Please note: Adult language & triggering information about personal experiences follows.
I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
I stand in solidarity with the strong and amazing women who have spoken out against sexual harassment and assault and have shared their own stories via #MeToo and through other means. And I stand taller now, thanks to all of these courageous women, feeling more confident than ever to speak up if I see an injustice or abuse occurring, or if I experience it myself.
While there is plenty that still needs changing in our government and society at large, I am invigorated by the momentum that women’s stories have been gaining over the past few months in the media and in normal conversation.
These are important conversations we are having together–one-on-one and in the broader social space. It gives me hope for a better world. And I certainly hope it’s a world where we will be inviting and accepting of all voices–from women and non-binary individuals to LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color, among others.
It also brings me back to all the times that I’ve experienced harassment and gendered exploitation in my personal and professional life.
In addition to reading the many stories shared by women all over the world about their experiences with sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about vulnerability by shame and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown. Both of these elements have converged and have compelled me to share my own stories.
I’ve been cat-called and honked at since I was in middle school as I walked to the local strip mall with my friends and it continues to this day as I walk with the same friends to get ice cream at the local Dairy Queen.
We are not walking for you to look at us and give us attention. We’re walking for ice cream, not for you. Roll your window back up, shut up, and go away.
I’ve received unwelcome shoulder rubs from men in superior positions as young as high school.
It’s my body. Not yours. Stop it.
I’ve listened to countless sexual “jokes” from so many men, even in what was supposed to be a “professional” environment.
These are not jokes. They’re lewd and disgusting. And I think you are too.
And I’ve experienced what happens when these sexual “jokes” open up to more sexual harassment.
A former adult student I taught told these “jokes.” They were all part of his game (I later realized) to get me out of the classroom for some coffee and practice English outside in a social context, so innocent and reasonable, it seemed. Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now…but I won’t beat myself up about it because he was the one who violated and abused our relationship for his own personal gain.
That coffee turned into him trying to get me alone, and then turned into him standing behind me and putting his hands in my coat pockets. I pulled away. Then he tried to feed me a chocolate bar. I pushed his hand away, immediately. I was completely shocked, speechless, and so very uncomfortable.
After this incident, I dreaded every lesson with him.
I never reported it. I wish I did, but I felt that it wouldn’t have made any bit of difference because “that’s just how he is,” as someone told me in reference to his “jokes.” But I still wish I told everyone around me–even if our supervisor wouldn’t have listened.
I later learned that I wasn’t the only one. His inappropriate and abusive behavior was known at his place of work, and yet his superiors did nothing.
I’ve been contacted on social media by men seeking to “start a conversation” with me, which I now know is cue for: I would like to send you sexually explicit messages and images.
You have NO RIGHT to contact me or anyone in such a manner. Who the fuck do you think you are?
I’ve gotten the check-out and been told I looked “sexy” by a supervisor.
It doesn’t matter what I was wearing. That is inappropriate in any context from a supervisor. And it made me feel extremely uncomfortable.
I’ve been discouraged from speaking up, sharing my ideas, and reaching my full potential in past professional contexts because of both male and female superiors/colleagues who preferred to listen to male voices over a female’s.
Plus, I’ve been paid shit time and time again yet expected to produce excellent work in high volumes while being treated so poorly.
I’m not a perfect employee by any means, but I never deserved your bullshit conditions (which also happened to be promoted by those seeking to “do good in the world” with their organizations — well, you better start in your own damn backyard. #TimesUpAR (= times up animal rights) and #TimesUpEC (= times up environmental community).
It has taken me until just a month ago to realize that these people are bullies. They bully you with slights that you barely even notice but 100% register and internalize until you have no desire to speak up because it won’t really matter anyways, right? Because they’ve made it clear that you don’t matter. But you do.
And it has taken me until just a month ago to stop allowing these “superiors” to have power over me and my story and to stop them from living on in my head.
I’m going to shine and it’s not going to be because of you. It will be in spite of you. And it will be thanks to all the other wonderful mentors I’ve found when you’ve failed me.
Shame on you for your lack of attention to and regard of many talented professionals that you’ve lost because you’ve refused to change and expand your view to include other voices. You may have the experience and skills to be in a leadership position, but you ARE NOT A LEADER.
I realized that when many of the above circumstances have occurred that I wouldn’t have been so forthcoming about the harassment or exploitation. I would have preferred to tell someone that I was uncomfortable, that something felt wrong–but that would be all.
If I encountered these situations today, I would more likely label them sexual harassment and gendered exploitation because that’s what they are, at their core.
I think my reluctance to label them as such in the past is that I almost immediately looked at myself to see what I was doing wrong.
Was I being too friendly to this person that they thought I would want this type of attention? Should I not have worn my tall winter boots over my jeans with a blouse from The Limited on casual Friday?
And after placing blame on myself, I would go on the defensive, prepared for the next time a particular person would come back with “sexy” comments or “jokes” or try to touch me. I would say, “I have a boyfriend.”
But these responses–this, “I am not single so leave me alone,” and this, “it is my fault somehow”–are both woefully inadequate and showcase how much we–us, the victims–have internalized the ever-prevalent social norm of victim-blaming.
These types of responses reinforce damaging gendered narratives and place the burden on the victim to rectify something (the situation, or themselves), rather than placing responsibility on the perpetrators, who should be the ones held accountable for their inappropriate, exploitative, and abusive behavior.
This feels good, to be writing all of this. But it also makes me angry. And it makes me sad. And it makes me feel so vulnerable that I wonder if this is a good idea. But I know we need to share our stories because stories are powerful.
Stories can inspire someone else to share theirs–that’s how we got the #MeToo movement. And that’s how we’ll get many others started.
As we’ve seen from so many stories before and many more still to come, harassment and abuse happens to so many of us. It takes a lot of courage to share such stories–and it’s a very vulnerable and painful experience as well.
I want to encourage you–if you have a story you’ve been holding inside–to share it when you’re ready.
The time is now. The time is always.
With deep admiration & gratitude for all of you,
Feature photo credit: Color-changing camping fire / KP