CW: Harassment, assault, intimidation, rape
I have this friend. You might know her, actually.
My friend, she writes beautifully and precisely about horrible things. She curates words with a clarity of mind that leaves you with no mistake as to what happened, who is to blame, and what was at stake. I envy her this.
All I can seem to do is ramble on. Write 9,000 words about things I’ve been parsing since I was 15, each year adding and compounding to the total. If our savings accounts accrued interest the way our bodies do harassment, we could make up the wage gap, and then some. We could pay for our birth control, our preventive visits, our maternity care.
When I finally got the energy to read as much as had been published by last Wednesday about the women coming forward with Weinstein stories, my inner, permanently simmering, rage flared up, again. With it, came the memories — as they came for nearly every other woman you know, I promise. The women reading this, and the women all of you know, know this already. The reminder isn’t for them.
One male friend told me before I left New York that he keeps a connection on LinkedIn with our former boss, “to keep an eye on where that bastard is.” I helped get that boss fired after he assaulted a friend of mine — after years of general creepiness with the other young women on staff, and after my own run-in with him a few years before, one I question my own role in almost 13 years later.
Do you see how damaging that is? When I told my girl friends about what he did, having accepted my share of the blame, one of them scrunched up her face and looked at me like she couldn’t believe I didn’t get it — “That was assault!” “Noooo, it wasn’t,” I said, playing it down. I’d been at fault, too, according to the guy friend I told immediately after it happened. “He has a girlfriend!” he’d admonished me. I hung my head and said quietly, “I know.” Like I was the one who betrayed her. “No, no,” my girl friend countered. “What you just told me is that you did not ask him to do any of that, and he did it anyway. And when you didn’t reciprocate, he retaliated. That is assault and then some.” She was angrier on my behalf than I’d let myself be for years. I squirreled that away, telling myself over and over she was right, trying to make it stick.
I’m tired of replaying it, tired of gazillion-guessing myself.
There was a guy, in college. We’d worked together over the summer. I lived in Brooklyn, and he lived much farther out. He’d come over late, after I got home from work. We’d talk about politics over beer and then he’d stay the night. On one of those nights he put one hand around my neck while we were having sex. Hands around or near my neck are a dealbreaker for me, and I pushed it away, and said, “Don’t.” He moved his hand, and kept going. That had killed it for me, though, and I said, “Stop.” He kept going. So I said it again. And he kept going. I said it once more and once more he ignored me. I decided if I just laid there, he’d figure out something was wrong. The “stop” would finally click. But it didn’t, and he kept going. At some point I decided to just pretend to be into it again in hopes it would be over sooner. When it finally was, I asked him why he didn’t stop when I said to. He said, “You didn’t say ‘no.’”
Oh. My bad.
He left then — usually he stayed until morning. And I replayed the night in my head. Why didn’t I fight harder to get him to stop? Why didn’t I explode at him, yell at him? Why was I so calm about this? Again, I tallied my own behavioral shortcomings into the final count and went about my business. Until I told the same friend I’d told about the boss and that time she narrowed her eyes at me and said, “uh, that sounds like rape.” And again, I minimized. “I didn’t say ‘no,’ though.”
She enunciated with knifelike precision every syllable of, “What do you think ‘stop’ means?”
The dude didn’t call me for a few weeks. When he finally did, he asked if I wanted to have dinner with him. I was pretty sure he just wanted to get back the copy of “Illmatic” he’d left in my laptop. “No. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, my voice cold. He never called again. (I still have the CD. Nas was the only positive to come out of that situation.)
Have you heard about the Shitty Media Men list? Some enterprising person, or people, started a Drive doc last week of known predatory men in journalism — a resource for women in an industry in which socializing and social events are an intrinsic part of the job, and can blur the lines of acceptable behavior. The list passed through quite a few hands, with women adding names, making notes, and highlighting the men with assault and physical intimidation histories. BuzzFeed got hold of it, wrote a story on it, and shortly thereafter, names began disappearing, leaving weighty accusations against blank boxes. The sheet was locked down, presumably lost to the aether. Except, where there’s a journo, there’s a way. I got my hands on the list Friday evening and found the name of a man I know too well. He was trifling, but decent, to me. His name is not only on the list, but is highlighted in red.
As devastating as that is, and will continue to be, in ways I mostly cannot find words for, I wanted to add names of my own. It seemed the list hadn’t reached business or financial reporters by lockdown, because there was only one WSJ reporter listed and that is so low it has to be a joke.
I feel like one of the DCCC reaching out with an appeal for campaign funds to stop the Republicans, but I’m not fundraising. I’m asking the hetero (specifically) men reading to reflect on your lives, and your youths, and your interactions with women. Was there a time you pushed too hard? Some time she looked uncomfortable and you figured if she wanted you to stop whatever it was, she’d say something? Or a time when a friend or cousin or coworker or aunt told about being harassed or assaulted and you thought (or said) that it must have been a misunderstanding, or that it happened because of something she did or said? Even as a joke? Is there someone who deserves an apology from you and you’ve withheld it for any number of reasons? Take a good long think. Maybe offer that apology with no strings, no caveats, no clarifications. Learn to listen well to the women in your life now and believe what they tell you. You can also disabuse yourself of the notion that this won’t happen to any of the women you know because they’re too strong, or they wouldn’t allow it to. ‘Fight or flight’ is a hell of a beast, and doesn’t always work the way you want it to.
At an industry conference a couple of years ago I stood in front of my boss, a professional acquaintance, and two men I’d just met that evening. One of those men was nearly faceplant drunk and took orders for the next round of drinks. I think we gave them to get him away from us for awhile. As he turned to leave, he pulled his hand back and slapped my ass with astonishing force for his condition. Think I punched him in the throat? Yelled something ferocious? Did something that resembled anything?
Yeah, no, I froze. I was mortified this had happened in front of these other guys during this professional event. I couldn’t meet the gaze of any of the other three men and naively hoped it hadn’t been as noticeable as it was. In my head I weighed the options: make a scene and cause a ruckus at this professional event, or just play it off. ‘It’s a joke, it’s no big deal.’ Someone along the line put the latter option in my head, and in that moment, it was the louder voice. Ignoring what had literally just happened, I tried to return to the conversation we’d been having, while finally seeing the faces of the other three and the shock and horror in their expressions. My boss asked if the guy’d just slapped my ass. “He did,” I said, embarrassed. He walked briskly away and proceeded to tell the drunk guy off. Shortly thereafter, I made my way back to my room. I was exhausted and very over being in the company of men.
The next day, about 12 hours too late, I finally had the energy to be spitting mad. And, to top it off, I was reluctant to share the details with very many people for fear of hearing, “Why didn’t you [insert better reaction here]?” Because I am strong. Because I should’ve [insert better reaction here] and I’m still embarrassed I didn’t.
If you don’t know what to say when someone shares something awful with you, train yourself to make your default, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and then listen some more. If one of your male friends or colleagues or family members expresses or promotes ideas that women bring this on ourselves, or jokes about women as inferior, or as objects, call. it. out.
Start having standards for the people you associate with, and hold them accountable to those standards. It is uncomfortable, and it is difficult, but if you think your sister or niece or daughter is going to magically avoid harassment or assault without your interventions with other men I have a bridge to sell you.
Also. If you think these stories are bad, if you feel any kind of shock, awe or horror, about them, know that men subject women of color to sexual harassment and assault at a higher rate and those women are less likely to be believed or seen as having been victimized. Theirs are not my stories to tell, but they are legion. These women are under no obligation to tell you of their traumas, but if they should decide to, listen. Listen, without reserve or judgment. We all owe them that. And if there is a way for you to help, and they express interest in your assistance, do so. Use whatever platform and privilege you have to do so. But if they just wanted your ear, or your shoulder, accept that. It isn’t about you.
I have tried loving as protection against the rage. I’ve tried it as retaliation, tried loving harder to keep from being engulfed by distrust and a desire for destruction, but it seems what is happening instead, with each new article or story between friends or personal experience, is that simmering rage deconstructs into layer after layer of disappointment and betrayal and hurt and exhaustion and fear and it’s all stoking each other, so there’s not much left inside but petrified organs and ash.
Maybe if we all just turned to ash, you’d pay attention?
(Many thanks to M.H. and S. J. for talking through a lot of this with me. Some of their ideas or things they said during conversations of sisterhood and support inspired this and appear in some form here. Thanks also to D.M. for being the dude who keeps tabs on our former boss, and R.B. for being on the other end of the phone during that conference.)