Every woman has a story. Every woman can tell you about their first time. Each one of us can tell you how, at a very young age, we were unknowingly groomed – or abruptly forced – to navigate the everyday landscape of unwanted advances, cat calls, lewd stares, sexual innuendos and wayward hands. Or worse.
My first time took place in a hotel elevator in Los Angeles. All I wanted was a bucket of ice. I was 12 years old. I had to go from the third to first floor, and so I boldly left the comfort of my room (and my family) to accomplish this simple task of independence. Four men were in there – smelling of dirt and chemicals, body odor and construction sites. Their conversation halted when the doors opened, and then they all stared. There was a split second of hesitation on my part. My brain told me to wait in the hall for the next one. But that would be so rude, I thought. That would be silly.
I stepped in. As the doors closed, they snickered, exchanged glances, and then one of them edged closer and whispered, “You lookin’ for some ice, pretty young thing?” No one had prepared me for or told me that this would happen one day. Maybe no one really knew how to describe it – the way your skin crawls, the way you stop breathing and literally feel like a cut of steak on display at the butchers. This was my first time, and my entire body went on instinctive alert, panic setting in. “You need some help with filling the bucket? Because I’d be glad to come with you,” one of them added.
That ride from the third to first floor was a slow-motion nightmare, forever frozen in my head. I remember my ears ringing – I wanted to climb the walls, scratch and claw my way out of that box of impending danger. I felt helpless, vulnerable … terrified. The minute the doors squeaked back open I lunged out, smashing my shoulder and bruising my leg in the process. Sometimes I can still hear the collective and sinister laughter I left behind that day – the first time I felt the confusion, nausea, and spine-tingling fear that so often comes with simply being female.
I’ve been sexually harassed in countless ways since then, in hundreds or probably thousands of settings – it’s impossible to remember them all. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Because I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted, unlike so many women and men around the world. My first time was mild compared to so many.
My junior year in college, an upperclassman (who I also considered a friend) came up behind me as I used the copy machine. I was just busy doing my job. He dragged the ruler he had in his hand up between my legs, and rubbed it back and forth on my crotch. I was so shocked and confused, I couldn’t say a word. I turned around, speechless, as he chuckled and walked away.
I’ve endured hostile working conditions after refusing the advances of a slimy, scumbag of a boss who thought I should be honored to go out with him for drinks. I’ve overheard male colleagues joking about turning down the air conditioner so my “headlights” would come on during staff meetings. I’ve had men waiting for me at hotel bars on business trips, assuming I’d welcome a guest for the night. I had a boss of several years refuse to take me to lunch like he regularly did for my male counterparts, explaining it would be “inappropriate” to be alone with me, a la Mike Pence.
Last November, millions of us were distraught and shocked to not only see a sexual predator elected to the highest office in the United States, but to realize that to so many voters, it was “not a big deal.” Prior to the elections, I actually overheard a woman – a young, single white woman – say that Trump’s sexual assault history, “ … is a non-issue.” When a male friend asked me to explain my distress over the election, the Ruler Story came up. His response? “So then, you’re just projecting.”
When #MeToo recently became a thing on Twitter and Facebook, it was no surprise to see the responses. The Harvey Weinstein scandal is still developing, but it’s certainly not original. And it’s not just a Hollywood thing. The Trump atrocities are horrible, and yet so many look the other way. Sexual harassment, assault and rape happen every single day, everywhere. It happens within church walls and school campuses. It happens in corporate America and mom-and-pop businesses. It happens in your neighborhood, your medical facilities, your social circles and your community. It happens to your relatives, your best friends and your coworkers.
Victims are brutalized and threatened when they try to speak up. They are blamed for the clothes they wear or getting themselves in the wrong situation in the first place. They are questioned, doubted, and often targeted by powerful bullies-with-money who threaten law suits and try to hide their tracks. No wonder so many victims don’t speak up. Would you?
Sexual harassment, assault and rape has been happening under our noses for centuries. But with more and more people speaking out, maybe things will get better. To my sisters, I hope you can share your stories and unwrap the shame that so often comes with telling them. I’m with you, I support you, and we can make a difference together.
And men? Please stand up and be part of this conversation. Don’t be scared of this discussion, and damn it, stop making excuses for your gender – don’t hide behind “locker room talk,” or “overly sensitive females who are projecting.” This is real. It runs deep. And we need your help. Ask the women in your life to share their stories so you can better understand. And then shut up and listen.
Let’s all speak up in the workplace or in social settings when men are disrespectful or behave inappropriately. Call others out when they brag about doing degrading things to women. If you don’t understand this topic, educate yourself. And take to heart the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
©Michelle Freed 2017