This a story of an afternoon from over two decades ago. It was the end of the school day. My classmates and I sat on the stairs of a building near our school, waiting for the bus to pick us up.
We were in the midst of conversation when a man, likely in his forties, walked up to me, slid his hands under my skirt and began to feel my inner thighs. He proceeded to touch my underwear and attempted to fondle me. This lasted for about 15 seconds. I sat there motionless, too shocked to react. I had no idea what had just happened, why it had happened to me or what I was supposed to do in this situation. I didn’t know much about sex or sexuality, and I didn’t have a frame of reference to process what was going on. All I knew was that I felt deeply uncomfortable and humiliated in that moment.
Despite my discomfort, I gave the man the benefit of the doubt and asked, “Are you looking for something?” My young mind desperately wanted to rationalize his behavior. Maybe I was just sitting in the wrong place. Perhaps he’d lost something and was looking for it. Depravity and perversion were ideas that were alien to me. He did not respond. I stood up and stepped aside. The man walked back towards me, grabbed my breast, dug his fingers in and twisted hard. I winced in pain. He walked away nonchalantly and didn’t look back.
I stood there, confused, embarrassed and angry, doing my best to fight back the tears. I hated crying in front of other people. My classmates were as shocked as I was and didn’t say anything. A wordless fifteen minutes ensued on the bus ride back home. When I got home, my parents asked what was wrong. I found myself unable to articulate what had just happened, and shared a watered-down version of events. I simply said, “Someone touched me”. My parents probably suspected that it was worse than that. My mother hugged me and said it wasn’t my fault. My father reported the incident to the local police and requested additional patrolling around my school. Even though my parents were loving and supportive and did the best they could, given the circumstances, the incident remained etched in my mind and I’d replay it over and over again in my head, wondering what else I could have said or done to change what happened that day.
I vividly remember being depressed for a couple of years after the incident. I’d often lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I just needed to let it all out. If I was around a man, regardless of how old he was, my guard was always up. In buses and planes, I learned to sit as far away from men as possible. If I was in a crowded place, I’d hold my bag in front of my chest to avoid getting pinched or groped or point my elbows outwards to prevent anyone from getting too close. In conversation with female friends, I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone. Sexual harassment was rampant, pervasive and occurred with an alarming frequency regardless of who you were, how old you were, where you went, what you wore or who you were with.
Since that episode many years ago, there were many more instances of harassment, but there was a difference. I was older and wiser and could put things in context. I’d grown a thicker skin and even though I’d feel uncomfortable and violated, it didn’t hurt as much as the first time it happened.
I’d sadly reconciled myself to accepting that this was simply the cost of being a woman. I’d sometimes muster the courage to fight back or shout, but often I would remain silent if I was outnumbered or on a lonely street. Harassment came in many shapes and forms. From the much older man on the train, who gave me his business card and said he’d like me to visit when his wife wasn’t around, to the men who exposed themselves in a public place or masturbated in front of me because they knew I was alone and no one else was watching. My high school principal was a well-known pervert who would meet with female students alone and go on to touch them inappropriately all the while whispering disgusting things into their ears.
It took me a very long time to develop a healthy relationship with sex. Over the years, I’ve reoriented my attitude towards sex as a normal (even enjoyable) facet of being a human being, but it was a difficult journey to get to this point. I have an amazing husband and many wonderful men in my life — friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are living proof that not all men are monsters.
Why am I sharing all this? I’m pretty sure that it’s not to attract attention to myself. For those who know me, I am very private. I rarely post on social media and my friends and family have a perennial grouse that I don’t share much about what’s going on in my life. Why would I share something that I’ve tried so hard to forget?
Like many others, I was moved by the flood of all the #MeToos and the resulting reactions from the many men who said they didn’t realize that sexual harassment was as widespread as it is. Coming of think of it, my stories are actually garden-variety-mild and rather uneventful in comparison to the incredibly horrendous things other women have faced.
But if knowing this little fact about me can help just one more person realize the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and be a better ally, it’s a story worth sharing. As the mother of a young child, I’m going to hold out hope that it is possible to create a kinder, more humane world for both women and men.