suggest that I need permission to travel from my boyfriend.

I think about that guy at the airport when I left Canada who said something about me meeting a nice man in Australia.

I think about the guy who said to me recently, that I must be doing the wrong thing in the gym, because I spend a lot of time there and I should look better than I do. And then, when I looked horrified, said, “it’s not that you don’t look beautiful, it’s that you could look even more beautiful” – like what I was upset about what the suggestion I don’t look good enough, rather than my appearance is what defines my worth as a person. I mean, not a person, only a woman, to this man, another one, nearly old enough to be my father.

I think about the guy who suggested it’s fine that I don’t do something because I’m afraid. And I contrast him, with the others – who were just mad that I am afraid.

And I think about that creep at the airport, how he felt he could come towards me after that, after all of that, how I made it clear it was not OK what he did. And in my mind he’s coming to make more excuses, to tell me his hand slipped, like he was saying as he followed me around the plane. And what kind of insanity is that? How would he think that I would believe that? That his hand slipped and fell – very gently, hidden by a blanket, onto my breast, THREE TIMES.

I’m angry, because now I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what some men will do, the way they will justify their actions, the things they feel entitled to take, to do. I’m angry, because I don’t think things will get better. I’m angry because the choice is between bitch and pushover, and we can never win.

So I go kickboxing. I have a mean cross, a vicious hook, and I knee like I really freakin’ mean it.

It’s good to express how angry I am in a way that’s not crying, but it just reminds me of another reason I have to be furious. He touches me, but there is not enough evidence. If I hadn’t turned around, if I hadn’t run away, if I had broken his nose and stopped him from ever being able to replicate. Well his scars would be evidence, and that would be assault.

But what he did, that was just a man doing a horrible thing, and getting away with it, as they so often do.


I want to add – I realize that I had so many things here that another woman might not have – a working phone with which I could make international calls, an expense account and my own credit card that meant I could pay to change a flight, stay in a hotel, take a cab etc. An emergency number. Gold (elite) status, and lots of upgrade credits. Family at my stopover, and a close friend at my destination. I’m 27 and maybe look younger (especially when travelling, dressed low key with no makeup), in terms of women in their early, mid twenties, that kind of creep might prey on – I have more power than most. I hate to think about how some other woman without all that would have coped. The flight attendants were amazing, but once off the plane, I was alone. I should never have been in a position where he could see me and try and approach me in the airport. It’s horrifying. I wrote to the airline I was on (Lufthansa) and the airline I have status with (Air Canada) over two weeks ago now saying what had happened and pointing this out and… nothing.

19 replies on “Fear and Safety”

Just reading this now. This is such a terrifying thing to have happen to you! I’m so sorry you went through this. You are gutsy to face it by sharing your pain with us. Thank you for doing that.

Thank you Cate for speaking up. Thank you for reporting him to the authorities and blogging about it. Very sorry to hear you had to go through this 🙁

Wow, at least that guy was prosecuted!

Actually, I was having dinner with a woman I met in Bali, and we were talking about the treatment of women. She says to me, that I will never believe what happened to a friend of hers on a plane.

Of course I did. The same thing happened to me.

This woman didn’t report it, she didn’t know what to do. I dread to think how actually common an experience it is.

[…] I turned 28 things had just fallen apart. This (TW: sexual assault) coincided with the HR process being enacted because of some guy’s behaviour to me. This […]

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