I’ve really been on the fence about writing this post. On the one hand, I don’t feel like I should have a voice in the discussion since I have been fortunate enough to escape sexual assault or significant trauma. However, like probably all women who have experienced puberty, I have certainly faced low-grade sexual harassment on a regular basis.
My decision to write about the topic was confirmed when I realized that part of my inclination to remain silent was to continue to “play nice,” which is exactly the type of response that allows this kind of behavior to continue. So even though my experiences pale in comparison to so many, I am adding my voice. Please remember that my words are only part of the story. One experience. One perspective.
It was by no means the first time I felt like I was being sexually harassed, but it’s the one that stands out in my memory because it was the first time that I actually recognized and labeled the fear and repulsion that roiled within me. I was fourteen and walking along the road early one morning to get to school. I had thoroughly embraced the relaxed grunge style and was wearing an oversized plaid shirt, blue jeans and my vegan Doc Marten – style combat boots.
I jumped as a horn suddenly sounded loudly in my ear, emanating from a truck that soon slowed beside me. The three men inside whistled and made some crude statements as they eyed my teenage body. I was stunned, shocked into silence, even as my eyes started to dart around looking for possible escape routes.
“What, you’re not even going to say ‘thank you?'” the driver spewed, his tires spitting up gravel as he pulled away, the sound of “Bitch!” left echoing in my ears.
Like everyone, girls want to be liked, to be wanted, to be chosen. And it’s so easy when we’re young (and for some, even as they grow), to confuse being wanted in the physical sense to being wanted as a person. It means that unwanted advances can be confusing when the desire for attention means that basic rights and freedoms may be subjugated in the moment. At the extreme end, we begin to believe that in order to be loved, we have to be willing to sacrifice our rights to our own bodies.
These conflicting needs – the right to have sovereignty over your body and the desire to be accepted by others – often leave girls feeling like they are at fault for the unwanted and aggressive attention. They begin to accept this behavior as simply something that they have to learn to endure and to navigate. Just another part of becoming a woman.
“You’d be so much prettier if you [had less muscle, weren’t so smart, had bigger boobs, wore more makeup, and so on and so on].” I’ve heard it all. And the sick part of it is that the men delivering these pronouncements really seem to believe that they’re doing me a favor by delivering their unwanted opinions about me. Because in that moment, they’re only thinking of themselves.
“Smile,” I’ve often been commanded by men I don’t know and encounter only in passing. As though they have right to tell me what to do in order to bring them pleasure. The sad part of this is that I often do smile in return. Not because I want to, but because I have learned through experience that a certain amount of playing along allows the situation to de-escalate while I can work to extricate myself. And that confrontation or calling attention to the inappropriateness of the action only amps up the potential for real harm.
This works with those low-grade events with strangers in passing. But it backfires when attempted with somebody that you have to have regular contact with. It morphs into a dance where you have to be nice enough to avoid triggering additional aggression but not so nice as to be accused of inviting the behavior.
Sometimes, women report the behavior. Yet many of us have lost our faith long ago in anything coming from revealing our accounts. When the boys in my middle school began to use the crowds at lunch to fondle the girls, the administration’s response was along the “boys will be boys” variety. So the girls, no longer feeling safe in the courtyard at lunch, retreated to the indoor tables that had more adult oversight.
And that’s far from the only time that my behavior has been altered by the fear or the reality of sexual harassment. I used to avoid my neighborhood pool when one particular boy was present. I would only attend concerts when surrounded by multiple male friends. I have ducked into gas stations when I’ve been followed by a car when running. And I’ve even dropped out of school.
To be fair, there were a combination of events that led to my need to leave college for a break during my second semester. But the fact that I no longer felt safe in my room in a shared home after an attempted assault was certainly a major factor. And like in my middle school years before, the response by those in power was less than supportive, in this case because, “Nothing actually happened.”
I found that to be little relief every morning when I walked by posters that warned about the high incidence of rape on my campus.
Because that is the reality that women have come to accept. We endure harassment in order to avoid upsetting the status quo. We stay silent because we are tired of being ignored or blamed (and secretly we often question if it is our fault). We play nice to keep from escalating the situation and risking further harm. We constantly scan the horizon, looking for those who present as predators. And we alter our paths to avoid crossing theirs.
Most men do not engage in this type of harassment. And of those that do, I truly believe that there are far more that are more clueless than criminal. And if they know better, they’ll do better. Speaking up can help to educate those that want to do better and can help to catch those who find pleasure in abusing their power.