The times I was sexually harassed, minus the glamour
I spent all night wide-awake, weeping hard. It was not even halfway through reading a report on The New Yorker about a Hollywood producer’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault of multiple women in the industry, when I found myself crying fat, pregnant tears of indignation. And then it hit me. I’m not an actress. I don’t lead a pretty, public life. And I’m not sure of the exact statistics of how my local showbiz industry fares with a sexual culture this demeaning. But I can take a good guess. I can say something.
Because I know it happens, outside of the glamour just the same. I know what it’s like, as would any girl. As every ordinary woman never forgets she can’t walk any street after sunset without some anxiety of being suddenly groped out of nowhere, I know. Because it happens, and happened to me, and still happens.
I’ve known men who sexually impose themselves to women like it’s their birthright. And when they have the authority then that, too, they use so well. You never quite know what faces go with the predators until you know.
I used go to church every Sunday until the pastor I’d known my whole childhood to speak the Word of God from the podium decided to stick his hands inside my blouse and squeeze my breasts. That same day I learned what blasphemy is as it came out of my mouth. But God said I must forgive so I confessed my grievances in a prayer and didn’t tell a soul. I was still there in church the next Sunday. And the next. And the next. Then one day that summer the pastor offered to drive me home, except he never took me home. He drove to the outskirts of town while laying his other hand up my thighs in the passenger’s seat. He asked for me to pay mind to him. I wouldn’t have minded having a truck hit and kill us both in an accident. But alas I lived through the horror and knew since then that disgust and lust and unspeakable acts can embody any man. Sexual violence knows no status, no holiness, no reputation, no excuses.
I also saw this same face of an offender in my uncle whose family hosted me for a time. His hands behaved the same way as the pastor’s. He told lewd jokes around the dinner table, suggesting he should see me soap myself in the shower. His feet would be brush up against my legs under the table, and I’d pretend to enjoy dinner that his wife cook. His wife and daughter would always be with us during meal times. And it’s such indecencies that he mustered up right under their noses that are most horrifying. I was folding my laundry when he barged in my room, groping me, touching everywhere where he shouldn’t, and jokingly asked for a kiss. I left that house the next chance I got.
Then there are the usual suspects. The faces we’d think most likely to lash out with perversion. The tricycle drivers who took the longest route to my address and forced me to talk about myself. Drunk neighbors who stalked me to the end of the block harrasing me to give my number. Teenagers in groups who would bike pass me as I walk, whooshing by and touching any part of my body they can reach out to as if it’s theirs to take. Catcallers who think they serenade girls with their whistling and come-ons. It goes on.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart –
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge,
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
– Sylvia Plath
It has happened to me one too many times that my fight-and-flight mechanisms have become really messed up. I now see most social situations as a threat, flooding me with anxiety, and at numerous times urging me to shutdown beyond my will. And I never knew how to explain to anyone that I flaked out because I didn’t feel safe. Because the settings reminded me of ones where I could be attacked in any way, physically, verbally or emotionally. When the body just wants to survive, the brain makes no logical distinction between what’s a real threat and a possible one. When you’re harassed too many times, you start thinking everybody is out to get you.
These kinds of experience that anyone can go through, they come with marks of guilt and shame that crush and chip away at the core of one’s humanity. We think it’s our fault. We become so afraid to say the truth because then we’d have to accept that it happened to us. Unfairly so. Against all hope in goodness.
I remember distinctly a couple of summers after that incident in the pastor’s car how I turned away my gaze when I saw him again. Here is what shame felt like for me at 16:
…there stood the man who is first to mess with my trust for humanity big time. I wanted to disappear for just that while, but no, I had to shake his hand, I had to, and in so doing remember where it dared to go, what it dared touch once upon a time when I said yes to that offer for a ride home, except of course it was never home where he intended to take me. It was not at all a ride back home. And there his wife was with that supportive well-practiced smile, innocent of all, and there also was their son I used to play with. And I saw how falliable they had become, or had they always been like that? His arms were still the ones I knew to hold the microphone in all those years of preachings, the same arms that locked me down in his car, that begged of me to make something of him. I let them talk. I let them pull off the ingenuine concern for visit. I let them, while I was dying, hiding myself behind some smile and nonchalance. I couldn’t forgive that I was the one who couldn’t look him in the eye, as if it was my sin, burning, resurfacing as fresh wound. So long and numb before the how-are-you’s ran out. At last we bowed down and I looked away as he started praying to his God that I could believe in no more.
For so long I had refused to accept. I was terrified of telling those who needed to be told, like my family, that these things happened to me repeatedly. That it’s called sexual harassment.
But it’s the reports and stories I hear that give me that nudge to power through. My heart still breaks for every other girl’s truth. And here I am with own.
Now, just a month short of being 22, I decide enough is enough. It’s time to speak up because this shame doesn’t belong to me. It’s never ours who were at the mercy of it. This shame does not go well with the grace that womanhood entails when we endure so much each day.
My voice is not that loud yet but if you listen that’s where it starts to be loud enough and heard. Then the tears I count for each time frustration and anger and trauma revisit will be less of pity and more of hope. And then perhaps we’ll start to change this society when we feel its pains, collectively and constructively. When we confront facts without discounting them and work on a healing process and then on ways to justice.
“Pain is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria.” – Naomi Wolf
Thankfully I’ve learned a lot in the last years. I’ve read and followed the wisdom of empowering women, who have known the same experience. Most days don’t go by without difficulty, without singing mantras about rainbow skies and good things just to ease the bitterness. But I’m okay this time about braving through it. And here’s been my story so far as it has to be told. And here’s that space for you to listen.
Lastly, the photo is of the first time I took a picture of myself with certain expressive provocation. I never quite felt I owned myself. And when my rights were violated, I had to go back and reclaim that ownership. There is an irony, even so, yet it’s me saying that nobody gets to choose what I do with my body before I decide it for myself.
A gorgeous model and advocate whom I look up to says it passionately:
Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be. – Emily Ratajkowski