Since the #metoo social media flood I, like so many of my friends, have struggled with stomaching the sudden visual presence on my feed of countless people I know personally who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. There are people coming forward from all different walks of my life, all social circles, and all demographics. The age range is vast (18-70 give or take) and the sexual/gender identities are broad: female, male, straight, gay, bi, trans, cis...
It has greatly saddened me to to hear so many of my friends saying things like "I hesitated to include myself in this because I felt my story was not as bad as other people's." This is the point I would like to address first before anything else:
Your suffering should not be measured by the suffering of others.
What you experience and how it makes you feel does not become easier to deal with or less important when you deem someone else's experiences "more difficult" or "more important" based on some mainstream societal, patriarchal standard of suffering. This is not a "victim pie" we are all sharing. Your slice does not get smaller if you see mine as bigger. Unfortunately there is an infinite amount of suffering to go around, and it sounds like we've all had our fair fucking share. It's horrible, sobering, terrifying, earth-shaking. Please know that you deserve the space that is carved out for you in this conversation, no matter what you’ve experienced. If you feel you don't deserve it I believe that the fault for that lies in the hands of our society and culture. They have failed to make you feel seen and I am so sorry for that.
On a personal note, I have struggled with how this hashtag phenomenon pushed me to think about and relive the numerous times I was a victim of harassment and assault. I was agitated enough to recall things that happened to me so long ago that I had completely blocked them out. Things like:
- The boy in second grade who put his hand under my ass during church service and shushed me when I protested out of discomfort. Of course, I just sat there on his hand, looking at the crucifix thinking, "I guess this is something I deserve."
- The boy who laid on top of me in a deserted upstairs bedroom at a family gathering for what seemed like an eternity with his open mouth over mine trying to convince me that this was okay because it's what romantic relationships looked like in the movies. Again, I just laid there and took it, not knowing what to do or who I could go to to say that something confusing had just happened that did not feel right. I was ten.
- The high school teacher who would rest his hands on (and sometimes even massage) my bare shoulders almost every week during sophomore Chemistry class, and who would linger or look at me for a little too long all the time. I started making sure I always wore a cardigan or a sweater to avoid the skin to skin contact. He was a much loved teacher by my peers, but every time I was around him the pit of my stomach would turn and something inside me warned to keep my distance, which I did. I did not do well in that class.
- The coworker who would not take no for an answer when I kept refusing to go out with him. He never touched me, but it was as if he lived in that alternate reality where a girl says, "no," but what she means is, "actually, I'm just playing hard to get." He was relentless in his flirtations which I always turned down immediately and clearly. And yet I'd still come out at the end of a long day to his number taped to my bicycle with a note that said "Call Me." I would shudder, crumple up the paper, and just move on. Did I mention I was also his boss? Creep.
- Then there was that time when I was 17 and I started my very first real job at a company I had admired for practically my entire life. I had been hired as a part of a team that would be working under a man I knew only from a distance, but who had a reputation for being difficult (let's call him Steve). I welcomed the challenge, thinking the worst that would happen is that I'd be yelled at once or twice by him for doing some task incorrectly. I was very wrong.
ON DAY ONE, I was called into an administrative assistant's office (let's call him Bob). Bob asked me to sit down, and said he needed to address an accusation that had been laid against me. He said it was something that could potentially compromise my job altogether. My blood pressure sky-rocketed. Inside my 17-year-old bubble this job meant everything to me and I was not about to lose it on day one. Bob simply told me that an unnamed person reported that they saw a nude photo of me published in the latest issue of Playboy magazine. I was horrified. I'm sure my face has never been a brighter shade of crimson in all my 33 years on the planet. I honestly had never even held a Playboy at that point in my life, and was barely comfortable looking at myself naked in the mirror much less having someone photograph me in that state.
I immediately protested, saying the accusation was entirely false, and I demanded to know who the supposed whistle-blower was. Bob looked relieved and told me it really did not matter who the source was so long as the story was not true. I respectfully insisted he tell me the name of my accuser. If one of my coworkers was spreading rumors like this about me, I wanted to know who it was so I could deal the issue directly at the source. Much to my surprise, after I made it clear I was not leaving the office until Bob told me the accuser's name, Bob revealed who it was. It was Steve, my new boss. A 37-year-old man, and a person I had LITERALLY never spoken to in my life. My blood was boiling. I was terrified to the point of shaking. How was I going to navigate this?
At 17 years old, I certainly did not have the feminist arsenal of vocabulary or the confidence in myself to go to battle full throttle on this. But I decided to face it, nonetheless. I marched straight to Steve's office to confront him. I introduced myself (I may have even shook his hand to be polite), then told him I had just been made aware of his accusations. I naively asked him why he would say something like that about me. He stared at me blankly. "Because it's true," he said. Suddenly, I became frighteningly aware of how alone we were in this tiny space together. Before I could protest further, he stood up and went to the back of his office, grabbing a copy of Playboy off a stack of dirty magazines he kept there. He flipped slowly to a seemingly arbitrary page, and pointed to a fully nude girl that had blonde hair and big boobs. There I was at 17 being shown naked pictures of girls by a 37-year-old man who had recently just become my very first boss. Welcome to the fucking working world, little girl. There aren't many moments I can site in my life where I remember being that uncomfortable. I looked up at his face. He was smiling. He looked proud of himself. I felt sick. I didn't know what else to say so I just silently turned and walked out of his office, defeated. He had won whatever sick game this was and we both knew it. I had never played before, but I am certain he had played countless times with plenty of other young women.
I wish I could say that's where the story ended, but unfortunately there's more. After the awkward interaction in his office, Steve had clearly chosen me as the one on my team he could berate and abuse openly. At every opportunity he would raise his voice unnecessarily at me for things that were not my fault, and he would correct everything I did with relentless anger in his eyes.
I remember one time specifically where my team was put to a task together as a group. Just as we all got up to get to work after being given the assignment, Steve said he had a different job in mind for me and that I needed to stay behind in his office. Once the rest of my team left me alone with him, Steve told me I was to empty, clean out, and restock his medicine cabinet while he sat there next to me. It took almost 2 hours. I remember wishing I could have crawled out of my skin.
There was also a time when I got a terrible case of the stomach flu on the job (I'm talking violent uncontrollable vomiting. NO FUN). Steve saw me bent over outside heaving up my lunch and offered to drive me to see a nurse. Looking back, I am not sure why I had any trust left in my entire body for this man (stupid, naive, 17-year-old self), but I begrudgingly accepted his offer nonetheless. As we sat next to each other in his car, he broke the silence. "So....I was watching this soft porn the other day, and there was a girl in it that looked exactly like you." I told Steve to pull over immediately. I got out and walked the rest of the way on foot. Fucking asshole.
Obviously this story is upsetting for many reasons, but one of the worst parts for me, looking back, is that I did try to tell people what was happening. Most of my teammates were male, and I shared a few of the details with them as things were unfolding hoping they would act as my sounding board for where to turn next. Each one of the people I told said that it was just "Steve being Steve" and not to worry about it. Some laughed and said "oh yeah, that sounds about right." I even had to endure watching Steve be recognized for his “outstanding, exemplary achievements” in front of the whole company at one point. Each of these peer responses caused me to turn further and further in on myself about what had occurred (yes, just like that old 90s commercial where the woman keeps shrinking smaller and smaller as she is being harassed by her boss as seen at the top of this post), and eventually I just shut down completely about it. I blocked the sexual harassment side of the story from my memory, and actively spent time forcing myself to laugh it all off as if what he did was “normal” or “acceptable” behavior. Somehow making fun of the person he was made him seem like more of a clown than a predator, which felt easier to look back on than the actual truth.
It took me about 10 years to talk about this experience fully and openly with anyone. I have even in recent years shared the story with men I am close to who have reacted by, again, either laughing or saying things like, "You should be thankful he didn't actually touch you at all. Aren't you grateful you went through that and survived? Don't you feel like it taught you a lot?"
After taking a deep breath, I've calmly responded to comments like this by tearing pages from that feminist arsenal I mentioned earlier. Since I was 17 I've spent a lot of time building up my ability to speak in a level-headed way about sexual assault, gender equality, feminism, and other "tough subjects.” I no longer respond to ignorant giggles or "boy's club" comments with anger, because I know it is not the best way to communicate my point of view. The response is usually something like this: “No, actually, I am not grateful that I was taken advantage of by a much older man in a position of power. However, it did teach me a lot, you got me there. I learned to feel shame for something I had no control over, I learned to have a broad distrust of men, I learned that no matter how hard I work or how much I accomplish in life, my perceived value lies mainly in my looks, I learned to dislike my sexuality, I learned that men are in a big club together. They create this unbreakable circle of trust with each other, and no matter what another man does, his club comrades will always back him up and never rat him out.”
I will now spend my lifetime unlearning all that I was taught through actions of men like Steve.
Frankly speaking, even though I’ve trained myself to respond calmly in conversations dealing with the tough stuff, when I am alone and I think about the Steve story + all the other countless stories I’ve heard over the last week from my friends, I am fucking furious. I'm pissed off that men like Steve or Harvey Weinstein are out there living their lives, not owning the shame they should feel for behaving this way, and not being held criminally responsible (yet). I'm angry that I lived so much of my life being the one that felt like I did something wrong. Or I did something to "ask for it" (to quote FUCKING DONNA KAREN FROM 2017!!! Jesus motherfucking Christ).
I hope for so many things to change after the emergence of #metoo. It's hard not to feel trapped in a swirling tornado of shit (anyone else out there relate?). BUT for now here are three specific things that make me mad and I’d like to see change:
1. I hope that women everywhere stop throwing each other to the wolves, plain and simple (I’m looking at you, FUCKING DONNA KAREN).
2. I hope we find the strength as a society stop forgiving abusive men or brushing their abuses under a rug just because of their talent or accomplishments. And for Christ sake, stop supporting their work!
• Suggestion: Perhaps Casey Affleck should not present the award for best actress at the Oscars this year. Fuck tradition. Have some common decency and ask someone else who has not been accused by multiple women of sexual abuse. And stop seeing his movies.
• Stop seeing/acting in/praising Roman Polanski and Woody Allen films. And for cryin’ out loud if you are still defending Bill Cosby in any way at all whatsoever, just stop.
• Stop supporting Donald Trump, a person who has openly admitted to participating in the harassment of women, and has had countless allegations of sexual harassment/assault brought against him between the 1970s and 2005.
• Perhaps the hardest ask of them all for America aside from the Trump thing: Stop watching football. You know, that multi-billion dollar industry that employs and re-employs countless men who beat their wives, assault people, and have seemingly no regard for the law or the rules of life in general? (Obviously, this is a generalization, but check out all these statistics about dudes on the NFL roster this season who have been found guilty of one or many offenses within the last year, month, week or even day! This site really breaks it down!) I know, I know… they changed their policy on domestic violence to be more strict in 2014, and yes, they have been enforcing this policy by dropping players sometimes. BUT there are still teams in the current season employing guys like Josh Brown and Ezekiel Elliott. Not good enough. Those guys should not be on any team's roster. Not to mention the fact that the league and it’s commissioner have been trying recently to strip players of their 1st amendment rights in addressing police brutality. So, just to be crystal clear: The league has no problem allowing abusive men to play in their league, but a major problem with those who are fighting to end abuses by police in our country? Consider this my official resignation from football fandom.
3. Lastly, I hope my male friends will own their part in this epidemic. If 90% of my female friends posted #metoo, then chances are very high that 90% of my male friends were part of the problem at some point in their life. They may have been the actual perpetrator of assault, or they could have been the "bro" that laughed at the sexist joke earlier this morning. No matter where you lie on the spectrum, my hope is that you own your story so we can begin to make some real forward progress here.
As my fave Brené Brown says "When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending."