18 October 2016

Not Just Words

The now infamous tape of Donald Trump bragging about how, as a celebrity, he can get away with anything in regard to women has resulted in thousands of articles and social media posts about sexual assault and sexual harassment. One article I read recently has stuck with me. It addressed how men often think sexual harassment isn't such a big deal because they don't realize how often it happens, and that's at least partly because, from a young age, girls are taught to de-escalate situations. Downplay things. Laugh them off. Ignore them. Harassment is so common, we don't talk about it until things get really bad. Until we are physically assaulted. Until we are raped.

The article suggested that women should talk about the harassment that happens to them regularly so it won't be hidden in the shadows and good men will see what we put up with. That is what I'm going to do now. This is a list of every incident of sexual harassment (or worse) I can remember in my life, and my memory isn't that good. You may think that everything on this list isn't sexual harassment, that's it's minor stuff, no big deal. At the time of some of these incidents, I would have agreed with you. But now, looking back, I think they are. They all add up to rape culture.
  • At age 6, a boy offered me twenty-five cents to look up my skirt. 
  • At age 9, my sister's boyfriend exposed himself to me. (Me and a bunch of other people. This happened at camp, and my sister wasn't there). The guy was 18 or so, and the rest of the group members were around his age. I don't know if he was thinking about me when he did it, but I was there, and I did see his penis, and I was nine years old.
  • In the fourth grade (age 9 or 10), the boys in my class regularly rated the girls on a 1-10 scale. The day I was listed as a zero, I wanted to crawl through the floor and die, though I pretended I didn't care.
  • Also in the fourth grade, I'd just rode my bike home from a friend's house and was on the driveway, walking toward our garage. A man drove up to the edge of our driveway and called out the window to me. He'd found a puppy and was looking for the owner. Did I know anyone who had lost a puppy? I said no, sorry, and walked inside the house. When I told my mom about the lost puppy, she ran outside, but the predator was gone. I didn't believe her back then when she said the man had been hoping I'd come to his car window to see the puppy so he could snatch me. I believe her now.
  • In my first year of junior high (age 12), we girls learned to always wear shorts under our skirts because you couldn't walk down a hallway at school without a boy lifting up your skirt.
  • When I was 14, I was traveling alone on a plane. A man sat next to me and said, "So, you're my sex buddy for the trip." His wildly inappropriate talk continued throughout the flight. I tried my best to ignore him. I wanted to tell the flight attendant, to make him go away, to change seats myself, to simply make it stop, but I didn't because I feared I wouldn't be believed. He was a grown-up, and I was just a kid.
  • When I was 16, I participated in debate club activities. One weekend at an event at another school, my boyfriend showed up for the Saturday night activities. He got angry with me when I wanted to spend time with him because he wanted to flirt with other girls. But then when I cried (literally) on another boy's shoulder, someone saw, and for days (weeks?) thereafter his friends taunted me at school, accusing me of being a slut.  
  • When I was 16, I went on a double date. My boyfriend and I split off from the other couple (one of his friends and one of mine), and we ended up in the backseat of the car. Things got a little steamy, but no clothing below the waist was removed. Yet his friend proceeded to lie and tell everyone at school that the car was literally rocking and I was a whore. I protested the lie, but I figure people believed what they wanted to believe. My boyfriend was no help with this matter.
  • When I was 16, my boyfriend's friends bet him that they could all get me to have sex with them. Instead of standing up for me with them, he got angry with me, beginning one of several periods where he put distance between us, making me feel as if I'd done something wrong, even though I'd done nothing.
  • When I was 17, my boyfriend said I looked like a slut every time I wore a particular sweater (and it wasn't even revealing). I never understood why he hated that top, but he got upset each time I wore it. Eventually I put the sweater away. (And yes, it was the same guy in all these incidents. Why I put up with all that crap is an entirely different column.)
  • When I was 18, I worked as a proofreader at a local newspaper. It was summertime and hot, and I was young and naive. I wore shorts to work one day, and I had to walk through the press room to get to my desk. So many men ogled me that I stayed at my desk the rest of the day so I wouldn't have to pass them again. I had learned my dress-code lesson.
  • The summer I was 19, a house down the street was being renovated. I had to walk past the construction crew multiple times. The foreman paid me compliments. The first time it felt nice, but each time thereafter it felt creepy. One day after the renovation was over, I spotted the foreman sitting in his van outside my house, staring at the front door. I hid inside, waiting for him to leave. After a while, I called a male friend, told him my situation, and asked if he'd come over, thinking it would make the guy in the van leave. But my friend refused, telling me I was being a drama queen. But in my gut I knew if I went outside, I'd be in danger. The construction guy sat in his van outside my house for hours.
  • When I was 22, I walked past four clearly drunk guys. They called rude comments after me. I was afraid and humiliated. I didn't turn around. Didn't say anything. I just walked faster and faster until I got home and locked the door and ran to my room and closed that door and closed the curtains. Then I curled in a fetal position on my bed.
  • When I was 27, a man in an outdoor coffee shop exposed himself to me. I gave him a dirty look, and he left. I wish I'd screamed or made a snide remark or something, but there was a little part of me that was afraid he might hit me or something. I also feared that I wouldn't be believed. (There have been several other stranger-exposure incidents over the years, but I'm blanking on the details right now.)
  • That same year a guy in my law school class told me I had "the biggest breasts he'd ever seen." I felt so conspicuous and self-conscious and humiliated. I told a good male friend about it. He said I was getting upset over nothing.
  • When I was in my early 30s, a cable-repair guy groped me in my apartment. I had an issue with the small TV sitting on top of a dresser. He told me he needed me to hold the TV while he stood behind me, adjusting ... something ... to ensure the TV wouldn't fall. As I was doing that, he felt me up and ground his pelvis into my backside. It happened so fast. I was so surprised and humiliated that I jumped away but let him finish the work. I'm still not sure why. I guess I was in shock and didn't quite believe what had happened. A couple of years later, the cable company called me to see if I'd ever experienced any issues with this particular guy. They must have received many complaints from many different women. Probably a lawsuit. I told the caller that nothing had ever happened. She told me it was okay, that I could tell her if something had happened, but I lied and said it hadn't. I was an attorney. I was a grown woman. I knew I'd done nothing wrong and should have told the truth. But I was humiliated that it had happened and that I hadn't reported it immediately, so I pretended I hadn't been groped.
  • When I was 40 or so, while walking outside my local supermarket, a car drove past and a teenage boy leaned out the window and called me a whore. 

These are the major incidents I recall. This list doesn't include any of the demeaning and humiliating things people have said in my earshot and directly to me all my life about my weight, including a mean comment from an adult man--a stranger--straight to my face when I was 11 years old. This list also doesn't include things that have happened in business settings (condescending interruptions and things of that nature). And the list excludes an uncomfortable incident that happened at a mystery convention a few years back--something that wasn't sexual or violent, but it was physical in nature. I don't want to go into the details of that incident except to say I don't think it would have happened to me if I were a man. I would guess my female friends all have had many experiences like mine. I would bet my male friends largely have not.

I know that many people have experienced far worse things than I have. Rape. Beatings. Other forms of violence. I'm grateful I haven't experienced direct harassment at work as so many women have, being asked to expose themselves in job interviews or being told that sleeping with the interviewer or boss was required to get or keep the job.

In a way I'm quite fortunate that my list is short and tame. It makes me uncomfortable to even mention some of these things because they probably sound like no big deal. But that would be de-escalation, which is what I'm trying not to do here. (To read the article that sparked this column, click here.)

This is the world we live in as women. This is why it's disheartening and degrading to hear anyone characterize Donald Trump's remarks on that bus as "just words." Those words are a part of a culture in which some men feel entitled to grope women, to expose themselves, and to do far worse things. It's a culture in which women often feel scared and humiliated and violated.

It's a world that needs to change for all our sakes.


  1. Hi Barb, Thanks for posting this. Like you, I have a long list of violations. I wrote the following poem after being groped in a crowded BART car on New Years Eve. I was traveling with my friend and my very large boyfriend. The train was so crowded, no one could move. Someone thought it was the perfect opportunity to start groping my crotch. I tried to get away from him by moving to my bf's other side but his hand kept following me. I should have dug my nails into his hand. I should have started screaming about what was happening. But I didn't.

    New Year’s Eve

    I have struggled for a long time
    time that you would not comprehend
    to push aside the violence
    of men like you
    I have worked for a long time
    not to associate my being
    with the hate
    and the grotesque images
    that you see when you look through your eyes
    It has been my cross to bear
    being a woman
    and a gentle one at that
    to be the subject of your twisted power games
    And here it is again
    This crowded subway car is the playing field
    for a game I never agreed to play
    Your hand invades me
    with the confidence of one who knows that
    I can do nothing
    Even if I strike out at you tonight
    I can’t fight forever
    you and your kind will
    You will not get it
    My indignation means nothing to you
    There is a fine line
    between lechery and pure violence
    When you persisted
    you crossed it
    happy new year

    1. Oh, Susan. I'm sorry that happened to you and that it's staying with you. Hugs.

  2. A good and timely piece. And as you suggest, the roots of this behavior are not necessarily sex but a lust for power and a display of dominance.
    We still have a long way to go.

  3. Powerful post here, Barb--a staggering array of incidents, but to the point you're making, sadly likely not uncommon experiences for so many women today. All of it underscores the need for change and the need to speak up, just as you're doing here. Thanks for sharing.

  4. This is my very first memory of sexual assault (and, sadly, it's not the only time for me, either):

    My parents and I moved to California in 1960; I was six years old. My parents struck up a friendship and bridge playing with the neighbor couple. Tag-teamed the houses, I believe, and I’d watch TV in either den while they played. One night, the couple’s college-aged son was home; he joined me in the den. I think we were watching “Bonanza”, and in the course of it, he reached over, took my hand and rubbed it on his crotch. Then he asked, “Do you know what that is?” I didn’t. He got up, and dropped his trousers and showed me his erect cock. I went running for Mother. Remember, I was six years old.

    The aftermath was a huge screaming match. The couple denied that their son had done anything at all; my parents took me home. I don’t remember all the details – the level of emotion was so high that I think I blocked a lot of it out. I do remember my father finally putting a fence around our place, so that no one could look from their yard into ours. Nothing happened to the college kid – no charges filed, or anything like that. I’m assuming that they decided that it might hurt my reputation. Because I do know that the general impression I got was that it was far more shameful for that to have happened to me than it was for that college kid to have done it.

    And that’s the problem. We - women and girls and other victims of sexual assault/ harassment/ etc. - in this country are consistently shamed for having had it happen to us. The predators defend themselves saying things like, it’s only natural for them (really, with a six year old?), that we are all lying (yeah, right), that we’re not attractive enough for them to want us (when you’re going after a six year old, what does attractiveness have to do with it?), that it's all been blown out of proportion. They are normal, potent men who - maybe - “went too far”.

    Meanwhile, we have to defend ourselves not just against the predator but against a whole society that goes into automatic denial that such things can happen. But they do. And yes, in case you're wondering, I'm still angry and still bitter.

  5. Janice and Art, thanks for commenting. We do have such a long way to go, but I hope that every day things improve even a little bit so one day little girls won't learn to accept these things as everyday occurrences.

    And Eve, wow. I'm so sorry you went through that (and are still going through it). Victims are so often blamed: You must have done something to cause it, we hear. When a child is the victim, it's easier for many to believe she didn't instigate the incident, but even then, children are sometimes accused of lying. I'm glad your parents believed you. I wish more had been done to stop that boy. You likely weren't his only victim.

  6. I am sure you left out many,many 'come hither' looks, men looking you up and down and cat-calls...none of which are flattering and are harassment.
    And it never cease to amaze me how other women downplay what happens not only to THEM, but to us. Even my mother, who knew I was a good kid, did not believe me when several times, older guys came onto me, or groped me, at different times.She thought I was making myself sound more attractive than she thought I was.(Yet, everyone else told me I WAS attractive.It is really hard living in the shadow of an attractive and popular sister.) Once I was trying to get away from a creep and I bumped bumpers with another couple's car. I did no damage to either but the man was upset.I explained and he thought it was no excuse,"What, he made a PASS at you and you got so upset you hit my car?!" They were just slightly older than I was, (I was no kid; the guy was a real problem, but his wife told him to let it go.She could see on my face that the guy was , indeed, a real problem. More women need to speak up for themselves and for each other.There are so many times I quietly told guys to back off,and hid if I needed to, or quit jobs. I wish I had just been firmer and louder and told others.By my late 20s, I was warning other girls off certain men, but I still kept quiet about some things that happened, to my shame.

  7. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/10/18/1583934/-Stranger-danger-Little-girl-pulls-away-from-Trump-when-he-tries-to-kiss-her-on-the-lips-at-a-rally

    It's still happening ...

  8. Yep. Actually, that's what I'm pissed and bitter about - is that it's still going on, with impunity. Although at least we're now having the discussion!

  9. Tonette, I'm sorry for your experiences. We all need to be louder and to stand up for ourselves. The more we talk about what happens, the more we hopefully lessen the stigma for the victims.

    Elizabeth, children know when they are comfortable or not with someone, and parents need to respect the boundaries children set. Doesn't matter if it's Grandpa or a neighbor or a politician, if a child doesn't want to give a hug or a kiss (or accept one), the child's wishes and boundaries should be honored. When parents force children to enter into situations they don't feel comfortable with, children learn that the very people they should turn to for help--their parents--are no help at all.

  10. Maybe the good news in this is that people are beginning to talk about this subject differently. Beginning.

  11. We really have to stick up for each other and put a stop to this. I'm heartened by remembering my Shakespeare students looking up "feminism" and voting that they were all feminists. I am heartened by women studying self-defense, and that even my little old self can elbow-jab and stare down a lech on the Tube. I am especially heartened by these young women, writing in response http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/10/16-girls-on-donald-trumps-allegations-of-sexual-assault.html?mid=fb-share-thecut

  12. Yes, Jeff. Any step in the right direction is a good step.
    And Mary, I'm glad to hear about your students too. It always surprises me when women say they aren't feminists. I think those women must not understand what feminism means, because who could be against being treated as equals?

  13. "because who could be against being treated as equals?" Not to speak ill of the dead, but Phyllis Schlafley was.

    1. Ahh. Yes, that's true. Still hard to understand.

  14. Thanks for this, Barb, and so sorry. Have you seen the articles about the My First Assault hashtag? I think I have that name right.

    1. No. Not yet. Thanks for the info, Rob. And for your comment.

  15. Thank you for this post. I, too, have many of these memories, and they've stayed with me. The fact that they can be called to mind so vividly is a testament to the impact they have in shaping the lives of girls and women.

    1. I'm sorry we've shared these types of memories, V.S. Words really do count, as do physical incidents.

  16. Courageous post, Barb. Thank you for sharing it. xoxo


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