The women who read this blog know that abuse and harassment is a fact of our lives. So much so that it often just becomes background noise as we move through the world. Men have self-given permission to say whatever they want to us. Our bodies are communal property that belongs to them as much as us. They can insult us, judge us, want us, reject us and we are supposed to take it all with good humor. Men can and do deny this reality saying not all men do this, women are over sensitive or can’t take a joke, or (my personal favorite) that it’s a complement. I have been harassed many times in my life and my responses have ranged from formal complaint to ignoring it. This is the story of the first time I was harassed.
I was at an amusement park standing in a queue. The man behind me pushed into me. I turned around but he didn’t apologize. I didn’t think much about it. Crashes happen in line. Then it happened again. I responded with an angry “Hey!” but he just laughed at me. He started grabbing me and buckling my knees so I would fall backwards against him. My assertions to stop were laughed at by him and his friends. The staff person standing outside the maze literally turned his back on me when I tried to get help. The people standing around us ignored the behavior. Eventually the people in my group shifted so I could move away. That probably just put someone else in harm’s way but at that point I didn’t care. I learned several things in that 20 minutes of hell. First, that I wasn’t safe and second that no one cared. I was twelve years old.
I will repeat that for clarity. I was a twelve-year-old girl being harassed in a public space by a man much older than myself. His behavior was ignored by staff and bystanders and encouraged by his friends.
Are you appalled?
Are you shocked?
Are you offended?
Probably not. It is a common story. It’s not even that horrible. I suffered no lasting damage from the encounter, but it did change me. I stand sideways in lines now so I can see the people on either side of me. If there is a railing or barrier, I keep it at my back. I always make sure The Princess is in front of me in a line so I can see her. These are behaviors I don’t even think about and only noticed when I started sharing this story with people.
That is how I was changed the first time I was targeted. In the more than thirty years since, I have modified my behavior in many ways to minimize the damage to myself. Most of those changes I am probably not even aware of. But I do know the moment when I decided I had had enough. I was walking down a street with The Princess. She was sixteen and we were being cat called. First from a passing car and then from a random man on the street corner who told us to smile. I felt myself putting on my self-defense smile, saw my daughter standing next to me, and stopped. I frowned instead. I glared at the man and opened my mouth, not to be meek but to tell him to leave me and my daughter alone and say who knows what else. Because that man, whoever he was, was about to get years of repressed fear and anger dumped on his head. I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing, but The Princess noticed. She grabbed my arm and dragged me along, repeating, “Mom, don’t.” until we were past him.
In that moment, I had snapped. All I could see was my daughter facing the same ongoing, pointless, relentless harassment that I had face and I was done. I remain done. My tolerance for this behavior is over. You can say I’m too sensitive. Fine, If I’m too sensitive I’ve been made that way by men whose comments were not innocent. You can say I can’t take a joke. Jokes about violating women’s boundaries or causing them harm aren’t funny. If you think they are, there’s something wrong with you. You can say I can’t take a compliment but if you want to really compliment a woman running past you, try “Run strong” or “Keep going” not “Nice Ass”.
I’m done putting up with it. If that makes me another angry woman, so be it. I dare any man to live with what women live with and not get angry. More than that I dare men to listen to the stories that are being told without being defensive and offended. You know it happens. You have done it yourself or allowed your friends to get away with it. You have turned away when a stranger needed your voice, your help, your intervention. Don’t be offended by the women posting #Metoo be offended by the fact that it exists at all.