My emotions have been on overload lately, sending me to tears at the slightest invocation. I get like this sometimes, where weight of the world presses down on me. The other day someone dumped dogs on the curb by my office. A woman in a pickup pulled over and tried to rescue them. I brought out treats for bait. They were timid and jumpy, and as soon as they started to warm up to her another stray male ran up out of nowhere and they all ran off together. Today at the gas station I saw the two dogs, they were standing outside of McDonald’s, no longer timid begging every passerby for food. There was nothing I could do, my dog was already in my car, the storm knocked down a section of my fence so I don’t even know where I would keep strays. The impending cold, the hungry animals and people on the street, I needed to work this all out in my mind so I hit the pool.
About 20 minutes into my laps I notice a young man sitting in the jacuzzi directly at the end of my lane. His head is resting on the tile, his head phones are in, and he is holding his phone vertically on a towel. The fear that he is photographing me crosses my mind but I try to continue swimming while watching him through my tinted goggles. I made eye contact with him a couple of times, but I don’t think he could see my eyes. When I finished my laps and entered the jacuzzi I could see he was fiddling with his camera app. He took a picture of the pool and then switched back to a text. I watched him a minute more then closed my eyes, feeling the shakes start to set in. In my head I tried to imagine how to confront him, I thought about asking the other guy who was sitting off to the corner. My heart started to race and the voices in my head piped up. SAY SOMETHING. Shh, don’t say anything. What are you going to say? You don’t know that he was for sure photographing you. Say something! Get over it, what’s the big deal. When another woman entered the pool he picked his phone back up and I decided to break the silence. “Hey man, I saw you had your camera open and you were sitting right at the end of my lane, were you taking pictures of me?” No. “Then show me your photos.” He fumbles and pulls up the picture I saw him take quickly closing the app and saying “I was sending a text of the pool to my friend.”
Frazzled and with out saying a word I stumble to my towel, my vision is going blurry. Of course I can’t prove he was taking pictures of me, and truthfully I want to believe the best in people and that he wasn’t, but with the amount of candid and stolen photo hosting sites on the internet sharing secretly snapped pictures of women, its hard to think he could be doing anything else. This is not the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable about this. Many times when I go to swim there is one gentleman who sits in the reclining chair on his phone. He does not swim, he does not get in the pool, and maybe he is just relaxing in the humid air and watching funny youtube videos but when his phone is pointing directly at me while I’m stretching I feel rather uncomfortable.
When I laid down in the sauna I still couldn’t catch my breath. I gave up on the thought of quiet meditative time and hurried out to pack my things. Walking out of the gym with wobbly legs I can feel the heat rising from my face. I made eye contact with an employee and he asked me how my work out was. I started to lose it. “Are they allowed to have phones in the pool? Are people allowed to take pictures?” He starts asking if someone was taking an image of me and I could only come out with broken sentences while I tried to explain. His change in demeanor alerted me that yes, as a man he knew that men took candid photos of women to post online. He starts asking me what the guy looked like as the front desk woman approaches. As I start asking her about it she says that people are allowed to have their phones and they can’t really make a rule on it. Can I prove he was photographing me? Was I doing something funny? “Sometimes people take a picture when they see something funny. You know, like those college professors on the internet. Its a thing people do. If I knew someone was taking my picture I would do something extra funny.” I’m not doing anything funny, I’m fucking working out and I’m not giving consent for photos regardless of their intended use. I try to explain to her what these images are used for and the kinds of sites they are hosted on. “Oh, like up-skirt pics. Like for porn?” The other worker sees a guy and goes “Is that him?” It is him, I don’t say anything, I look away. The woman keeps going on, about how they can’t control it and I would have to catch some one and know for sure they were taking pictures and if I’m bothered I should confront them and that’s the risk of working out in a public gym. “Oh, its ok, I already know the risk of being female in the world.” “It wouldn’t bother me if someone took my picture, I’m not really a feminist or anything.” At this point I’m not sure if she is trying to comfort me or make fun of me. She really does seem unaware that there are entire websites devoted to capturing candid images of women, and if she did know she wouldn’t care. Maybe she would be flattered, and make a funny face for the front page. She starts talking about how I can talk to some manger and I head to the door saying thats ok, I’m going to look into some laws and shit. So basically, my safety is not a priority at the gym, and “If that sort of thing bothers me” then its my job to remain hyper vigilant, confront possible harassers, and then prove their guilt.
Getting home I guzzle coffee and hummus, pack up my dog, spout more nonsense to my lover while our roommate lies passed out on a yoga mat next to his programs, and drive to my friend’s bonfire. I’ve got an hour to kill before I pick up Kayla from the bus station. Sipping from my thermos I’m still shaking when I enter their back yard, feeling like I should have been able to pull myself together by now. My dog feels my anxiety and bores of the new company, wanting to sit at my feet. I’m talking to my friend Dan about watching the two dogs get dumped on the curb by my work. It looked like they had just finished nursing puppies, and they sat there on that curb, protective and waiting. It made me think about how if I pulled up to a curb and told Sam to get out, that he would have followed my directions and stood their confused while I drove off. Dan said something about how he wondered what people had to say to themselves to justify that, and suddenly the pieces fit together. I though about dog breeding and the folks who would use a bitch until she was through, the puppies provided much needed money and now the mothers were nothing but a drain, I could see the reasoning. Just like one might have to reason why having cameras in the gym is ok, because they don’t want to face how they might be nothing more than an exploitable object.
I came home afterwards, after being late to the bus station, after driving Sicily home and sitting in a liquor store parking lot recounting to Kayla why I was so jumpy and couldn’t breathe. I felt so traumatized and disturbed. On my way to pick them up I felt embarrassed by my behavior at the bonfire. I was so uptight, didn’t know how to converse, and whenever I was near someone I knew I would either blather on about dog politics or my impending drive. I blasted Jeffrey Lewis while I dreamed of beer and felt guilty for being such a wreck, when it dawned on me that I had every right to be losing my fucking shit. As a survivor of sexual assault I am already hyper sensitive to the slightest objectification/exploitation of my body. This day, I felt extremely harassed, exploited, and helpless, and was reaffirmed by staff that I thought were there to help provide a safe space that I was insane and it was my job to fix it.
I had every fucking right to lose my shit.
Here and now, almost 24 hours later something is still off kilter. I can’t focus and my appetite is out of whack. I close my eyes and picture the paper my therapist gave me on my first day in her office, possible symptoms of sexual assault related PTSD include…. I sigh and forgive myself. Maybe you’ll be able to articulate better next time kid, but today, its ok to chug coffee in a befuddled haze and accept sloppy sentiment.