Why I Never Feel Safe Living Alone

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After a tumultuous experience living in a triple-occupancy dorm room my freshman year of college, I was absolutely starved for alone time. At 19, I had virtually no experience with apartment hunting. I jumped at the opportunity to move into a studio apartment in Bushwick, where all my friends were living at the time. It wasn’t a lot of space to work with; the one large room functioned as my kitchen, living room, and bedroom; but I was so thrilled to have the autonomy to do whatever I pleased without the watchful eyes of a parent or roommate that it hardly bothered me. It wasn’t that I minded living with other people. It was more that they minded living with me. I wasn’t dirty or late paying rent, I just had a lot of sex. Noisy sex. And I can’t say I blamed my former roommates for being annoyed. I decided that if I was the problem roommate, it was probably best for me to have my own fortress of solitude. The studio proved to be a delightful experience, at first. I could make all the noise I wanted and hot box the entire apartment without a single soul present to pass judgement on my behavior. Living alone was empowering; I felt like I’d been set free from restrictive surveillance. But three months into my lease, I was sexually assaulted in the space I’d once considered a haven. The man who lived in the unit directly next to mine forced his way into my apartment as I was unlocking my door, cornered me in the small space, and shoved his hands down the front of my pants. Initially, I just stood there, frozen. As I felt his body weight pressing against me and the sharp ledge of the kitchen countertop digging into my lower back, I desperately wished I had a roommate or anybody who would eventually be coming home. After all, this man shared a wall with me and knew as much about me as any neighbour would. I couldn’t help but think that if he hadn’t known that I lived alone, I wouldn’t have been such an easy target and this might not be happening to me.

Three months into my lease, I was sexually assaulted in the space I’d once considered a haven.

I was fortunate enough to have to means to break my lease, so I left the studio immediately. I wound up moving into a spacious one-bedroom apartment in a Bed-Stuy brownstone owned by an older couple. They lived in the building, along with some of their extended family and their close friend. After some careful consideration, I decided to tell the couple what had happened to me. I felt guilty and worried that I had been overly paranoid about my safety because of my assault. They reassured me that they weren’t going to let anyone ever hurt me. Because I had communicated so directly with my landlords about my fear of living alone, I felt incredibly safe during the three years I called the brownstone home — perhaps the safest I’d ever felt living anywhere. During the fall of 2014, I decided to sublet my apartment for two months because I wanted to explore living in Detroit. I had some acquaintances there, but I planned to spend most of my time working and making art. In my new temporary living space, I had four roommates. Within the first week, I had already become close friends with all of them and everyone else I met was incredibly kind and welcoming to me. Detroit’s community was small and intimate. I realized I preferred the dynamic of a tight-knit community over New York’s vastness. During that fall, I entered an open relationship with a very sweet and sensitive guy in Detroit and I made the decision to relocate permanently. It took me a few months to pack up my apartment in New York and find a new place to rent in Detroit, but I eventually found a small house that was very close to both my best friend and my boyfriend. There was something about the density of Brooklyn that frightened me. Even though Detroit technically had a higher crime rate, I didn’t feel as concerned about my own personal safety, because there were simply fewer people around. Even though that made me feel at ease, I slowly began to feel anxious again. There was an abandoned house across the street that had been boarded up and I eventually noticed a person was occupying the upstairs floor. Even though I never saw their face, I spotted objects in the window being shifted around day to day. This ominous, faceless presence frightened me, so I kept my curtains shut at all times. My boyfriend came over one afternoon and threw open the front window. I hesitated momentarily, then told him that I felt more comfortable with the curtains shut. He looked me over with an expression of both disgust and concern. “Look, I know you just moved here from fancy-schmancy New York and all, but you’re not in danger here.” I felt terrible. Was I overreacting? Maybe it was narcissistic for me to believe that someone was out there watching me, learning my daily habits, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get me alone and assault me. I explained to my boyfriend that I was concerned about the presence in the house across the street, but he bluntly told me that even if someone was there, they wouldn’t hurt me. While I knew he was trying to be reassuring, part of me felt like he couldn’t be bothered to spend a single ounce of energy attempting to empathise with me. My girlfriends worried about forgetting to lock the front door or getting spied on through their windows, but I’ve never heard one of my guy friends worry over these things. I began to resent the fact that women I knew feared for their safety — even in their own homes — while men were constantly minimizing our concerns with a joke or a shrug.

Maybe it was narcissistic for me to believe that someone was out there watching me.

My worry climaxed toward the end of the summer when a particularly popular sex article I wrote sparked a discussion about me on 4chan, a site notorious for carrying out real-world violence against women — feminists in particular. It wasn’t long before they found my phone number and posted it online; I wondered if and when my address might also be released amongst the troll community. I frantically checked the ongoing discussion on a daily basis to see if there was any mention of rallying to find me, but the men posting seemed to be under the impression that I still lived in New York. My Bed-Stuy address was posted days after my phone number became available. I dodged a bullet, but still felt incredibly vulnerable — made worse because I was living in a standalone house, with basically no neighbours nearby who might hear me scream. Now that I was in the “public eye,” I couldn’t stop imagining some man breaking through my front windows and attacking me. If anyone asked, I lied and said I had a roommate or a live-in boyfriend. I set some of my lamps on an automatic timer. I began leaving large boots outside my door in an attempt to make it seem as though a man lived with me. I craned my neck around like an owl during the few seconds it took to unlock my door, searching for potential assailants.

If anyone asked, I lied and said I had a roommate or a live-in boyfriend.

Fortunately, my fear dissipated over time as I got used to living in the new area. The longer I lived in my tiny house, the more I trusted my surroundings. I entered a monogamous relationship shortly after the summer. The fact that my boyfriend was constantly coming and going from my house eradicated any lingering fear, although I'm embarrassed to admit that. I bought my very first home in Detroit a few months ago. I couldn't help but think about the fact that this was going to be my permanent address — not some temporary rental I could ditch if I got doxed. I have roommates and it's quite incredible how the presence of others makes me feel safe and secure. I’m not sure I would be writing this if I still lived alone. Countless male friends post victory photos on social media outside of their new homes. I’m still contemplating whether it’s wise for me to take a selfie on my porch. What if some internet troll is able to identify my house from the stained-glass window in view behind me? If I want to live independently, I understand that this is the way I have to think — it might not be fair, but the world isn’t going to change overnight. While I try to be grounded in reality, there are two things I am sure of: I will never be gaslighted into believing that women are responsible for preventing our own assaults and I will never give up on my quest to feel safe while living alone.

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