When I was in my early twenties, taking public transit everywhere, on the south side of Chicago, I was harassed by men, every single day. Regularly cat-called, propositioned, sometimes they flashed their dicks or masturbated at red lights while I stood at the bus stop. Sometimes they followed me, circling the block several times, trying to lure me to take rides from them. Sometimes I was very scared. Mostly, I was furious.
I wanted to fight back. I was tired of feeling like a victim, like I just had to take this. I began a ‘strategy’ of pulling out a notebook and writing down license plates. I wanted to scare them into thinking they might get in trouble. It helped me feel empowered. Sometimes it did scare them off, sometimes it didn’t.
I was a pre-school teacher, I worked for a woman in her mid-forties, the owner of the school, Lori. I’d come in to work some days shaken and scared, or furious and raging. She told me I should dress differently. She told me “someday you’ll miss that, trust me.”
I’m in my mid-forties now. I get harassed less on the street now. I’m rarely scared for my safety. I haven’t seen a stranger’s dick waving at me at a red light in many years. And no, Lori, I don’t miss all that, not one bit.
I’m thinking about this today, because there’s a national conversation going on, about sexual harassment. Another rich, powerful man has come into public light as a sexual predator. Women everywhere are talking. Sharing our personal stories.
“One in four” is a statistic we commonly hear. It applies specifically to rape and physical sexual assault. One in four is too many, and further research shows that’s probably not even an accurate number, that it’s likely even higher. But if violence against women is a spectrum, with rape and murder at the far end of the spectrum, every one of us, as women, has endured, survived, or not survived, some sort of abuse, from men, in our lifetimes. This is part of the female experience in America. Like getting our periods, or experiencing puberty, or menopause. This is not one in four. How “generously” short-sighted to create the implication that three out of four of us are left unscathed by sexual violence from men.
We must begin to understand that sexual abuse or violence is not limited to rape or physical assault. We are coming to realize that it’s so pervasive, it’s universal. This is the free bonus that comes with being born a female.
If rape and murder are at one far end of the spectrum, the ultimate, most devastating violations, what’s at the other end? Mansplaining, says Kelly Diels, Feminist Marketing Consultant. I think I agree. A little further along is cat-calling. Comments, gropey hugs, seething noises, indecent exposures, unwanted advances, following, inappropriate propositions, abuse of power for sexual gratification… there are countless ways to be sexually abused. How many marks could we plot, on our personal spectrums, if we were to tally our individual experiences? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
I’m thinking a lot about my boss Lori today. Maybe because I’m about the age she was when she said those things to me. What had Lori internalized, in her lifetime, about being a woman, about her worth as a female, about aging, attention, desirability? What beliefs did she have, deeply rooted in her, that made her think that these attentions were somehow enviable (when she wasn’t telling me I was asking for it)? One thing I’m pretty certain of – she did not invent them.
She was about twice my age, born of a different generation, called herself a feminist. Yet… did she really miss being harassed? What kind of twisted bedfellows had she made of validation and abuse? How different we are. Yet, our similarities are less savory to consider.
I think about what I was wearing back then… some days a thick, heavy coat, during the bitter cold of winter. I was bundled up for below-zero temps one of the times a guy was masturbating “for me” at the red light, while I stood, nauseated, at my bus stop, pretending not to notice, praying for the light to change. But some days, in the summertime, I wore short shorts and tight tank tops. It was hot out. And on those days, I was harassed more frequently, no doubt. So what message was I sending, by wearing the clothing I chose to wore, and showing the skin I chose to reveal? Was I asking for it? Of course not. I know this, on one level, the wise part of me knows this. But the world we live in has taught me otherwise. I must be vigilant in identifying these messages, these lies. I must pluck them out of my belief system, one by one. They are bacteria. They keep my system infected.
What a multi-layered, tangled mess of messages and lessons, myths and lies we’ve been fed, so muddled and mucky it may take us generations to unravel them.
And if I am truly honest with myself, sometimes, when I am out with friends, for example, feeling beautiful, I want to be noticed. I want to be wanted. As a “woman of a certain age,” I find myself occasionally missing the response I would get from men, in public, when I was in my twenties and thirties. Not the harassment, of course, but the noticing. I refuse to feel shame for this. And for Lori, maybe harassment was just a seedier form of being noticed. And maybe any noticing at all, to her, was more appealing than feeling invisible. Like Lori, there is a shadowy part of me that connects desirability with my value as a woman, I know this is a lie, but it’s deep in there, because in our culture, the greatest perceived threat to a woman’s value is aging.
I remember, in my early 30s, being at a gas station with a girlfriend, Jennie, getting gas and cigarettes on a Saturday night, on our way to the club. A couple of men made seething noises and called to us in Spanish, and she went off. She screamed and raged and called them names and maybe even banged her fist on the hood of their car, and told them to fuck themselves, screamed at them, asking if they had daughters, if they had wives. Called them fucking perverts.
I was shocked, I had never seen a response like this. A far cry from my little notebook and license plate strategy. I was partly in awe. And I was partly embarrassed. She’d caused a scene. Her rage made me uncomfortable. And I was still very committed to being inoffensive, nice and demure. Ladylike and tolerant. I had stopped using the notebook many years before. My strategy had become to ignore, pretend they didn’t exist, pump my gas and look the other way.
I’m still harassed at times. My reaction now is more likely to meet him eye to eye and say loudly enough for others to hear: “NO. NOT OKAY!” while I point a rigid finger toward his face… if I’m feeling brave. Yet sometimes, I say nothing, and pretend to not have seen or heard. How to respond, if to respond, how to stay safe, to take back our power, to not risk further interaction, this is an ongoing, play-by-play consideration in our inner worlds, as women.
Each of us, as women, have our own stories of experiencing inappropriate and offensive behavior from men. I don’t think any of us have been exempt from sexual harassment of one kind or another. Four out of four.
When does it end? How does it end? I don’t have the answers to those questions. But I know one thing. The more we talk about it, the more light we shed on these shadowy realities, the more we call out and demand accountability of men, demand to be treated with respect, refuse to tolerate these behaviors any longer, the more we say “NO. NOT OKAY!” the safer we become. The mightier we become.
We’ve played nice-girl long enough. We’ve been ladylike long enough. It’s time we said “NO. NOT OKAY!”
And when the situation calls for it, like my friend Jennie, we need to make people uncomfortable with our rage.
We need more men to join us, to say “NO. NOT OKAY!” along with us. I see it happening, and it gives me hope.
I have hope, for our daughters, and our granddaughters.
Maybe someday sexual harassment and abuse will not be a universal part of the female experience. Or am I only dreaming? I know this much. Being a woman does not equate being subject to harassment as part of life. We must stop normalizing this. We must say NO, NOT OKAY. And mean it.