Two women were sexually assaulted this weekend, within two blocks and about an hour of one another. Their cases are exceptions in the narrative of sexual assault: Both women were accosted from behind by strangers with whom they had had no contact before. But more importantly, both women chose to speak out about their experience.
Margot Kenney, the first of the two victims, was about to enter her home on San Jose Avenue at around 1 a.m. when a man who had been casually chatting on his cell phone veered over to her, lifted her skirt and grabbed her backside. Kenney shouted angrily, whipped around to face her assailant, and he walked away.
“I was not going to allow myself to be this guy’s victim. I was going to do everything that I could to prevent it,” Kenney said. “He waited to see where I live, he waited until I put my key in the gate…I try not to think about what could have happened.”
About an hour later, Hillary Lannan, 39, turned into 25th Street from Mission on her walk home. At the corner of 25th and Bartlett, two men grabbed her from behind, picked her up and threw her to the ground where they pinned her down and, after a struggle, groped at her crotch before fleeing in a car. Lannan screamed and kicked at them, though she said everything happened so fast she isn’t sure any of her strikes connected. One of the men stood over her as the other held her down by her shoulder and arms.
“I was replaying it in my head, and the first thing I said was, ‘You two are not doing this to me, this is not happening!’ That’s just the first thing that came out of my mouth,” Lannan recalled.
It’s unclear what the men’s intentions were. Lannan said they grabbed at her hand, perhaps expecting to find a cell phone. They also reached for her purse strap and grabbed at it, but said nothing during the whole encounter. Had they demanded her belongings, Lannan said, she would have handed them over without any resistance.
Both see what happened to them as connected to a broader culture of treating women as objects, illustrated in part by the street harassment of women. In Lannan’s case, she had just been fuming about the catcalls and other unwanted attention she had encountered on her walk down Mission Street—a street she chose to walk down because she felt safer in a well-lit, populated area at night.
A national survey on street harassment by a group called Stop Street Harassment found that 41 percent of women had ever experienced physically aggressive forms of street harassment, and half of those reported having been sexually touched. Though statistics show that most perpetrators of sexual violence are known to their victims, two-thirds of the women surveyed reported concern that the harassment they experienced from strangers on the street would escalate into physical aggression. Women undoubtedly are more often the target of harassment and sexual violence.
“Even the most well-intentioned and aware of my male friends simply do not get what it means to be a woman alone,” Lannan said.
When the men released Lannan and ran toward a car parked facing against traffic on Bartlett, Lannan got up and ran after them, thinking she might be able to get a look at the license plate.
“I remember chasing them and saying, ‘I will fucking find you and I will fucking kill you,’” Lannan said.
Perhaps, as Kenney said of her assault, “pure rage took over.” But in the aftermath, Lannan and Kenney were deeply shaken. Lannan said that it is hard for her to concentrate on anything else and the memory of the attack comes up unexpectedly. She notices things differently than she did before. And the incident has become a defining moment.
“It’s split into two time periods; before this happened and after this happened,” Lannan said. She plans to take advantage of trauma recovery services and therapy.
Anxiety, difficulty concentrating and flashbacks are common among victims of sexual assault, as are irritability, amnesia and the ability to feel a full range of emotions, according to the Trauma Recovery Center at UCSF. Its subsidiary, the Rape Treatment Center, offers acute medical care immediately after an incident, as well as facilitating forensic examinations in cases of rape.
Though the center exists primarily for victims of rape, physician assistant Jessica Dodge said she encourages all sexual assault victims to call in order to see what services might be offered for them.
“We know sexual assault is underreported so we’re always looking to lower the barriers. I’d rather have people err on the side of calling us because we’d rather talk things through. And if people come in we’re often able to elicit more disclosure because it’s a safe setting,” Dodge said.
Many women in the Mission report experiencing less extreme, but nonetheless disconcerting encounters on the street. One woman wrote in and said men would occasionally grab at her crotch as she goes for a morning run. Another woman said that in broad daylight, a man hanging out at the 24th Street BART station came up close to her face and said, “I want to fuck your mouth.” She pushed him away and that ended the incident, but it was unnerving.
“This is more of a social, community issue,” said Metzi Magdaleno, the program coordinator at Mission Girls, a nonprofit that helps get at-risk young women on the right track. While she acknowledged that it’s always best to call the police when threatened on the street, Magdaleno was hesitant to describe a cure-all solution for women who experience harassment or sexual assault. She also said staff often come across the attitude that a male loved one should protect women from harassment.
“But what are our neighborhoods getting to at the point where another man has to stand up for us?” Magdaleno asked.
Sometimes, that’s just what it takes.
“Many times it does take another man to speak up or step in or make that harasser feel uncomfortable about what they’re doing,” Lannan said, having found herself in several situations where her protests had no effect, but a man’s intervention dissuaded the harasser.
To protect themselves from these kinds of attacks, the SFPD recommends that women immediately call 911 if they are threatened, followed, touched inappropriately, or otherwise feel threatened. While waiting for the police to respond, would-be victims should try to get to a well-populated public location, Officer Gordon Shyy wrote in an email. They should also update their location to the call-taker at the dispatch center, he added.
But being a constant target is a difficult issue to address. When Kelly Foss, then a 28-year-old working in advertising, was heading home from BART in Glen Park two years ago, she was alert and paying attention to what was happening around her. But at 5 feet 4 inches tall and 115 pounds, there was no way she could have defended herself against the three men who came up behind her, demanded her purse, and then threw her into the street hard enough to fracture her skull. The officer who took her statement when she regained consciousness, Foss said, told her she should just never go anywhere alone.
“It’s unrealistic for me to always have someone to walk with,” Foss said. “I should be able to walk four blocks alone in my neighborhood.” Nonetheless, Foss said she is certain she was targeted at least in part because she is female.
Lannan, for her part, said she won’t be walking anywhere alone at night for a while, but added that it wouldn’t be realistic in the long term.
“In some circumstances, do I have a choice?” she asked. “The distance between BART and my house is three-quarters of a block. But that’s the distance from my house that this happened.”
Still, having company is almost universally recommended as a protective strategy. Dodge at the rape treatment center also recommended using a buddy system on nights out, and when there may be alcohol involved, since many of the assaults reported at the center involved alcohol or drug ingestion.
Lannan had hoped for more support from neighbors who, she said, must have heard her screaming.
“I was feeling a bit defeated when … nobody came outside and nobody turned on the light,” Lannan said. “It should not be commonplace enough for this sort of thing to happen that it doesn’t strike someone to even open a window and yell hey.”
Kenney also encouraged neighbors to take the initiative to at least look outside and check on each other if they hear yelling. She said her reaction was, surprisingly, rage rather than fear.
“It sounded like I could’ve been fighting with my boyfriend when in fact I was fighting for my safety,” Kenney said.
A cyclist passing by did call the police, Lannan later learned, though she apparently hid in a garage alcove, afraid to get involved.
Foss has formed some habits to protect herself. She pays attention to footsteps behind her, makes a point of walking near other people to make sure there are witnesses to anything that might happen, and isn’t afraid to duck into a restaurant or bar to avoid someone near her who is acting suspiciously.
“I never used to even think to do that. Now I’m like, nope, I’m gonna make sure this is a non-issue,” she said.
When a situation escalates to physical contact, the best strategy is to make lots of noise and fight back. Lisa Scheff, executive director of the self defense program Impact Bay Area, said one of the most valuable defenses every woman has is her voice. Very loudly saying or yelling “no” often helps frighten off attackers.
“The way we look at stories about women who are attacked and scare off their attackers is, oh, for some reason they got lucky. But both of these cases really bring to the fore this idea that your voice can be enough to stop an attack,” Scheff said.
If it takes more than that, Scheff emphasized that it’s best to put up a fight. Some self-defense strategies teach that avoiding a fight is safer and prevents injuries, but Scheff said women are more likely to sustain minor injuries and less likely to suffer severe physical trauma, including rape, if they physically fight back. In mugging situations, she said it’s a personal choice whether or not to give up one’s belongings, but it’s good to think ahead about what sensitive information or items of sentimental value might be worth fighting for. Under no circumstances should a victim threatened with a knife or gun comply with a demand to move to a secondary location, Scheff said—statistically, the chances of survival at the attacker’s chosen location are much worse than if the victim fights back immediately.
For Kenney, fighting back also means changing the way we talk about harassment and assault.
“The whole conversation needs to change. If the onus is put on the woman to be careful for yourself and to look over your shoulder all the time and don’t go anywhere alone and don’t look pretty, don’t wear a dress…then the perpetrators of this are not the responsible ones,” she said. She intends to continue speaking out against victim-blaming and harassment. “The thing is, you get used to it and you stop being careful.”
Recovering from a traumatic incident can take time and lots of support. Foss said family and friends were a source of comfort, and therapy offered insight and important questions from an expert who wouldn’t become emotionally affected by her case.
“Don’t hesitate to let your friends and family know what you need,” she said. “They can help you feel strong faster. Brave people ask for help.”
Note: Impact Bay Area provides free one-hour self defense workshops at Sports Basement on 15th and Bryant the second Wednesday of every month. If you become the victim of an assault, you can reach the Rape Treatment Center at (415) 437-3000.