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BACK OFF! Or, “Mama Needs a New Catchphrase”

by Marian Schembari on October 24, 2011

Can I vent here for a minute?

Last July I was walking home from the grocery store in London when I took a shortcut and found myself cornered by a group of young guys. They managed to get me against one of the walls of the highway tunnel (note to self: never take the shortcut) and decided it would be fun to grope me.

I just stood there and waited for them to finish. I didn’t say or do anything. There were three of them.

Now, getting your ass grabbed by a bunch of young kids isn’t the end of the world. And while now I find myself a little more wary walking down the street, it hasn’t scarred me for life.

What continues to bother me is that I did nothing. These guys probably wouldn’t have hurt me and over the past year I’ve composed some pretty awesome remarks to get them off. Too little too late.

But still, that was the first time guys have physically bothered me in the street and it wasn’t the last.

Last night the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup. It was an incredible night in Auckland and I’m so, so lucky I was here to experience it. Still, as always happens when lots of drunk people are running around, the men got rowdy. It started when I walked down Queen Street around 7pm. Some guy was walking towards me and I could just tell by looking at him that I should inch away, but it was so crowded and crazy I couldn’t really move. As predicted, I slowly watched the whole scene unfold – this guy moving closer to my side, shouting “Hey baby…” and giving me a serious ass grope. To my immense pride, I swung around and shouted “BACK OFF!” They guy just stared at me, mouth agape, a little confused, and scurried away.

A few hours later, after the win, I was walking home again. Same exact thing happened, except this time the guy was creepier and let’s just say it was a “lower front” grab as opposed to the ass. I did the same thing, shouting “back off” into this guy’s face. What I really wanted to say was, “Have some respect! Did I say you could touch me? Ima call the cops on your ass.” But I didn’t. I’ve nailed down my I’m-too-terrified-to-think response of “back off” paired with my Scary Face, but I still wish I could say more. Make these guys understand that this is NOT okay behavior. My look and tone didn’t scare the second guy. He actually looked proud as he called me a “fucking bitch” as I ran away.

I’m proud of myself for standing up to these guys last night in the way I didn’t have the lady balls to do in London. But this fear that’s growing in me is really starting to piss me off.

I’m not an especially pretty girl. I’m not particularly fashionable or skantily clad. (Not that ANY of these are excuses for assault, I’m just saying that I’m not a “special case.”) So I don’t understand why men (sorry, I’m going to make sweeping generalizations here) feel like it’s okay to just touch us in the streets. I can handle cat calls, but my body is my own. It’s not yours, it’s not that drunk guy in front of the Burger King’s and it sure as hell doesn’t belong to every man who feels he has a special power.

Why the fuck am I now afraid of walking down a perfectly safe street? When did I become the kind of girl who moves over to the other side of the road just because a guy happens to be on it? And why is it okay that I’ll never have control over this situation, no matter how scary I can make my face?

The thing that makes this all infinitely worse, is that all the women reading this will most definitely have similar experiences. I supposed I’ve joined the club. Woo hoo.

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  • Sarah Pearson

    Marion, I can’t speak for your experiences last night, it sounds like there were other people around, and good on you for letting these guys know how angry you were, but in the case of last Summer I’m afraid to say you did exactly the right thing. I live in England and I really don’t want to run the country down, but shouting back – or worse, fighting – would likely have earned you a far worse experience than the horrible one you received.

    • Marian Schembari

      You’re 100% right Sarah. While I wish I could have been stronger with those guys in London, at the end of the day, to stay safe sometimes you gotta swallow your pride. At the same time though, it makes me so fucking angry that more often than not, us women don’t have the power to defend ourselves.

  • marianschembari

    BACK OFF! Or, “Mama Needs a New Catchphrase”

  • Melissa Breau

    Sorry to hear you had to deal with that crap. I know what it’s like…. 

    • Marian Schembari

      Sorry to hear the same.

  • P.S. Jones

    I’m quite confrontation with my safety. (I’ve hopped out of a car when someone refused to stop texting and driving. I don’t answer if I can’t figure out why you’re at my front door. Basically I’m crazy.) Anyway, one night I was leaving a shopping mall and this man seemed to be following me into a dark parking lot. Alarm bells went off, so I turned around and looked him square in the face, like I was memorizing his face. Then I said “Just so you know there’s no way I’m going down without a fight. This will be the hardest rape/theft you’ve ever committed and I promise you’ll have to murder me to keep me from pointing you out in a line-up.” We stood there staring at each other for a second and then he ran away. 

    Honestly, he could have just been trying to find his car but I don’t care if I hurt his feelings or he’s telling this same story somewhere with me cast as the crazy woman who jumped to conclusions. But again, I’m a lunatic and never claimed not to be.

    • Marian Schembari

      Princess, you rock my socks right now. I LOVE that you said that to the guy. Who cares if he was a baddy or not – saftey first. That’s one of my biggest problems. I just assume that I’m overreacting and I don’t want to make a big deal so I stay on the same side of the street and I cower. When really, the confidence and standing tall at the very least will keep me safter than most. You’ve taken it to a whooole new level though and I’m a little jealous. Lunatic or not ;-)

      • Kim Lesch

        Never, EVER assume that you’re overreacting. I always get a male friend to walk me to my car after parties, refuse to walk into areas that are not well lit, avoid any dude who sets off my asshole radar (as you probably know, it’s extremely sensitive) and I’ve been known to throw a well placed punch or two (or hefty shove) when necessary.

        Also, get over it- you are a total foxx. Attention from men (and some ladies) is always gonna be in the cards.

  • Anonymous

    Holy hell – what is going on in Auckland? How many times have you been mauled by strangers in the past year? (your post suggests minimum of 3)

    My thoughts:
    1) Always ALWAYS listen to your gut. If you get a weird vibe from somebody, it’s totally the right move to cross the street, enter a store, etc.
    2) Maybe Auckland isn’t for you? Seriously I’ve lived in a number of cities and although I was mugged once (randomly, in Boston) I haven’t been mauled by 3 strangers in my entire life. The “it’s OK to maul chicks” culture that seems to be pervasive is NOT OK.
    3) Maybe it’s time to take a self-defense class or something? There is one here in the US which I took last year. No I don’t believe I am now equipped to actually fight my way out of something (at least not with these spaghetti arms) but it did give me the confidence to identify, avoid, or if unavoidable, confront somebody who might intend me harm. Since you keep getting confronted by these HORRIBLE PEOPLE, maybe getting some coaching would be helpful? (BTW – the classes here are run by the police and are offered for free).

    So sorry that happened. It’s wrong and awful and you deserve to have people respect your space :(

    • Marian Schembari

      It’s crazy! My first – worst – encounter was in London so it’s definitely not just Auckland. It may be that I happen to walk around a lot on my own, I’m not sure. I don’t think leaving Auckland is the answer as I know this happens to women everywhere, but I do think the men here are a little more free with their hands when they get drunk. Like Lucy said above, it might be a Kiwi macho thing. This was the first country that women got the vote and one of the first to have a woman prime minister. But when it comes to sex and real women’s issues, New Zealand is sadly behind.

      Am totally up for taking a self defense class – even to up my confidence. Shall do some research!

  • Lou

    Ooooh, this makes me so mad! I can’t stand this behavior from guys. It’s a way for them to assert their power, their dominance over women. I’m glad you yelled at those jerks. I am a woman, hear me ROAR!!!

    What I do when I’m in a situation where people are rowdy or I don’t feel safe is I carry my (invisible) “big stick”. It’s a massive wooden stick that I can use to beat anyone to a pulp if they bother me. I walk around with my hand clenched around this stick and I swear, people stay out of my way. It’s an energetic thing; even if I apparently have nothing in my hand, I give off a vibe of “Don’t f— with me!@melissa_breau:disqus . Works like a charm.

    • Marian Schembari

      Amen! I love your big stick! And I mean that in the best way possible :)

  • Nicole Pacent

    Well, I suppose if there is, in fact, a club that you have become unwittingly initiated into, then I’m your sorority sister equivalent here. Sorry you’ve had to endure such absurd, inappropriate behavior. Feels fantastic, huh? Thank you for writing this. I could relate to every last word. And the retorts always come too late, but somehow manage to live frustratingly long, fruitful lives in your head, where they are of no practical use at all. I had an incident happen leaving the subway to head back up to grand central after a day at my GHS senior internship. It was one of those “lower grab” situations, and to my delighted shock and awe, I actually swung around and hit the guy in the arm, and then proceeded to verbally assail him with a barrage of expletives that made several passing ‘suits’ blush, I’m sure. The guy was completely dumbfounded and just stood there like a deer in the headlights until I stormed off. But even after all that, I was still HEATED for hours afterwards.

    I also love that you included the bit about being called a “fucking bitch” by the last guy you rebuffed. So typical. Always my favorite part of those exchanges…because it is the least rational response one could possibly come up with after being rejected. Again, FANtastic.

    Lots of love and empathy from the golden coast. ;)


    • Marian Schembari

      Thanks for the love and empathy, Nicole. You seriously GO for train situation. While I know if I’m ever harassed in private the only solution is to run away, but in public? You need to SHAME the fucker. This is something I’m just starting to learn. I think these guys – especially last night – think they can just get away with shit. But if you call them out on it you might actually prevent them from doing it again. Maybe. Possibly.

      Point being, I’m totally prepping for my next encounter. I’m curious if those boys who bothered me would have thought twice if I’d brought up their sisters or mothers.

      And yeah, I’m surprised the guy the other night didn’t call me the c-word. It was so VILE the way he talked to me, but it’s like, we say no and suddenly we’re the assholes. It’s just not right.

  • Lucy Smith

    That’s the unfortunate side of some Kiwi males. I suspect a combination of alcohol and reflected machismo from our rugby victory made them feel that they were Richie McCaw (ha!) for the evening, and thought any woman would be grateful for their masculine awesomeness. Especially if there was a chance that said woman had also been drinking.

    I LOVE you yelling at the dudes though! When I was 18 or 19 I went to a bar for a foam party with some friends, including my at-the-time boyfriend, and as you do at that age had a bit much to drink. So there I was dancing away when my boyfriend put his arms around me from behind. I carried on, then saw my boyfriend and mates several metres away, turned around in horror, and realised it was a completely random dude grinding me. And all I did was scurry away to my boyfriend without a word (he hadn’t seen, or I think I’d have had some explaining to do!). Nowadays, what would I do in that situation? I don’t know, because I probably wouldn’t lose track of the people I was with or have more than a couple of drinks anyway. But I like to think I’d be a bit more forceful about saying THIS IS NOT OKAY.

    • Marian Schembari

      Yeah, it’s sort of odd. Auckland is SUCH a safe city (especially in comparison to other places I’ve lived), but I’ve never experienced the kind of harassment I did last night. I wasn’t particularly scared for my life, but there was a certain level of disrespect for the guys on the street and I wondered if it was a Kiwi thing. Le sigh.

      Sorry to hear about your own experience. I’m getting more and more annoyed listening to these stories – every woman I know has been completely disrespected and it is NOT okay.

  • Venka

    It may be an idea to look into Krav Maga, it is a very effective self defense method. 

    More importantly it teaches you how to read situations and how to get out of these situations before it turns nasty.   It will make you more confident and the more confident you look, the less likely anyone will even think of messing around.

    • Marian Schembari

      Never heard of it, but I’ll definitely look into it!

    • Kate

      My boyfriend took it, and I agree… if this is happening to you frequently (and 3 times in one year seems pretty damn frequent in my book), it’s not a bad idea. It’s pretty badass self defense based on techniques from the Israeli army. The training program is different in every country because they base what moves they start you with on the crimes most often committed in your country. In one four-month course, my boyfriend learned how to fight off punches, knives, guns, and attacks from 1-6 people. You should definitely check it out. 

  • Avi Kaye

    Well, there were only women commenting here, so I thought I’d give my 2c as well.

    Whenever I read these stories I always think two things – 1. What the fuck? I mean, groping some random female on the street, or cornering her with some friends of mine, would never even occur to me, no matter how drunk I was. And I’ve been very drunk in the past. It’s not just New Zealand, by the way, it’s everywhere. And 2. How do I train my daughter in the fine art of shooting-someone-in-the-face-with-a-shotugn. Are there courses for that?

    So not all men are like that – but enough are for some reason. And sadly, it’s probably not going to change over the next few years. 

    • Marian Schembari

      Avi, am so glad to have a guy chime in here.

      It’s funny because I don’t personally know any guys who would treat women (or anyone) this way. I just spent a year living with two dude who cooked their girlfriends dinner and held doors for old ladies. Which is why I get so baffled when so often this stuff happens on the streets.

      As for your daughter, know that my dad read this post and sent me a worried email. But even growing up my parents told me that if I was ever in a scary situation like this to just scream like hell and run away. Best way of staying safe. Though a shotgun works too ;-)

  • Rachel Stark

    I’m so sorry you went through this. It’s disgusting that anyone can find an excuse to behave like that, but I do think it’s about an assertion of power more than anything else. Kudos to you for using your voice and standing up against it, even if it may feel like too small a response. 

    • Marian Schembari

      Thanks Rachel! I was way proud of myself that night, but still, I know it won’t actually do any good. Hopefully, at least, it will keep me safe.

  • marianschembari

    In case you missed it, my latest post on getting molested on the streets not once, but three times in the past year

  • Kim Kircher

    Lou has the right idea with her “big stick”. I’ve never been harassed by a man, but then again, I’m 6 ft tall and stand up straight. Whenever I’ve had “that feeling”, I do a trick my sister taught me. I slip my hand inside my jacket, as if I’m fingering the imaginary gun in there. Once, when walking down a particularly crowded city street at night, I used that trick. The guy that seemed a little off walking my way, put his hands up in the air and said, “Damn Lady. I’m not messing with you.” Knowing that a little confidence goes a long way, made me feel safer next time. 

    • Marian Schembari

      Love it! Imaginary gun it is ;-)

  • Emma Cunningham

    I was kissed by our house cleaner when I was about 13. I just panicked and froze up, too. It bothers me as well. :(

    • Marian Schembari

      Oh yuuuuck. That is too weird. But I can totally relate obviously the freezing up. It’s easy for people to SAY we should fight back or say something or be ballsy, but when it’s impossible to know how you’ll react until you’re actually in that situation.

  • Emily Lu

    Infuriating. RT @MarianSchembari my latest post on getting molested on the streets not once, but 3 times in the past yr

  • Sweeney

    That right there is the worst part of these situations – all the time you spend wondering why the fuck you didn’t do more.  You set it on repeat in your head, picking apart the thousand ways you could have handled it differently.  It doesn’t change the basic fact that it shouldn’t have happened.

  • @dbsalk

    Marion, it’s awful that you experienced this, and I’m sorry for it. No one deserves what you went through.

    The Krav Maga classes are a great suggestion. Might I also suggest a small canister of pepper spray in your purse? They’re not hard to get ( and designed specifically for the situations you just described.  Yes, their legality might come into question depending on where you are, but… how many gropers are going to press charges?

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