The first time I remember feeling threatened by a man was walking a friend home. He pulled up in his car. I don’t recall what he said. I only remember my friend and I running through a field as fast as we could. We were 9, the same age as my daughter today.
Then there’s the time I and another classmate were at our posts for safety patrol, and a man stood across the street taking photos of us. We didn’t know why because he didn’t say a word to us. We simply knew it felt wrong and uncomfortable. We were in fifth grade.
The real harassment started as a teenager. A summer evening. I’m walking home from visiting my boyfriend at work. A car of older boys pulls up and they start yelling obscene things at me. I need to cross the street to turn toward my house, but at every intersection, they blocked my path. I scream back at them because under no circumstances do I want them to know I am terrified and I have no idea how to escape.
A woman, probably my age now, drives by and see what is happening. She circles back and asks if I need help and a ride home. I don’t want to get in a stranger’s car, so she follows me home herself to ensure I arrive home safely.
I was 15. It was nearly 30 years ago, and my heart pounds and I shake every time I recall that night and what could have happened without that kind woman’s intervention. To this day, every time I see a group of young men walking toward me, my heart jumps.
Then there was the manager of the fast food restaurant I worked at. He would massage my shoulders and comment on my appearance. He told my boyfriend he wished he could fuck me. I was 17. He was 32.
When “#MeToo” started taking Facebook by storm, I initially wrote it off as unnecessary. Do we really need to air our issues in 2017? Then these memories, never too buried in my mind rushed in, reminding me of the damage they had caused. Damage I wasn’t even aware of until the past few years.
At some point the countless cat calls, lewd comments or the disgusting tongue waggling between two fingers that were routine during my 20s and into my 30s actually stopped shocking me. I simply stopped making eye contact — not just with men but with everyone.
Earlier this year, I noticed I didn’t look people in the eyes. I didn’t really “see” them and I wanted to change that. I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t greet people with a smile.
Then about a month ago, I was running through a local park. A young man on a bike was riding toward me and he appeared to be making the “hand job” motion as he passed me. Surely, I was mistaken, right?
When I turned to head back a few minutes later, though, the guy was coming my way again. Same obscene hand gesture and a creepy smile. Rage surged through me. How dare he? But, of course, he did dare. What could I do about it? Not a damn thing. I’m old enough to know not to engage.
It’s been a few years since an incident like that has happened. I assumed I’d “aged out” of harassment. I had temporarily forgotten what it means to be a woman in our culture. That asshole reminded me.
I’ve run through that park only once since then, and I was on edge the entire time. It’s bullshit. When I drive past men running at dusk, I’m green with envy. What must it be like to run without looking over your shoulder?
And more importantly, what must it be like to have an incident like one of these happen and to not initially wonder if somehow, in some way, you are to blame? We’ve all blamed ourselves when harassment takes place. It’s how we’ve been programmed. What was she wearing? Did I do something to lead him on? Am I too sensitive? We accept the blame as easily as breathing.
Which takes me back to that boyfriend I mentioned earlier and a night when I wasn’t in the mood for sex. I said so, but he kept pushing. Finally, I just let it happened. Lied on the couch like a corpse until it was over, in disbelief that he was just going to keep going. He apologized afterward when he saw tears on my cheeks. And, of course, I let it go because he was a decent guy and decent guys sometimes make stupid mistakes, and maybe I hadn't made myself clear.
When I think back to my college days, I’m shocked and grateful I was never the victim of date rape. I put myself in way too many compromising positions. One night in particular stands out. It had been a long week and I went out late after work. Slammed a few too many shots. Was flirting and making out with a guy at the bar. He wanted to drive me home, and to this day, I am so grateful to my friend who said, “no way in hell.”
What would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in? If he had driven me home and took advantage of my complete intoxication? I know what would have happened. I probably wouldn't have even said no because well, I wasn't in any condition to make a good decision, but I probably wouldn't have said yes either. And there's a difference between not saying no and saying yes.
These days teens and college students are taught that saying no isn’t enough. They must ask one another for permission. I used to think it was overkill, until I saw the “me, toos.” After all, if someone walked into our house without permission, we’d call it breaking and entering. If someone drove our car without permission, we’d call it theft. We wouldn’t assume they had the right to enter just because the door was unlocked. Our forgetting to lock the door wouldn't negate the crime that took place.
But when it comes to our most private possession, our bodies, so often we do. It’s nearly impossible to reprogram ourselves. I know this because when I was running in the park last month and saw that obscene gesture, for just a split second, I heard that little voice saying, “What did I do? Is it what I’m wearing?”
The helplessness, the fear and the rage kicked in, but first there was that nanosecond of self blame. And that made my rage even stronger.
My daughter turns 10 next month. Sometimes I feel ill at the thought of her impending womanhood. I’m not naïve enough to know that she will get out of this life without being a “me, too.” Likely, none of our daughters will. We can't change the world or the actions of others, but we can do everything in our power to make sure that when our daughters face a me,too situation, they never ask themselves, “what did I do?”