There is a Facebook campaign going around about "me too." The idea is that if enough people who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault joined in with "me too," others would understand the scope of the problem. This is in direct response, or at least I assume, to the allegations that Harvey Weinstein, famous movie producer, is a serial sexual harasser and possible perpetrator of sexual assault. Or something like that... I was in Rwanda when this news broke. I came back to less the headlines than the Facebook posts about "why are these women only coming out now," and "why is everyone jumping on the bandwagon against him?" and "why didn't they say anything at the time."
I thought long and hard before I posted "Me too" on my Facebook page. I consider myself lucky: I've never been sexually assaulted. I have been sexually harassed. I don't have residual trauma over it. Sometimes I've wondered if the harassers really understood what they were doing was harassment. So I wondered "do I really have the right to say, 'me too?'"
It doesn't make me feel good to say it, but "me too." I don't want attention from these experiences (and I don't want sympathy for what is clearly a nearly-all-women's issue), but I do want to talk about sexual harassment, and counter the nasty, victim-shaming questions I saw on social media.
I must have been pretty young the first time I was on the receiving end of sexual harassment, from an older relative who said some inappropriate things I barely remember, but I remember the creeped out feeling I had. Growing up, there are very few ages I can think of that don't include someone saying something, gawking, making inappropriate or just lewd comments. At a certain age, I came to understand that this was what I should expect, and maybe even hope for, if I were to be considered attractive. Not getting harassed meant you weren't worthy of harassment. I don't know that anyone ever specifically told me as much, but I learned it, just the same.
I've had strange men expose their genitals at me on two separate occasions. I was a pre-teen the first time, and my younger sister was around. I was afraid for her, so I said nothing, as to not draw attention to the situation and expose her too. The second time around was during a ride on public transportation in high school, in which the man not only exposed himself but began masturbating while staring at me. I was embarrassed and ashamed, and felt frozen. My mother was on the same train but due to the angle of the cars, she saw nothing. I didn't have the words to tell her what was happening.
There was an incident on a vacation beach in junior high where a boy I just met put me in a situation I didn't want to be in, and, while nothing too serious happened, I was scared. I talked and bluffed my way through that night until I could get back to my parents' hotel room and felt like it was my fault for going out to the beach with the boy in the first place. I should have stayed and watched Kristi Yamaguchi skate in the Olympics instead. I thought I would be in trouble, so I didn't tell my parents. I tried to say something about this to a boy I liked a number of months later because I didn't want to walk alone in the woods with him... and he spread a rumor around that I had been raped. I had to deny to everyone that anything had happened, because I didn't know how to explain that it doesn't take being raped to have a bad experience that leads to not wanting to be alone with someone you don't know well.
I was grabbed and pinched and touched while working at the Renaissance Festival. Once, after a stage show, several drunk men found me and picked me up bodily. While I squirmed and asked them to put me down while trying to stay in character, they shouted and took photos and squeezed me way too tight and passed me between them. I called for help and when no one responded, I thought that maybe this was the price I had to pay for wearing a peasant costume and engaging in interactive theatre.
Stuff happened in college. Once, I showed up at a party and tried to intervene on behalf of a friend who was being forced into a drinking contest. When I did, one guy held me upside down when I, like my friend, refused to do a "keg stand." He wouldn't let go until my shirt unzipped and I was hanging there exposed, yelling, and some other guy finally came and got me out of there. The next day I confronted the manhandler. He apologized but clearly didn't understand what he did was wrong - he wasn't trying to get my shirt off, it just happened (but you didn't put me down, and you didn't listen when I said "no.")
Twice during professional employment, I was harassed to the point where I said something to management. The first time, I was discouraged from reporting because "they will know who said something, they will know it was you." I reported anyway because I didn't want to have to deal with another late-night work session where I left feeling scared and dirty. The second time, I walked right out of that manager's office and straight to HR... and I have no idea if anything actually happened with the report.
Those are just the highlights, not the full review.
Confusion over harassment-as-compliment.
Fear of reprisal.
Confusion about "who's responsible?" "Did I cause this?" "Did I deserve this?"
Lack of responsiveness when something is said.
Of course women don't report their experiences. 80% of sexual assault victims don't report their experience, how much less reporting happens when the situation feels more "grey," where there hasn't been physical damage, where you just feel like worthless garbage?
If I, a reasonably intelligent, educated woman who considers herself a feminist, and is now employed in a role that advocates for speaking out against these actions, didn't always report, didn't always understand what happened to her, and sometimes blamed herself... how can we expect ANYONE to speak up at the time? To overcome her fear? To combat the very real possibility of retribution?
I don't like sharing these stories. I don't like dredging up those memories. It doesn't make me feel good to share them. But if sharing them helps just one person understand the complicated realities at play when someone is harassed, then here you go.