I met my Phnom Penh pals for a quick beer at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a few blocks from my hotel. It was too short a distance to bother with a motodop home. In any case, I’m so averse to bargaining for fares that I’d usually rather walk.

On a dark street near the market, two young Khmer guys said hello. Normal. I walked past, fast as usual, but not so fast that one didn’t have time to reach past my arm in a sling and grab my left breast. Hard.

They were gone before I could react, and I got back to the hotel safely. When I told my friend Porter the following day, he looked worried and said he should have made sure I’d taken a motodop, an attitude I would have dismissed as unnecessary Southern solicitude before.

I’ve dealt with these kinds of minor assaults many times. So have most women I know. I’ve been groped on the New York subway and on an Aer Lingus flight. I’ve been flashed at, heard lewd insults, endured unwelcome, lingering hugs. But despite all this experience, I can never get it together to shout, kick, slap, or ridicule. My first reaction is still always disbelief, followed by disabling politeness. By then it’s usually (and thankfully) too late.

The fear that follows is never a direct response to the incident itself. I’ve experienced mostly minor stuff. The fear comes from the realization that I’ve been lucky again. The fear comes from the reminder that there will probably be a next time, and that by walking city streets alone at 10 pm (or 10 am) I am taking a risk. That men who would smile politely if I were walking with a 6’3″ Southerner like Porter regard me differently when I’m alone. That if some creep in Brooklyn or Bangkok, Peoria or Phnom Penh, decides to get nasty there may not be much I can do.

I hate these reminders. I hate feeling angry and stupid. I’ve promised myself that the next creep will get a nice mouthful of plaster of Paris.

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