On August 23rd, 2011 I took redeye flight number 732 from LAX to ORD, and sat in seat 9E. Alone.
I was seated between two men. On the aisle-side was a 50-or-60-something-year-old man named Jim. We exchanged pleasantries, briefly, as one does on an airplane. On the window side was a highly-intoxicated man who fell deeply asleep within minutes of take-off.
10 minutes into the flight, a kid in the seat directly in front of me began vomiting. The vomit ran down through the seat and into my footwell, soaking my handbag and carry-on items in vomit. The crew was very nice about it but noted the flight was full and there was nowhere to relocate me. There was nothing they could do but cover the mess with plastic and coffee grounds to mask the smell. That got the flight off on a less-than-comfortable note, to start. But that was nothing compared to what came next.
Later into the flight, I fell asleep. I awoke at one point to feel Jim’s hand high on my upper, inner thigh. I thought it possible that it slipped down there while he was asleep, given the narrow nature of the seats on the craft, so I moved my leg away and went back to sleep. A while later, I awoke to find him pressed up against my arm, one hand on my leg, the other hand fumbling around my breasts… his jacket draped across my body to mask his hands from any passers-by.
I was terrified and didn’t know how to respond. Stuck in the middle seat on a nearly silent, dark flight in the middle of the night, I was paralyzed with confusion and fear. My brain was screaming, but I couldn’t react. I managed to physically startle, hard enough that he removed his hands and shifted away. I couldn’t bring myself look at him. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know how to get out of my seat and past him to signal for help, and I knew from the earlier vomit incident that there was nowhere to move me anyway, and I’d have to get past him to escape my seat at all. It was like an out-of-body experience: my mind was screaming “help me! Somebody, please!” but I could not make a sound.
I stayed awake and on-guard for the remainder of the flight, to keep him from making another attempt to grope me in my sleep. I tried to work up the courage to approach the flight crew or gate security, but (and this is something that you’d never fully understand unless you’ve been assaulted) that kind of violation and fear often leaves victims too stunned and shocked to take immediate action.
As soon as my parents picked me up from the airport, I told them what happened and immediately called Spirit Airlines to file a complaint. They had no idea to whom I should speak to file a report. Then I tried the TSA, to no avail. Then the police. And finally, the FBI.
There were no witnesses. It was my word against Jim’s. And when questioned? He said it was “consensual.”
That I wanted it.
You know why? Because I have a secret vomit-smell fetish and am attracted to men who are old enough to be my father?
Because he had a lawyer smart enough to advise him to do so. Because then, if a witness did appear, he wouldn’t be viewed as a liar for denying that he touched me at all. It was his safety net.
The FBI believed me, and were incredibly supportive, but could not press charges in a “he said-she said” incident like this, without witnesses. And I get it. I should have spoken up immediately, as it happened, on the plane. Unfortunately, “should have” flies out the window when you’re being victimized. My only reassurance with Jim is that the FBI gave him a good scare, he had to pay a lawyer for representation, and he had to tell his wife that he “cheated” on her with a younger woman on a plane who is now accusing him of assault. I take comfort in knowing those things must have caused him discomfort.
And if god forbid, something like this ever happens again, I hope I will be able to make a scene and get the offender arrested, charged and jailed.
But because I could not bring my assailant to justice, I do the next best thing I can. I use my voice. I share my story to help other victims know they’re not alone. To educate people on this lesser-known type of sexual assault. And to help prevent it from happening to other people. Rather than letting this experience shut me down, or make me hide in shame, or negatively impact my sexuality, or cause a paralyzing fear of flying, I choose instead to “turn obstacle into opportunity” and it’s how I try to approach every negative experience I encounter. Ad Astra per Aspera, remember? It ain’t always easy, but it’s part of the healing process.
Recently, this issue has gotten a lot of press from local news stations across the USA, and I was asked to be interviewed for the coverage. Apparently, the news team in DC couldn’t find a single other victim who was publicly willing to speak about her assault for the news piece. What began as a piece for the DC local news, investigating why there’s no government agency tracking these cases, has evolved into a story that’s been shared across multiple state’s news networks including California and Florida. I was even featured on The Doctors TV show to talk about it.
The exposure of this vulnerability in aviation law has lead Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) to draft new legislation directing the FAA to collect and maintain data on sexual assaults that occur on aircrafts during air transport, including domestic and international flights that land in the United States. You can click those links to view the coverage.
When I heard that my story is helping introduce new laws to protect assault victims, I was filled with a sense of pride unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I had hoped to help one or two people, but this could help hundreds. Thousands, even. It’s more than I dared to dream possible.
They say that one voice can change the world. While what happened to me was a horrible experience that I’d wish on no one… I am grateful, in a way. Because through that experience, and the power of turning that obstacle into the opportunity to use my voice for positive change, and to advocate for victims, I’m bettering the world – in my own small way.
If you have been a victim of in-flight sexual assault, please know that I am here. Feel free to contact me, if you need advice on reporting the incident, support afterward, or just an understanding shoulder. Anytime.
UPDATE: To help other victims of in-flight sexual assaults easily find education, support, and resources to help them, I created Take Back the Flight. If you or someone you know has experienced an assault on an airplane, please visit the site for guidance!