I Was 18 When a Man on the Street Punched me in the Face

What were you wearing?

What time was it?

Were you walking alone?

Where in the world was this?

These are some of the questions you might be asking yourself. And I will answer them right away. Yes, it was late at night. Yes, I was walking alone. Yes, I was wearing a skirt. Yes, I was in a foreign country. But no, none of this justifies an 18-year-old girl getting punched in the face by a stranger. 

It must have been my sixth week living in Lyon, France, where I chose to take a year off to learn French. I was at the bar with some people I had met in French class but I was frankly tired, not in the mood to party. I remember I had been talking to a French guy at the bar who was clearly interested in more than just talking. He insisted that he walk me home so that I wouldn’t have to walk alone. After all, it was 2 am and I was a young, clueless girl in a foreign country far away from my comfort zone. I kindly declined. You see, I didn’t want to have the responsibility of rejecting him after performing the chivalrous and dashing act of dropping me off. I didn’t want him to kiss me. I was tired. I just wanted to be home alone.

I left the bar tipsy, tired, and alone in my mini-skirt, at 2 am. As I got further from that one bright street at the heart of the city, the streets started getting darker. And emptier. And quieter. I thought I was walking alone until I heard a man shout from behind. I didn’t understand what he was saying since my capacity to speak French at this point was insignificant if not mythical, but the tone of his voice suggested he was screaming at someone. Possibly… Me? 

His voice became louder as his steps felt closer. I could feel him getting angrier. The sloppy-drunk-kind-of-angry that lacks in common sense and rationality. I started walking faster. I didn’t look back. I didn’t run. I just fastened my pace and looked straight ahead. He starts catching up, and a few seconds later, I feel him smack the back of my neck as he shouts again. Only this time, I understood one word: pute. My blood starts boiling as I become enraged and so I turn around, I look him straight in the eyes for the very first time, and insult him in Spanish, as I automatically do when I lose my temper. He screams back at me and, once again, I understood « pute », just before he proceeds to punch me in the face. Full fist. No remorse. 

I lose my sense of alertness as my body falls on the floor, from shock rather than force. I looked up at him from the ground. I was confused. Traumatized. I didn’t understand what had just happened and I certainly hadn’t expected it. After all, it was the very first time in my life getting punched in the face. So I started crying like a baby. The man yelled at me one last time in his unfamiliar language, uttering the word he very much loved, and the only one I understood in his vocabulary: pute. He spat on my face and walked away, leaving me there on the floor, crying alone in the dark. 

When people ask me for a short answer to why I got punched in the face, I give them the simple version: I ignored my harasser and attempted to run away.

It’s been seven years now, and to this day, I am still mad at myself. I am furious because I didn’t try to defend myself. Why didn’t I try to punch back? Why didn’t I scream from the top of my lungs? Why didn’t I just let the guy from the bar walk me home? Why did I walk home alone at that time of the night? Why did I wear that mini skirt? Why wasn’t I more careful? 

But I am awfully tired of having to justify that I got punched in the face – not because of all the things I did wrong or all the things I could have avoided – but because a drunk, angry, sexist man, a stalker, a harasser, felt like he had the right to insult me and punch me. Me, a girl who was just trying to get home. 

Did he want to punch me in the face because of the way I was dressed and thought I deserved to be treated like trash? Maybe. Did he want to punch me in the face because I ignored him and tried running away, making him feel rejected? Maybe. Did he want to punch me in the face because he had all this anger bottled up inside of him that he wanted to take out on someone smaller and weaker than him? Also maybe. Who knows? The only thing I know now is that no matter the decisions I made that night, no matter what I was wearing, the time I went home, deciding to walk alone, no matter what, getting punched in the face was certainly not what I deserved.  

This is a very small and ordinary story in comparison to all the heinous acts of gender violence around the world, from child marriage to sexual violence to psychological abuse to genital mutilation. This is merely my personal, first-hand experience (pun intended) of sexist aggression.  

The saddest part of it all is that within the following week, I started emptying my closet of all potentially considered sexy clothing I owned. I decided I would, from there on, wear more modest clothes and that maybe, there wouldn’t be a reason left for me to get harassed. I was completely wrong. But the positive outcome of this experience was that I immersed myself in feminist polemics, literature and started asking myself basic questions such as: why should we modify our behavior to avoid aggression? Walk fast, but don’t run. Be nice, but don’t smile. Dress well, but don’t show. Be wary, but don’t look.

I strive to live in a world where I can smile and sing on the street on the happiest of days, without having a guy telling me I’m charming. A world where I can drink from my Aquarius bottle without having a guy making phallocentric jokes about it. I strive to live in a world where I can safely walk home at night without getting harassed. A world in which we’re all on the same side, against violence, oppression and for freedom for all people.