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Within 5 feet: Battling sexual assault up close

Friday - 7/20/2012, 6:10am  ET

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Liz Gorman was sexually assaulted July 12 at 3:30 p.m. in Dupont Circle. (Photo Courtesy of Liz Gorman)

Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Liz Gorman never intended to become a spokesperson against sexual assault. That changed last week after she was violated in broad daylight on a busy D.C. street.

The 25-year-old photographer was walking in Dupont Circle on a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon when a man pulled up behind her on his bicycle. He reached up her skirt and through her underwear.

"He laughed and biked away," she says. "That was it."

Gorman was stunned, but not into silence. She chased the man, and called police when she couldn't catch up. The next day, Gorman decided to take further action and wrote an essay for Collective Action for Safe Spaces about what she calls the "10-5 rule."

"I am walking alone and see a man walking towards me at 10 feet. Maybe instead of looking straight ahead into the distance, I move my eyes to the ground. I slump my shoulders slightly ... At 5 feet, I take a small breath and one of two things happens: nothing at all, which I consider a small victory orůsomething."

The essay instantly went viral. The Washington Post, Huffington Post and DCist are just a few places that picked it up.

Women from throughout the region wrote in to express their support and also to share their own stories. It wasn't long before Gorman realized she had tapped into something that was boiling just beneath the surface. She wasn't alone.

"This is not just about me," she says. "This is about the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault."

Lisa, a D.C. resident who asked WTOP to withhold her last name for safety reasons, is one of the many people inspired by Gorman's account. She felt an instant connection to the story not only because she has been a victim of harassment, but because Gorman's incident happened in her neighborhood.

"You forget that this is something that's not supposed to happen," she says. "There's no reason that people should feel ashamed. You didn't do anything wrong. You were just going about your life."

More than a year ago, Lisa stepped out of a friend's house near 3rd Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest to wave down a cab. A van full of men pulled up near her and started "leering and taunting."

"Hey sweetie, we can take you where you want to go. Just get in," they said.

She was scared and didn't know what to do. In hopes of not angering or provoking them, she pretended she was "in on the joke" so they wouldn't get out of the van. Eventually they left, but the experience haunted her.

"It was only a couple of minutes, but you think a lot about how wrong that could have gone," she says. "It's threatening, and a lot of people don't always realize that it's not flattering, it's not nice. It's unwanted and it's inappropriate and it's unkind."

Gorman's post and the subsequent wave of support made Lisa "proud seeing that so many women feel that they're in control of their lives and that this is not something they want to take."

Chai Shenoy, co-founder and executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, is seeing a new wave of victims coming forward. Where some women used to accept harassment as a part of daily life, many are no longer keeping quiet.

Since 2009, Safe Spaces has received more than 700 posts from women who were harassed or assaulted.

"The idea that sexual harassment and assault is a private thing comes from centuries of women and men not talking about these issues," she says. "It's a very new phenomenon through social media and through the Internet for people to be sharing these experiences."

What made Gorman's account so unique is her willingness to not only post her name, but also link to her professional bio. By not hiding her identity, she made others feel empowered to do the same, Shenoy says.

"I think the online space is a real tool for empowerment for a lot of people," she says. "There is a sense of wanting to reclaim the Internet for different genders. This is just another avenue of people wanting to reclaim what happened to them."

Earlier this month, a 20-year-old Minnesota woman posted a picture of herself smiling and flashing a bandaged hand that was injured after she punched a man who threatened to rape another woman.

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