On Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after these dual encounters, I learned that, a mother of two, had been killed in Pittsburgh after declining a stranger’s advances. According to the police report, a man named Charles McKinney approached Jackson at a bar on a Friday night. He expressed some interest in her, she rebuffed him and left. McKinney allegedly followed her outside and then shot her in the chest. On what had been an otherwise usual Friday night for Talton-Jackson, she had been murdered because she wrongly assumed that her body belonged to her, not to her suitors and admirers.
This sobering reminder of what could happen to a woman because she dared to choose for herself what she desired shook me. This is what my mind had been wrestling with the night before—finding a grim disquiet in the unnecessary things women deal with on a daily basis for no reason other than they have dared to be women. Many men of the world decided long ago that they were entitled to women’s bodies.
I thought of the near-daily discomforts women learn to live with, barely noticing them until we feel their intrusions heightened. Then we respond in quickened steps on darkened streets, shrunken bodies folding themselves away from the unwanted warmth of breaths, eyes averting as another set bores into our bodies, standing ourselves on a platform of words that are variations of “no.”
“I’m not interested.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Leave me alone.”
“No, thank you.”
“Please don’t talk to me.”
Until one day, a man like Charles McKinney or Adrian Mendez decides that he doesn’t like your “no.” Then, saying “no” will become a life-and-death issue. There are countless more news items detailing the fatal outcomes for women who have rejected what are otherwise routinized advances towards them. Harassment kills women.
Homicide is among the top five causes of death for women aged 20 to 34 in the U.S, with even higher rates for Black women, such as Jackson. When you take into consideration that, opposed to male victims of homicide, the majority of women who are murdered know their attacker, it becomes uneasy to look away from the extraordinary number of things that happen to women on an ordinary day. Remarks, looks, advances, small comments that violate our sense of safety and bodies without our consent are seen as the normal functioning of our society. But they add up to something truly terrifying.
Somewhere in our past, each of us as women ceased to be a girl without our acquiescence, becoming moving prey whose bodies carried in them the longings of others. We are taught explicitly and through experience how to maneuver this jungle we now find ourselves in. But no amount of preparation can ever ready us for the day that we, like Janese Talton-Jackson, say “no” to the right person and end up with the wrong response because we dared to lay claim to our bodies.