Me too. And her. And him.
Earlier this week, Tarana Burke‘s me too movement took center stage as Hollywood took Harvey Weinstein to task for years of allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Burke’s movement began in 2006 to empower young women who are survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation. Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag last Sunday, calling for survivors to share the status “me too,” helping to scale these incidents for those who do not understand the full impact us such violations and encouraged many to speak on their experiences.
The topic of sexual harassment and assault has always struck a nerve with me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more vocal about the topic in general, but not my experiences. I just recently came to grips with how deeply they impact my life, but I have felt mute and helpless to deal with it.
Not anymore. The recent resurgence of the #metoo movement has opened a new door that I’ve struggled to close. I’ve heard so many powerful stories in the past few days from people I know and don’t. Although I am saddened that so very many of us have experienced sexual assault or harassment, I feel more empowered by each one.
Here is my story.
My #metoo Story
The first time I remember a sexual gesture being made toward me, I was 11 years old. Eleven. A classmate who was really too old to be in our class groped me at school. I didn’t understand the gravity of that moment, but it started a pattern in my life I have yet to see broken. From that time forward, there was always someone asking to touch me or see my body parts.
Like the classmate in ninth grade who incessantly asked me to flash my breasts at him.
Sometimes they didn’t ask at all.
Like the time another classmate followed me out of class one day when I went to the bathroom to corner me and press his private parts against me.
Or the party I went to in college where the guy I danced with thought it totally appropriate to run his hand down the front of my dress and became outraged when rebuffed him, saying “isn’t this what you came for?” I had never met him before, by the way.
We expect the boogie man to be some creepy old man or a parent’s new paramour, but how do you avoid your own peers?
These are just some of the memories of my childhood experience with sexual harassment, and the surface of what I feel comfortable saying about them at this time. These types of incidents happen so frequently, that I have admittedly become numb to the idea of people feeling entitled to me. It’s the new normal. But I didn’t realize how damaging these experiences were.
Numbness is the absence of pain, not the absence of injury.
I internalized them as worthlessness. I felt completely dehumanized. I began to feel like no one saw me as a person, complete with feelings and thoughts, but as a collection of body parts.
I’m a pretty curvy lady. I’ve lived in this body almost my whole life. As I started to develop, my mom became really cognizant of what I wore. It’s common for us to carefully police young girls’ clothing, not just for decency but for protection from predators. But I learned early on that it didn’t matter what I wore or how I carried myself; men would still find a way to degrade and demean me.
Sadly, much like many others, this continues to be my experience as an adult. The standard catcalling and ogling are a strong point of frustration, and some acts cause me to be extra guarded about physical safety.
Like the guy and his friend that followed me in his car as I walked back to my apartment complex a couple of years ago to “holla” at me. What started as good exercise turned into a fight-or-flight situation. My thoughts raced – “I told this guy I wasn’t interested…if I stop he’ll keep trying. If I keep walking they’ll know where I live…”
What silences us?
Every time I bring myself to talk about my experiences, they sit on the tip of my tongue like a diver at the end of the board. The words bubble up inside me and shrink back behind guilt and shame. I feel like people will see me as dirty or less good. I admit I felt guilty about saying “me too” and any other time I’ve remotely voiced my issues because I hadn’t experienced a violent incident. Even as I’m writing this, I know that the United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as ” any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” I just described two such incidents in the paragraphs above, and yet I still can’t apply the words to the situation. They feel too heavy. I am realizing that I’ve been too busy trying not to appear insensitive or attention-seeking to validate my own experiences.
On the occasions I’ve tried to open up to others, I’ve been dismissed and minimized, reinforcing this idea that what I have gone through is minor or normal or that I am the problem. As a matter of fact, sexual harassment and assault are so common that we tend to accept them as facts of life. Just another day at the grocery store. There is a pervasive idea that “if it ain’t rape, it ain’t real.” I have a hard time articulating my experiences to other people in such way for it to hit home, even though I should have to. We don’t even notice how problematic the behaviors are, but the scars are far-reaching.
The remnants manifest themselves in so many areas. I’ve have had so many instances where I wasn’t able to control who invited themselves into my personal space, that I am guarded to the extreme. I love to dance (Chicago-style Steppin’), but there are moments I still have a hard time staying close to my partner because I am uncomfortable. I hardly ever take or post full-body photos of myself. Sure, I love the way I look, and I appreciate compliments, but I still feel a little uncomfortable about the kind of attention I may garner. No matter how people embrace the inner parts of me, I still feel men view me as a potential blow-up doll, and women see me as a spare parts catalog. I feel like people see me, but they don’t see inside me. I feel painfully invisible.
Change the Culture
I’m cautious about how I dress, how I talk to men, even how I reject them. I’m fearful that one day I’ll meet the guy who thinks my “no thank you” should cost me my life. When it comes to sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, we find ourselves changing our stripes to (unsuccessfully) protect ourselves instead of demanding that perpetrators and participators do the same. That band-aid won’t fix the problem.
It’s unfair, it’s not right, and the buck stops here.
- “Boys will be boys” must die. A swift, ugly death. This statement reinforces a terrible idea that disrespecting women is a part of manhood. I vividly recall instances where I’ve seen males – often adult men – encourage young boys to grope girls without their permission, like a rite of passage. I see grown man-boys on a daily basis shout derogatory things to women like a recreational activity. Some of those men also seem all too hesitant to give in to the peer pressure. Brothers, you’re better than that. I encourage you to speak up and set the standard among your peers.
- Ladies, it’s not normal. And it’s not her fault. So let’s stop telling each other that. When your sister tells you about a damaging experience, no matter what it is, don’t minimize it. When we do that, we are complicit in the culture that supports sexual assault and harassment and encourages victims to stay silent. And remember, if you support it for her, you’re supporting it for you, too.
- Sexual assault and harassment have many faces. Sexual assault isn’t just rape, and harassment doesn’t just happen in the workplace. Part of the reason #metoo is hitting home for a lot of people is that it is forcing people to confront behaviors not traditionally acknowledged by the general society as damaging. When we know (the associated acts) better, we can do better.
- I Have… If you’ve been on the offending end and you’re reading this, you’re on the right track. It’s not too late to turn around. Start today – start with you. And if you’re still on the fence, be honest with yourself about the real reason why you feel the need to do these things and what you get from disrespecting other people…
- MEN too. Although the “me too” moment is very much about women, let’s not dismiss that men go through this too, at the hands of other men, and women. That’s right, I said it. We as women don’t get to bully, assault, bribe, grope, stalk, harass, or anything else. Let us create safe spaces for men to say this has happened to them and be believed.
- Survivors stand up! In your own way. I’ve seen a gamut of different responses to the #metoo hashtag, from simple “Me Too” statuses to full-blown stories. I’ve also seen reminders that we don’t owe anyone our stories. None of these approaches are wrong. The beauty of this idea is that you are free to tell as much or as little as you want, when you want, and where you want. I encourage you to take a step toward your own freedom, whatever that may be. For example, I confess that there are many moments where I have forgone agency of myself out of fear. I’m going to stop guilting myself about standing up for myself.
No matter what your choice is, we support you. A wise woman once said, “We can do it better if we do it together.”
For more information about the me too movement, check out Tarana Burke’s Just Be Inc.
For resources and information about sexual assault, please visit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), or call the RAINN hotline (800.656.HOPE).