I’m 31 & Finally Got Woke About My Own Sexual Harassment
I’ve met many Donald Trumps. If you’re a woman, you probably have, too.
I have to admit a dark truth, one of which I’m deeply ashamed: Until yesterday, I harbored a secret fear that all of the internet talk about rape and sexual assault and harassment belied a historically feminine inclination toward hysterics.
I was a doubting feminist.
In the wake of the Donald Trump locker-room banter debacle, more than a million women took to Twitter to share with author Kelly Oxford stories of harassment and assault: of being grabbed, groped and forcibly kissed against their will.
It made me uncomfortable. It often felt gratuitous—a little too much. My subconscious thought, irritatedly, “These things have been happening since the dawn of time. Amplifying them on social media doesn’t take them back. If anything, it makes what our detractors say about us true. It makes us appear to be in a perpetual state of victimization. It has a whiff of Hating All Men.”
My Irritated Subconscious got the bitchslap it deserved last night when Dose Studios live-streamed 11 women engaged in their version of locker-room banter: sharing stories of sexual assaults. I watched with increasing horror as the comments section turned into a Times Square-news ticker of gas-lighting, contempt and hate.
Commenters made fun of the women for the way they talked, the way they giggled, the way they misconstrued (in the commenters’ eyes) “being hit on” with “being sexually harassed.” I watched them engage in active, targeted harassment. One of the survivors, Amanda Meyncke, told me, “I’m not a public figure or trying to be, so I might be more sensitive to comments about my weight and looks… it was disheartening to see comments about how we were paid shills, making it up, or lying.”
Trolls typed things like, “i doubt anyone would actually walk up and grope some girls [sic] crotch, and if they do dont [sic] just complain about it, report them to the authority” and “Fish won’t bite if there isn’t any bait”—all while the women in the video above laid bare their hurt.
Like a clap of thunder before a storm, I realized why the sick feeling in my stomach was so deep—why it hurt. I woke up about my own sexual harassment, for the very first time: It had happened to me.
It first happened when I was 12.
I was walking in my hometown, wearing blue plaid shorts and a navy blue, crewneck Old Navy T-shirt. I remember because I was just getting to that point at which my cousins’ hand-me-down clothes were running out and my mom had to buy, for the first time, brand-new clothes for my body, which was developing so young. (As my mom’s own body had, and as my sister’s would, a few years later). I was so proud of that outfit.
As I walked up Washington Boulevard, I passed two men standing in their front yard. One said to the other, loudly enough so I could hear, “Look at the rack on her!”
I was 12. A kid. I was wearing a modest, crewneck T-shirt.
I was sensitive then. (I’m still sensitive now, but with increased resiliency.) For reasons my 12-year-old psyche couldn’t understand, I went home and sobbed in my mom’s arms. Nobody had (physically) hurt me; no one had touched me. I only knew that what that man had said broke my heart.
It happened again when I was 18.
I took a summer job at a country club. I’d be working in the pool’s snack bar, but in the days before it opened for the season, I helped the groundskeeper. I wore gym shorts and a crew-neck T-shirt. As I rode around in a 4-wheeler with the middle-aged, male groundskeeper, he started making “jokes” about tongue length. Whose tongue, exactly, I don’t remember. I do remember it went on way too long, and I laughed it off in a way that must have seemed fake. My body grew hot with embarrassment and shame. I felt violated, as I had on Washington Boulevard, for reasons I couldn’t name.
I was 18 and had only ever kissed one boy.
I went home and called my best friend. I wept with fury and indignation, slightly more aware this time around. “I can’t tell them what he said because it’s sexual harassment. He’d get fired, and I’d look like the bad guy!” I sobbed.
If I had told my dad, he would have gotten in the car, driven straight to the country club and ensured the groundskeeper would be unemployable until the end of his days. So, of course, I didn’t tell my parents. Because if a compassionate grownup knew what had happened, I’d look like the bad guy.
I was in my 20s, at a party in my friend’s apartment.
A slightly older guy approached me and tried to get me to dance with him. I refused, because I wasn’t romantically interested in him and the last thing I wanted to do was gyrate awkwardly in the middle of someone’s living room floor. He cajoled. I continued to refuse. Later, I overheard him drunkenly dragging me and calling me a bitch.
I called my best friend again. “I didn’t want to dance with him, so I’M a bitch?!?” I raged. “I’m not obligated to dance with him if I don’t want to!” Again, the tears, hot with anger. But this time, there was something else, too. I was angry, yes—but I was also trapped.
The feeling of being trapped in a system—one that’s so stacked against women, there’s no clear way out—returned to me Tuesday night.
I watched the trolls do their dirty work (“Why is the one on the far left in there for? Nobody wants to grab her;” “All you Liars, need to go to jail with the rest of them” and on and on). And I realized the women’s brave stories resonated with me because they were so similar to mine. They’ve backed us into a corner, I thought grimly.
If one man insults another, or goads him with reminders of his flaws (because he is only human), the offended party might respond by tossing back his own insult. When Donald Trump was confronted about his “locker-room remarks,” he was quick to counter, “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close.”
If Man A goads Man B to the point at which Man B’s composure breaks, they might get into a physical altercation. The definitive specimen here is, of course, Chris Brown, who has been involved in (among other incidents) a domestic violence dispute with his then-girlfriend, Rihanna; a scuffle with Drake that injured Brown and NBA star Tony Parker; and allegedly roughing up his former manager.
But if one man insults one woman, reducing her humanity—which he shares with her, on the most fundamental level—to nothing more than the sum of her physical parts by calling out “Nice tits!,” that woman is supposed to ignore him, or even smile (I just choked on those words) and carry on as if a total stranger hadn’t called into question her essential value.
Gabi Conti, one of the victims who shared her story yesterday, says:
“I think a lot of the times [when] sexual harassment is happening we tell ourselves ‘this isn’t happening’ and do our best to ignore it and move on. I’ve been harassed a lot in life and have blocked out most of it.
She continued, “This is why women don’t come forward—because we’re called liars. I’ll admit my story was a little vanilla compared to the rest, but that shouldn’t matter—sexual harassment comes in all shapes and sizes.”
This is how they’ve trapped us.
Two millennia of men’s entitlement, of woman’s reduction to objects who exist for male pleasure, has created this sickening double standard: Men can speak and argue and even physically fight about injustice. When women attempt to do the same, we’re being “dramatic.” We’re “playing the victim.” We “hate all men.”
Charles Blow, the woke New York Times columnist, knows the truth: “America has a habit of romanticizing the playboy as much as the cowboy, but there is often something untoward about the playboy, unseemly, predatory and broken.”
At the ripe old age of 31, I was so dumbfounded by the clarity of this simple fact, I cried until my nose was snotty.
The comments on the Facebook video made it abundantly, painfully clear that we women live in a theater of the absurd. We are Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for our Godot. And I have a sinking feeling that our Godot is not, as we’ve thought, equality with men. Rather, our Godot is something that comes before equality: We’re still waiting for a universal acknowledgement that gender inequity exists.
My rational, journalistic mind wants to find a way forward.
It wants to plot the points on a map leading to enlightenment. I’m no expert, but here I think, are some refueling stations along the way:
- The internet has given us an unprecedented opportunity to make some noise. This is what third-wave feminism is all about: disseminating our truth. Don’t let the haters tell you you’re too loud. They just don’t like it because it competes with the noise the culture tells them they’re entitled to make.
2. The third wave is also about intersectionality. Intersectionality is, as Latoya Peterson wrote in The Washington Post, “…a framework for understanding how a variety of oppressions can intersect.” This means feminism is no longer concerned only with middle-class white ladies. It must include black women; Latina women; bisexual, gay, asexual, or transgender women; it must encompass the whole rainbow of female humanity.
3. The woke bros are our friends. You know woke bros; so do I. I’m sitting beside one of them as I write this. As I cried out my rage following my perusal of the Facebook comments, including my sputtered, shocked (shocked!) revelation that I was one of these women, he said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” James, a Facebook commenter, wrote, “To the guys. This isn’t about defending good men it’s about listening [to] and acknowledging women.”
4. The brothers (and sisters) who are still asleep don’t like our noise because they’ve been raised to talk about tight, clean things instead of sloppy, messy feelings. This is not their fault. Your voice, to paraphrase Amy Schumer, probably triggers something in them that makes them feel powerless and alone. But that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your voice to make them feel comfortable in their limited emotional vocabulary.
Let’s stop waiting for Godot.
Let’s use our words, our passion and our love—for women, for men, for those who identify as neither—to smoke that Godot out of his hiding place, which is a dank little cave of loneliness and isolation.
Because, as Jennifer Wheels said in response to the 11 sexual assault survivors’ radical honesty, “Well done ladies for talking about this subject, I am a 68 year old lady and it happened to me. You never forget.”