When the “Me too” movement revived last month it was amidst a whirlwind of wildfires scorching areas of Northern California. I saw my friends on Facebook posting away, joining others who have been sexually harassed or assaulted with either a simple #MeToo or by describing their own experience.
I was busy. I didn’t participate.
If you don’t know what the “Me too” is all about then you probably aren’t on the Internet. It started on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein scandal – the Hollywood producer who has been accused by numerous actresses of sexual harassment and assault. It encouraged women (and eventually men) to speak up about harassment and has forced many to see how widespread the problem is.
My mom, who watches the news avidly but isn’t on social media, said that the whole thing has made her feel better about her own experiences. She told me the other day that she had always thought that she was doing something wrong and that’s why men thought it was OK to speak to her the way they did and to abuse their power.
I didn’t realize until recently how little respect I had for my own personal space. For as long as I can remember, men have made comments about my appearance, my outfits, my body. And, when I was young, at times I did see it as a compliment, especially if it was coming from somebody in my age group. Then, as I got older, it became an annoyance. Then it made me angry.
At the last newspaper I worked at, we had to go see a public official in order to get information about arrests. The old man who worked there would always make me wait until he was done with his task so that, when I went through records, he could talk to me. At first I didn’t mind. He was an old, married man who was just bored at work, I thought.
It started small. When I wore a dress, he would say “Hot date tonight?” in his old man flirty way. He would add, “Don’t get into trouble without me.”
It was weird, but this is the way things have always been, so I let it go time and again.
His comments got worse and then, one day when I was wearing shorts and a summery shirt, he hugged me. It was just he and I in his office. I froze. Like Bambi, like a deer in headlights or a rabbit who knows it’s about to be eaten, I just stood there until it was over.
Why would this person who had never even shaken my hand before suddenly think it was OK to hug me?
I turned around and walked away – cringing, knowing that he was looking at my backside the whole way. When I got back to the office, I let my anger out. “Has he ever hugged you?” I asked the men of the office. Their reaction was mixed – they were protective of me, but they didn’t really understand why such a simple gesture – a hug – would be such a violation.
That same day, the man tried to add me on Facebook. I deleted his request.
After that I had to think more about what I was wearing on days I had to go to his office. I would try to go during hours when he wasn’t working. My stomach churned each time I went.
Since then things like this have continued to happen. Because I am a woman, people seem to think that they can hug me without permission, can kiss my cheek, and even touch my hair.
Because I was so used to it, I even allowed it. It wasn’t until my boyfriend witnessed an old man at a bookstore in San Francisco ogling me that I started to realize that this isn’t something I should just put up with. That it shouldn’t be normal.
I told my boyfriend that we had to leave the store. It wasn’t until we were outside that I told him that the man had called me over to him and whispered “You have a beautiful shape” to me in a very creepy way.
Not knowing how to respond, I actually told this man “Thank you” before backing away.
I felt violated and disgusted – like I couldn’t wear a skirt while out with my boyfriend on a hot day in the city. I should be able to wear whatever I want, shouldn’t I?
My boyfriend was visibly upset. He didn’t understand my reaction. He wanted to confront the man. He wanted to make sure that man never did anything like that to another woman.
Although I thought my boyfriend’s reasoning was noble, I got frustrated with him. This old man is probably going to die soon – he is too old and stuck in his ways to change, why bother?
But my boyfriend was right. And so are the many people sharing their stories. This needs to be out in the open. This needs to be talked about, and people need to know that it isn’t OK to treat people this way.
My question now, though, is what do I do when this happens? My shock, and sometimes fear, keeps me from freaking out, from yelling at these men.
Just last week it happened again – a man I hardly know, who is much taller and larger than I am, hugged me, pressing his stubbled face against my cheek as I held my breath. It was an employee who works at my favorite thrift store – one of my happy places.
That night I felt dirty and, instead of the anger I used to feel, I felt sad. In the big scheme of things the incident wasn’t that bad, I guess, but still, I sat down on my bed and started to cry. Is there nowhere a woman can feel safe?