My Colleague Spanked Me at a Business Retreat
Are we desensitized to public displays of sexual violence?
I was nineteen and had just achieved the position of Director thanks to my sales record. This allowed me entry into a prestigious retreat with adults twice my age.
It was three in the afternoon. Everyone was mingling in suits as the wine was being poured. Since I was too young to drink but old enough to work, I felt the full weight of imposter syndrome as I sipped my coke.
I remember being deep in conversation with Ellen as a group of men from the downtown office took a seat at a table next to us. I was standing beside their table. Since I vaguely knew them, I provided a cordial nod before returning to my conversation.
With no warning, Michael, a man pushing forty, slapped my ass.
I froze. Then I felt the anger boil. I turned to him and asked why he did that. I saw that his eyes were clear, he was sober.
“Dunno, I felt like it,” he shrugged, then offered a lazy grin as he turned back to his conversation. Ellen, meanwhile, scooted along to talk to someone else.
I remember standing alone and experiencing the hot feeling of being on display. Two thoughts permeated in my brain: did anyone see? and does no one care?
Regaining composure, I walked away. To this day, I can barely remember anything that transpired after that.
When fourth-wave feminism started trending in 2012, each personal essay from a survivor was a form of recognition. I felt seen. I felt empowered. I felt like I had someone in my corner.
Being assaulted in public while others turn a blind eye is an additional trauma. It wraps around the violation just done to your body and suffocates your emotional intelligence. Being assaulted in public can make us believe that the assault wasn’t a big deal, because if it was an outrage then observers should’ve been outraged.
But anger, when doused in femininity, is conditioned to be quiet. It is boiling water in a broken kettle. We don’t know that we have the right to scream.
Today, I wonder what we must do next in this slow, grueling fight against harassment. You see, to fight against sexual violence is to fight against what is normal. It is normal for women, and all other genders, to be seen as subordinate to men and suffer diverse consequences. It is normal for the legal system not to work in our favor.
I even see it becoming normal to read personal essays like this one and interpret them as run-of-the-mill rather than necessary or urgent.
Sometimes it feels like my harassment, my story, my voice, doesn’t matter because so many of us share such similar experiences.
Our activism, big and small, gets lost in what is morphing into a new normal: injustice happens, people shout, and then society moves onto the next one. We shake our heads, we agree that “something has to change!” But we don’t actually challenge the roots of what is insidiously normal.
By reading this carnage on a regular basis — are you desensitized to my trauma? Do you actually care?
Here is the truth: as a thirty-year-old woman, I still need to read stories from survivors brave enough to speak. I need to know that these people are still in my corner because I will be harassed again even though I’m an empowered adult who trains in martial arts.
I also do not think stories written by survivors of sexism, assault, racism, and homophobia are run of the mill. But I worry that, in today’s day and age, I am becoming a minority in this belief.
Do you care enough to realize that what is normal needs to be made abnormal?
Do you feel, in your bones, the truth that it is still normal for a nineteen-year-old girl to be spanked at a work retreat after she received a promotion? That this same nineteen-year-old would be felt up by her supervisor months later, and shrug it off because this behavior is normal?
I need you to understand that embodied knowledge, which is the intelligence our bodies cultivate through the experience of living, is intelligence that should be honored. That because the legal and academic system fails us, queer and trans people, people of color, folks with disabilities, and women rely on their embodied knowledge to form movements.
I need you to recognize that to be a vulnerable person, a minority, means that our body is the subject of knowledge production. That this intelligence is just as substantial as a statistic or a scientific study. I need you to tell the “devil’s advocate” to shut the fuck up; because that person is not listening and has become too desensitized to care.
I need you to care. I need you to understand. I need you to act.
And if you see your vulnerable colleague, roommate, friend, sibling, fellow human, in a state of injustice; I need to know that you will act. Because action, in the face of adversity, needs to be normal. And that change looks like a choir of experiences singing together and the population caring enough to do something about it.
Nadège is a sex scholar and spiritual mentor who uses her knowledge to bring warmth to heavy topics. Click here for two facts that empowered her sex life.