It’s like the smell of burning gasoline
TW: Sexual assault, harassment. There’s a lot to be said about the past week. This isn’t as organized or as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I felt compelled to write it. If you’ve had a different experience, please share it. Publicizing your stories, if it is healing to you, could also be healing to many others.
In the past week, I’ve had more conversations with women about assault and harassment than ever before in such a short time period. We greeted each other with wearied expressions and responded “fucking exhausted” to questions like “how are you?” We declared “Me too,” on our Facebook statuses, in hopes of creating some sort of portrait of the breadth of this problem. I’ve spent so much of my time—and not just during this week—sharing stories with friends about toxic men and how to cope with hidden trauma. After Weinstein, Trump, Cosby, etc., the conversation about workplace assault, powerful men, and sexual harassment is getting its long overdue airtime.
But these conversations happen all the time. We seek solidarity in confidence, or we complain about it collectively over a bottle of wine. We shed tears in hushed tones, in hallways, in break rooms, in our cars, at home, asking trusted friends where to go from here. We ask our mothers if this ever happened to them.
These stories of powerful men abusing their influence and age and physicality to overpower women are so triggering because they make us think back to that specific, sickening feeling of potentially losing all our agency and power in one swift moment. There’s the time you were 18 years old at a party and a boy jokingly pinned you against a wall but you felt your stomach lurch because for the first time, you realized how powerless you could be when someone wanted a part of you. The time your boss rubbed your shoulders in your cubicle and left you feeling sick. The time a leering stranger brushed past you on the dance floor and gripped your waist, breathing something threatening into your ear before you could jerk away. The time(s) you thought it couldn’t possibly be assault because you liked him, and it was consensual at the beginning, and then it wasn’t, and maybe you just didn’t say “no” loudly enough. The time(s) a close friend drunkenly came on to you one too many times, but you didn’t know how to tell someone you thought you trusted to back off. The time(s) you told yourself it wasn’t a big deal—other women had it worse, and nobody would believe this trauma.
And still, you’ll be asked why it is you’re so upset if “nothing really happened.” If you weren’t “actually” sexually assaulted.
I’ve struggled to find a good analogy to accurately explain this feeling to a man, or to anyone who doesn’t immediately know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to explain that the trauma we retain, the thing that lingers heavy our stomachs, is the imminent fear of what could happen. A friend explained it to me like the smell of burning gasoline — you know that smell as soon as you’re near it, and you know it’s a warning to run. But you can’t see it at first, so you’re frozen in place, sniffing around your kitchen trying to find the source of the smell. This can’t possibly be what I think it is. Maybe it will go away on its own, if you’re still enough. Maybe if you ignore the smell, then it can’t really be a big deal. You think, maybe I should report this. But who should I call? Is it really enough to make a call anyways? What if someone comes and the smell is gone? And the whole time your heart is racing — what if I get too close, what if I blow up, what if I breathe too much of this in? What do I do to protect my own body?
The thing is, we don’t want to believe that men can be this bad. We make excuses because we’ve been taught to keep make this problem small. We make a false compromise and take the path of self-preservation. “They don’t know better, that wasn’t their intention,” we say. But it was. It’s about power.
If you’re a man and you haven’t stopped to consider and empathize with these feelings, do so. Think about the ways in which you have been complicit in hiding harmful behaviors, or the times you’ve said you don’t know why you did something. Stop, and sincerely think about the privilege you have to never worry about your physical agency.