A few weeks ago I was walking down State Street at about 1:30 a.m. It was a usual Thursday night downtown, and the sidewalk was bustling with people drunkenly searching for their Ubers. I was with my roommate, and we could see our ride waiting for us across the street. There were people everywhere, in every direction, surrounding us. We weren’t alone walking down a dark alleyway; we were in the middle of the busiest street in Santa Barbara. It was a completely normal Thursday night.
As we were making our way to the car, I suddenly felt someone grab my inner thigh and seemingly try to rub up toward my chest. It happened so quickly that I was still processing what had just happened as I turned around behind me and said, “What the fuck?” As I turned I noticed a shorter Hispanic man in a large, grey hoodie and black jeans walking quickly. Within seconds of me realizing it was he who had seemingly groped me, I watched as he did the exact same thing to my roommate who had been walking a few feet behind me. She was caught just as off guard as I was, and she managed to push the guy before he darted off into the crowd. As we continued walking to our car, we were both in shock, not really understanding what had just happened.
Did we really just have a man grab our vaginas straight Donald Trump style? Did this really just happen in the middle of the sidewalk with hundreds of people around us?
As the confusion and anger continued to set in, I quickly made up my mind that I was 100 percent going to call 911 and report this bizarre and inappropriate act. Once we made our way across the street and hopped into our Uber, I immediately let our driver know that I was going to call the police to report a sexual assault. He said, “Of course,” and began driving us back toward Isla Vista. My adrenaline was pumping and all I really felt was pissed.
After a couple of rings, the 911 operator answered my call; it was a woman. After she routinely asked, “What is your emergency?” I calmly explained what had just happened. I gave the exact location at which it occurred, described exactly what the perpetrator was wearing and looked like and even said that he appeared to be headed toward lower State. I gave every detail that I could possibly think of so that a patrolling officer could be sent down State Street in the hopes of preventing this man from harassing any other women.
Did we really just have a man grab our vaginas straight Donald Trump style?
Just as I was finishing up my report, the 911 operator quickly cut me off and asked, “Well, where are you now? Are you still on State Street?” I responded explaining that I was in an Uber already headed north up the 101. She abrasively responded with, “Well, I need you to turn around and go back to the location where the assault occurred so that I can send an officer to you and you can make a formal report.” I was shocked. The truth is, I didn’t want to make a formal report.
I understand that there is certain protocol for situations like this, but the truth of the matter is that women rarely ever report these incidences of sexual assault. Given how common it is for men to grope a girl at a bar or slap a girl’s ass while walking through a club, it almost seems silly to report such a normalized crime. We are socialized to feel as though this is just a normal part of being female, or that we should expect this behavior when we place ourselves in an environment that involves partying and drinking. This asinine and pathetic ideology is exactly what keeps women from reporting these seemingly “minor” cases of harassment. In the end, this behavior is still harassment. It is still sexual assault.
Last quarter I actually had the pleasure of working on a sexual assault prevention campaign for my social marketing class. It was an extremely rewarding experience, and I learned an abundance of useful tools and information in the process. One of the most important things that I took away from the project was the fact that as bystanders, we all play a role in ending and preventing sexual assault. So many women and men are fearful or hesitant to come forward and report sexual assault.
It is an extremely difficult and tragic situation to be forced into dealing with, and no one can be blamed for being scared to come forward. However, in my case, I knew that I felt completely secure and confident in calling the police. I knew that I wanted to alert authorities so that no other women were violated or harassed. In all honesty, the only thing I wanted was for law enforcement to be cognizant and aware of the fact that there was a man harassing women on the streets of Santa Barbara. I felt it was my responsibility to alert them.
That is why I was so surprised at the 911 operator’s response. As she continued explaining that I need to return to the “scene of the crime,” my thoughts ran with confusion and frustration. “It is 1:45 a.m. I am in an Uber that I’m paying for. I’m already driving on the highway. I have been drinking, and I’m tired. My roommate is flustered. I am flustered. I just had a stranger grab my vagina. I just watched a stranger grab my roommate’s vagina.
We were just groped as hundreds of people stood by, idle. I sat and listened to her tone become more and more frustrated as I tried to explain that we were already in our car, that we were already on our way home, that I didn’t want to go to the police station to make a formal report, that all I wanted was for her to send a patrol officer down State Street.
The fact that we called 911 should have been seen as a positive and respected act. We should not have been badgered or made to feel incompetent.
It was my body that was violated. It was my rights that were infringed upon. And this woman had the audacity to make me feel as though I was doing something wrong or irresponsible by not wanting to physically return to the place where I had just been harassed? Better yet, it was a woman making me feel this way! This is a woman who is supposed to handle emergencies and cases that are way more traumatic than what I was calling in for. The lack of respect and empathy that was felt as I sat there in shock, listening to her condescending and repressing tone, was not at all what I had expected to encounter when calling 911. It was not at all what I expected to encounter when seeking help and attempting to do the right and responsible thing.
Now, I know that there are going to be people who read this and say, “If it is such a big deal to you, why didn’t you just turn around and do what she asked?” It is those people who are completely missing the point. It is those people who are just like the 911 operator that I spoke to on the phone. I was the victim. My roommate was the victim. We were the victims. We were not responsible for what happened to us. We were not at fault in any way, shape or form. The fact that we called 911 should have been seen as a positive and respected act. We should not have been badgered or made to feel incompetent. We should have received nothing but care, concern and empathy from a woman whose job it is to make people feel safe and protected.
After a couple of minutes of continually being interrupted and talked down to, I finally had enough. I raised my voice and explained that I was doing the right thing by calling, and that all I wanted was for an officer to be sent to the area. I explained that I had no desire to make a formal report that would lead to an investigation. I stated that in the time that she had spent lecturing me she could have already sent an officer over. After I stopped talking, she hesitated, and then said, “Ok, well if you won’t go back, then we’ll send an officer over shortly. Have a good night,” and then she hung up. The 911 operator literally hung up on me.
As I pulled the phone away from my ear I began laughing. It wasn’t funny, but it was so ridiculous and ironic that I couldn’t help but laugh. After everything I had learned while working on the sexual assault prevention campaign, from a lack of bystander intervention to victim blaming, I had literally just seen the harsh reality of what can happen when our justice system responds to such a sensitive issue as sexual assault. In this case, we were lucky. Though it was disturbing, it was not at all a worst-case scenario. But what if it had been? Is this how our law enforcement and first responders are trained to react? Is this how little they care about the emotional trauma and intensity that comes with something as personal as sexual assault?
Immediately after I hung up the phone, I began to ramble about my disappointment and, to be honest, fucking enragement. My roommate stayed silent as she processed what had just happened, but I couldn’t shut up. I just spilled over and began exclaiming how fucked up this is. How fucked up it is that this is what happens. How fucked up it is that the president has been recorded saying it is totally acceptable to “grab women by the pussy.” How fucked up it is that no one stopped to ask if we were OK. How fucked up it is that some insensitive, idiotic and unqualified 911 operator is allowed to work in a field that is as important as it is. I couldn’t shut up. I couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t stop, because there is still way too much that needs to be said.
As I talked through my frustration, I looked over at the Uber driver for the first time since getting into his car. I realized that this whole fiasco had exploded in front of him. When I looked over, mid-sentence, I realized he was crying. I stopped talking as I noticed this, thinking that I must have offended him in some way. He quickly reassured me that I hadn’t been the one to offend him. He was offended by what happened to us. This man, who couldn’t be older than 30 years old, was brought to tears by the injustice we faced from both by our harasser and the justice system itself.
He plainly stated, “This shouldn’t have to happen to you girls.” And when he said “you girls” I knew he wasn’t just referring to my roommate and me. He was referring to all of us. All women. For the first time that night, I felt safe. Not made so by a first responder, not by a 911 operator and not by a police officer, but by my Uber driver. Knowing that this kind and thoughtful man was a regular member of our society and had no obligation to feel any empathy or care for us — yet still did — gave me the most genuine and real sense of hope, even in the face of a night full of injustice.
Allie Lebos wonders why she didn’t find empathy in the one place she expected it.