HER: Like many women, I have watched in horror and awe the events of the last year. The wave of protests and #MeToo stories sparked by the Harvey Weinstein case (which broke almost exactly one year ago) seemed to crash over the rocks of the recent Brett Kavenaugh confirmation hearings. Just when we thought things were changing, that our voices were being heard and taken seriously, a three-time accused sexual offender is confirmed as a Supreme Court Judge.
And, let’s be clear, the reaction of women everywhere is not about partisan politics (although having a man occupying the White House who has bragged about his harassment doesn’t make us feel any better). It’s about gender politics. It’s about the fact that so many women listened to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and felt the clenching in our guts, the tremours and tears that come with understanding, deep in our bodies, what that kind of fear and powerlessness feels like.
It was the same reaction I had last year when I watched the documentary Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution (available on Netflix). In it, Dr. Robert Jensen, professor of media and ethics at the University of Texas, described hook-up culture:
A sexually coercive landscape in which men are socialized into taking sex from women, women are socialized into capitulating to that as a part of a normal social scene, and the terrain on which sex then goes forward is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous, especially for young women. Sexual intrusion has become normalized.
The film showed an example of this ‘sexual intrusion’ in a spring break beach scene where a woman was surrounded by a large group of men, had her bikini ripped off, and was groped and fingered all while protesting and calling out for help. The men just laughed. That scene left me shaking, in tears, unable to catch my breath. It was a trauma response.
But I’ve never been raped. In fact, I have often said I’m lucky enough to have never experienced any truly traumatic sexual encounters. So, why the reaction? I was confused.
Then I started thinking about other things, things that are certainly not as severe as rape, but things that have been done to me against my will. Like every woman, I have been cat-called, ogled, rubbed up against in public pools (of course, those things don’t count, do they?). I have a lifetime of stories of brief moments where I was made to feel uncomfortable, objectified, but those moments passed, and I was fine. Sometimes I even felt flattered. But not often.
The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that the effect of those moments of discomfort is cumulative. Like mercury poisoning, they build up in our systems, eroding our immunity. Our world starts to feel unsafe. We become afraid. Eventually we realize we aren’t fine at all.
And so I add my stories to those who have said #MeToo.
When I was twelve, I went with my friend to her piano lesson. It was in an office down the side hall in a mall. I sat alone in a small waiting room with a window out onto the hallway. A teenage boy walked by the window and looked in at least three times. On the fourth pass, he stopped in front of the window and jerked off, looking at me the whole time. I kept my book up, pretending not to see him, and held my breath. He came on the window and left. That was the first time I saw a man’s erect penis.
In the past six months alone, I have been followed around a liquor store by a man who, at the door, asked ‘You gonna party tonight?’ as I walked in, then proceeded to lurk and stare while I shopped, and made such disgusting advances while I was paying that the male clerk looked at me sympathetically (but said nothing). Later that same day, two other young men walked behind me in Walmart, talking loudly to each other about my ass and what they would like to do to it and how they were going to take a picture of it to show their friends. I didn’t turn around. The next week, two men cornered me in a store, and their flirting quickly became insistent propositioning while they moved in closer. I told them I was married and I had to go because my kid was waiting in the car. They said my husband and son could watch. Each time, I left the stores shaken, wondering how it might have ended differently if I wasn’t in a public place.
In the course of our forays into non-monogamy, I’ve actually been assaulted three times: on two occasions, men I had never spoken to or made eye contact with put fingers in me at a sex club and in a hot tub; and, a third time, someone (I assume it was a man, but I never saw the person), inserted a finger in my ass in a foam party. Becuase I was naked and in a place where sex was allowed, many would say I invited that behaviour. I did not.
As I wrote the previous paragraph, I took out the word ‘assaulted,’ then went back and replaced it. I hesitate to group myself with women who have been truly assaulted. I feel like I have no right to use their word. I’m ok. I walked away. It’s exactly that kind of minimizing, though, that has allowed incidents like the one Blasey Ford described to go unreported and unpunished. I was able to brush off the fact that those men thought they had the right to put their fingers inside my body. But my resilience does not change their actions. What they did was wrong, even illegal, and my pounding heart as I watched it happen to that young woman in the documentary tells the true story of the impact on my psyche.
I walk through life believing that I have never been the victim of sexual violence, that I have had only positive sexual experiences. And that is largely true. I love sex. I don’t have any hang-ups about it. I also love men. Most of them are respectful and kind, both in the lifestyle and in life in general. But when I see what assault and harrassment does to the victims, when I feel their fear in my stomach like it was my own, I wonder if any of us women have gone completely unscathed. Maybe every woman’s story is one of harrassment and assault. Maybe none of us are immune.