Me Too, Obviously and Of Course

Redirecting the shame and refusing to “tone it down”

“Me too.” This sentence, right now being used to signify that the speaker has experienced sexual harassment or assault, is so obvious that many of us are adding the words “obviously” or “of course” after our “Me too”s. To be a woman is to deal with this shit every day. Obviously and of course.

I usually avoid social media bandwagons because they so often feel like empty gestures in the face of problems that can’t be solved by tossing up a temporary profile picture. But then I thought of what a close male relative said to me recently, that my Facebook posts sometimes make him cringe, that I seem to “hate white men,” and that I need to “tone it down.”

I get it. We were all raised to keep the peace. We were raised to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable in public, ever. (The unspoken lesson being that discomfort in private is OK, is preferred.) We were taught that “boys will be boys.” We were taught that men need to be tough, and women need to be liked. We were taught that to speak up is to complain. And nobody likes a complainer.

One thing I’ve learned is that in order to grow, you have to interrogate your assumptions, and that includes the laws of social physics you were taught, both explicitly and implicitly. In that spirit, I’m doing this exercise, and sharing a handful of the times I’ve experienced sexual assault and harassment. This isn’t an exhaustive list, obviously, of course.

(Good lord: my first instinct is to immediately downplay my experiences by opening with “First of all, let me just say I’m one of the lucky women who’s never been raped.”)

1. The time on my block growing up, when the oldest boy in our group climbed on top of his family’s camper and exposed himself to us, then announced that “Kelly looked at it the longest.”

2. The time in college I danced with a stranger at a party and kissed him, then when I wouldn’t go up to his room, he told his friends, loud enough for my friends to hear, that I was a “tight ugly bitch” and a “cock tease.” No one — not me, not my friends (I was there with both guy and girl friends), not the asshole’s friends — pointed out that what he said was fucked up. We just left, and ceded the party to him. He now runs a company that employs over 150 people.

3. The time in college I was walking back to my apartment and a man stepped out of the shadows and grabbed my arm and my breasts and told me he wanted to “fuck me good.” I got away, ran home, and reported it. The police recommended walking with keys in between my fingers when I was out alone. I only had two keys at that point in my life so I made a trip to the hardware store and bought a few blanks to fill out my “claw.”

4. The time at a writing conference a male teacher told me I was the most promising young writer he’d ever worked with, and that he would introduce me to his agent and together they would “launch” me — only to rescind the offer after I refused to meet him in his hotel room the last night of the conference. And when I summoned my courage (I was terribly embarrassed to admit that I’d believed I could be considered “promising”) and mentioned this to the mentor who’d recommended the conference, he shook his head and said, “That guy’s always been a dog.” As I grew more experienced and connected in the literary world, I learned from other writers who the “dogs” were, learned to pick them out the first night of a conference or festival. I wondered, and still wonder, how to warn the people who are new.

5. The time, last week, when I was walking down State St. in Boston, late to meet my boyfriend for a date at the aquarium. I had on my resting bitch face. (It took me YEARS to get used to wearing RBF, because I grew up in the Midwest smiling at everyone, and saw no reason not to — until I realized men often took it as an invitation to ask me personal questions or comment on my body, which resulted in long, stressful, awkward engagements that make unwanted encounters with Save the Children canvassers feel like nothing.) My phone had died so I couldn’t let my boyfriend know I was running late and I couldn’t look up directions. I heard a voice say, “Hey now, how ‘bout a smile?” I ignored it. A few seconds later I heard, “Well shit, you’re a 6 at best, anyway.”

I’d been feeling frumpy that day, and during the date, that comment kept popping into my head. When I think about the aquarium now, I think about that man. I tell myself that my value as a human comes from how I treat people, from being a good friend and supportive partner, from my hard work as a writer and editor and thinker. And I believe that. But there’s still a part of me — a part this man took advantage of at least partly because no one’s told him to his face that his behavior is gross and shameful — that felt like I’d disappointed him by not smiling, by not dressing cuter or doing my hair. A part of me felt like I owed this random stranger (who was a 3 at best) at least a 7.

I’ll stop there, but I could fill a book. Most of us could.

Until now very few people, other than those who were there or saw me immediately afterward, know about these experiences. Not my parents, some past partners, or the family member who told me to “tone it down.” The lesson that discomfort should remain private still rules me. But I’m pushing on that. I’m working on keeping my composure and calling out dogs in the moment. (As my mom taught me, “You have to discipline a puppy right when they do the bad behavior, otherwise they won’t learn.”) Even when the nastiness is not directed at me, even if it makes people publicly uncomfortable. Men who’ve been assaulted or harassed, men who already speak up on behalf of victims or those want to speak up more — I see you. Let’s all keep redirecting the shame where it belongs, and stop enabling, stop disbelieving. We can change the culture. Obviously and of course.