In 1989, I was home working for the summer in between my freshman and sophomore years at college. I had a secretarial job, the kind where we still typed letters on typewriters, answered phones for men in suits, poured coffee, made copies. One of my bosses and I had a rapport, the kind where we told each other jokes, made each other laugh. He felt like a friend, a mentor.
One night, after everyone else had gone home, I was sitting at my desk outside his office. He came up behind me. He started rubbing my shoulders.
“It’s been great having you here, Rachel. You really bring a ray of light to our office.”
He didn’t stop rubbing my shoulders. I didn’t feel like it was my right to ask him to. He was old enough to be my father. I didn’t want his hands on me.
Eventually: he walked away.
My freshman year in college: I went to a frat party, the kind where the entire fraternity row opened their doors and fed beer to half the student body. My friends and I were touring a house. A guy, a nice guy, on our floor had just pledged a frat. He was nerdy. It was the nerdy frat. These nerds felt safe.
I was introduced to an older member of the house. My roommates continued the tour, leaving me alone with this other frat guy. He was not attractive. I didn’t like him immediately, something about him put me off. I turned to leave. He didn’t want me to leave.
“Let go of my arm,” I said. He responded my pressing me against the wall with my weight.
“Kiss me,” he said.
One of my girlfriends walked back into the room, looking for something (she wasn’t looking for me). He was momentarily distracted and I used that as my moment to push away from him.
I remember that moment as a moment when I escaped something dangerous and terrifying.
I was heading home from London in 1992. It was hot so I was wearing a tank top. At customs, taking advantage of my helplessness when I reached down to grab my suitcases, the customs agent plunged his hand down my tank top and cupped my breast in his hand.
“Very nice,” he said low, so no one could hear him. I said nothing.
In the mid 90s, I was working at a brokerage firm. I’d been there for over a year when an eccentric, strange, rumpled, forgetful, recently-certified broker started working there. He took every opportunity he had to ogle me. He never touched me, but he stared openly. He did this in front of everyone.
The other brokers, and their sales assistants, laughed. They thought he was a dope (he was). They didn’t say anything to our boss. In the break room, this ogling became the subject of many jokes.
“Well, Rachel’s in here, so I guess R….. will be showing up any second,” a broker said. The others laughed. They all knew. They all saw it. I had to go to my boss, on my own, and tell him that I’d sue or quit if R…… didn’t stop.
My boss was a decent man, if not a bit old school. R…… wasn’t fired. He did get an upbraiding from our boss. After that: he didn’t apologize. No one apologized. R….. never made eye contact with me again. The jokes stopped.
No one apologized.
When I was 13, a friend of my mother’s came over after work for a drink. My mother was divorced and had a lot of male friends. I was sun bathing on our deck. When I came in, he made a comment about my body. I don’t remember what it was. By then, I was used to men saying things to me about my body, a body that had only recently started to become a woman’s body. I said something about how hot it was outside, wrapping myself in my towel.
Still staring at the breasts that I was nowhere used to having, he said, in reference to the heat: “That’s me. That’s ALL me.”
A man walking down the street in San Francisco. I knew he was strange. I wasn’t surprised at all when he said, “How’d you like to suck my cock,” and grabbed me in between the legs. I saw it coming. From the look on his face after I punched him: he didn’t see that coming. At all.
So many ass grabs, I stopped turning around to see who was doing the grabbing. So many strange whispers on buses, subways, airports, the street: I stopped listening.
There are too many stories like this. I can’t remember them all.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky because when I’ve said “no” when I needed men to hear that word the most, those men have listened.
I am lucky because my friend came back into the room when a guy I’d never met had me pinned against the wall at a shitty frat house in 1988.
I am lucky because I was able to get away from that guy on the street in San Francisco, because he didn’t punch me back.
I am lucky because the countless men in my mother’s life, men who were allowed to sexualize me, somehow, miraculously, never had the opportunity to touch me.
My friends have not been so lucky. They have been sexually assaulted by colleagues, by dates, by friends, by relatives. A friend in college was too traumatized by being molested as a child that she didn’t know that the word “no” was her right. She told me, in so many words, that none of the sex she’d had since she got college was truly consensual. She didn’t want to have sex with the men she’d had sex with. She just didn’t know that she could tell them she didn’t want them in her body.
Anita Hill stepped forward when I was 21 years old. I remember how the wind changed after that. Lawsuits sprang up all over the country. For a moment: it felt like the world may have caught on.
I’m in my late 40s now and men don’t stare at me anymore. They don’t whisper. They don’t reach for my body. It is one of the great pleasures of aging, this invisibility. It was attention I never wanted. It was attention I never asked for. It is attention that I don’t miss. I’ll never miss it. I’m thrilled to watch it drain from my life.
I’d say that “we can’t go back,” but we never went forward. There are vague ideas that you can sue people for touching your body at work, for texting you, for calling you when you don’t want to talk to them. There is a notion that, in this country, you can stop bosses and strangers from treating you like an animal.
We have to embrace, as a country, as a society, that notion, those assumptions, are lies.
My body has always been mine. No one told me it was. I had to learn. I had to be told later that my body was something no one else was entitled to.
Now that we’re all learning to speak with one voice: can you hear us? Do you believe us? Will you stop blaming us?
We didn’t ask for these bodies. We don’t want this. We don’t want to have to tell these stories, and there are stories that are far, far worse than mine. I know that. I’ve been bearing witness to those stories my entire life.
If we want you to touch us, we will tell you when and how to touch us. We know how to do that. However, as much as we can use our voices to say “yes,” it won’t matter if you don’t listen when we say “no.”
Now that we’re all talking: please, we’re begging you.