On Saturday, March 5, a group of men touched me without my consent. I wrote about it the next day. These are some of my selected thoughts from the nearly two months since. It is not graphic, but it is about assault. Read with caution.
They touched me on a Saturday. I wrote about it on Sunday. That one post has had more views than everything else I’ve posted online, combined. I’m not sure how to feel about that.
On Monday, on my walk back to the office from lunch, there were two slow-moving older men ahead of me on the sidewalk.
“Hi, excuse me.”
“Oh sure.” Pause. “You got a nice smile, sweetheart.”
I kept walking, my skin now tingling, my fists clenching. A shout from behind. “Hey, you married?”
A shout back, over my shoulder. “It’s not relevant.”
A yell, angry now.
“It’s relevant because I want to know.”
My adrenaline skyrocketed. My heart raced, my jaw tensed, my anger swelled. I rushed up the steps to my office. My window was open. The men’s voices drifted in.
I could feel my pores for an hour.
In the days after, I had a lot of people offer good wishes and advice. A lot of women said, “Me too.” Many people told me what they would have done in my situation. They meant well. I did my best not to get upset about it.
I get it. I wouldn’t have done what I did either.
Listen: by virtue of the fact that I got to tell people what happened, they knew I was okay. By talking about it the day after, they had valuable information about how the story ended. In the moment, I didn’t have that information. In a fair fight, I’m reasonably certain I could have landed a solid hit on any one of them. Maybe all of them. But people who sexually assault other people have already proven they don’t fight fair.
A couple of years ago, a classmate stood up to a man who groped her in a bar. He punched her seven times. He broke her nose. She posted a picture of her face on the internet. That photo is seared in my mind. That was a single man. I was looking at four.
You may have heard the saying, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?”
Sometimes it’s, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be alive?”
I’ve never heard anyone say that one out loud.
One of my instincts in the past two months has been to hide. I did my best to take care of myself, cancelling everything non-essential to give myself space. But I would not, will not, shrink. I am a woman who takes up space. No one will take that from me.
I like the way that plum eyeliner makes my blue-green eyes sparkle. I like wearing my hair longer because it frames my face, and I can make different shapes with it. I like wearing contacts instead of my glasses because my glasses weigh on my nose, and I don’t have great peripheral vision while I’m wearing them. I like wearing short-sleeved shirts because sleeves get in my way, and I enjoy seeing the way my arms change over time from exercise. It reminds me of self-improvement and self-care and strength and the feeling of becoming. I like wearing knee-high boots because they’re comfortable and go with everything and act as pockets when I’m wearing yet another article of women’s clothing designed for fictional people who have no stuff to carry.
To be clear: I don’t think I owe anyone an explanation for any of this.
A year ago, I had short hair. I wore glasses most of the time. I was a year younger, which is theoretically more desirable. I dressed mostly the same, though I might have owned fewer dresses. Then I grew my hair out, and refilled my contact supply.
Here’s an observation for you: The more I align my appearance with traditional standards of feminine beauty, the more I am treated like public property.
It’s not always physical assault, or verbal confrontation, or even catcalling. Usually it seems innocuous. Here’s an example. Now that my hair is shoulder-length, I can’t mention getting a haircut — a completely normal self-maintenance activity for adult humans — without opening the floor for public comment.
“Don’t cut it too much!”
“But I like it long!”
“Why would you do that?”
I know this is a small thing. I know the people who make these comments are not doing it with the intention of asserting dominance over my body. I’m not mad at any one person for saying these things to me. Yes, they’re indicative of a general attitude of ownership. I know, telling me what to do with my hair when I didn’t ask is annoying, not a violation of my humanity.
Still. It’s not a huge jump from that to telling me I have to disclose my relationship status, for the compelling reason of “because you want to know”. And from there, it’s a not a far stroll to you putting your hands between my legs without my consent, presumably “because you wanted to”. It does not get better from there.
I will not cut my hair or dump my contacts or stop wearing boots. You do not make these choices for me.
I am my own.
Here’s a thing I wish we’d talk about more when we talk about women and minorities (and minority women — they’re not mutually exclusive) in the workplace. It is impossible to think of and pursue big, creative, juicy ideas when you’re distracted. Medium is full of articles about it. Focus. Single-tasking. Laser-sharp concentration. Pomodoro timers. These things are great when you can do them.
I know there are unfair hiring practices. I know that we have issues with culture and writing job descriptions and all of these big, important, complex employment issues. Inequality in wages. Brief, unpaid maternity and often nonexistent paternity leave. Less tangible issues, like where and when the line between social and professional gets blurred, and how that affects the person with less power in a situation. These are extremely important, and I’m glad we are discussing them.
What we don’t talk about is the number of smart, thoughtful people we miss out on because their minds are occupied by trauma. My experience was an isolated incident, as minor as sexual assault gets. I had the extraordinary privilege of being able to take time for myself to address it and care for myself. Aside from street harassment, which is an environmental constant when you live and work in a city, I had an unusual amount of space in which to heal.
It took seconds for them to touch me. It took weeks for those seconds to stop dominating my thoughts.
This is a list of things I wanted to write about in March and April:
- The experience of feeling imposter syndrome while working on a talk about imposter syndrome
- The beautiful, wonderful Design the Life You Love event I hosted at the library
- The difficult but surprisingly rewarding mile-a-day run challenge I did for the month of February
- Public health and data-driven storytelling
- Working my way through writing my first web app
And a list of things I thought about whenever I sat down at the keyboard:
- Stop thinking about assault
- You’re going to have to write about assault again if you want this to stop
- I don’t want this to become my “thing”. I have ideas to share and I do not want to be defined by something that happened to me over the course of a few seconds.
- Assault again
- This is bullshit
You want to know why you don’t see more people who aren’t cisgender straight white men talking and writing and advancing their ideas, even in the best of situations? I’d venture to guess a lot of people’s brains are occupied by dealing with the weight of existence in a world that’s constantly trying to remind them of their place. There’s not a lot of room for elective intellectual activities under those circumstances.
I almost didn’t write about this. I’m still mad that I feel like I have to. I almost didn’t post the last time, either. I felt vulnerable and ashamed and disappointed that I didn’t do things differently. I didn’t want to alert other men that someone might view me as a sexual object, in case it gave them ideas. I didn’t want to torpedo my professional prospects by becoming another woman that won’t stop talking about woman things.
Well, I didn’t want to be violated, either.
Sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do so we can shine light in the dark corners of the darkest places.
So, come on over.
Don’t forget your flashlight.
If you’d like to take steps to address sexual assault in your community, you might start with reviewing materials from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. If you have a few — or many — extra dollars, they could probably put them to good use.