Fall is my favorite season. Not because I love pumpkin spiced things or Halloween. Not because of football or vegan chili or tailgates. Not because I love big comfy sweaters, fuzzy socks, and sitting by a good bonfire. Not because I can finally stop worrying about my "bikini body". I love fall the most because it's the time of the year I'm sexually harassed the least...
Unless you're living under a rock, you may have noticed some of your friends, family, and acquaintances sharing the phrase #MeToo all over social media. In light of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the hashtag gained popularity and momentum after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to simply post the hashtag if they have ever fell victim to sexual harassment or assault. The hope was that we can start shedding light on this horrible issue - "If all the women who've been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too" as a status, we could reveal a true sense of the magnitude of the problem."
But the magnitude of the problem isn't all that's been revealed.
Before I dive into this, I want to briefly and informally review what sexual harassment and assault even are. While we live in an age of endless information, it seems we're becoming more distant and uneducated than ever - which is problem number one. How can we combat this issue when generally speaking, half the population, and more importantly, the offenders, don't even know what it is?
The two terms have a number of overlapping characteristics: they're both unwanted and uninvited sexual behaviors, they can both be either a one time incident or a recurring set of events, and the offenses are gender neutral (which is so important and not talked about enough! - however I will preface this and say this specific movement is predominately female driven).
In the most basic definition, sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual advantages which include anything that puts the victim in an explicit situation - verbal speech, photos/images, gestures, nonsexual contact (which is still unwanted contact btw!!!!), etc. It's usually a civil matter but can be criminal in extreme cases. The most common stories of sexual harassment are those in work settings, i.e.(and the most extreme) being threatened to lose your job unless you agree to sexual relations with a coworker or manager or boss. The worst part about sexual harassment is that it does not necessarily involve a sexual act. Meaning women sometimes have no idea they're being harassed or more importantly, don't do anything about it because they feel they can't. When Tim from IT makes crude comments about your butt, you're told to shrug it off and not make a big deal about it. When Michael from marketing makes inappropriate gestures and begins thrusting into the air, you're supposed to laugh and walk away politely. "Don't do anything to get anyone in trouble." "Be the bigger person." "Get thicker skin." I could go on...
Sexual assault is much more concrete and people don't seem to have as much trouble denying it. Sexual assault is ALWAYS a crime (even though most cases rarely get reported). It involves any sort of non-consensual/coerced sexual act - penetrative or non. When a creepy guy touches the small of your back at the bar when you just want to order a drink or when someone grabs at you as you walk to the restroom. When you are touched, grabbed, poked at, and violated, that is assault, and is beyond not being okay.
I actually wanted to write about sexual assault and harassment a month ago after I attended the Pitt vs Penn State game up in Happy Valley. I genuinely had a horrible experience and was harassed by a number of people - male, female, young, and old - but one instance stands out in particular. As soon as I got into the stadium and began climbing stairs to take my seat, an old man screamed, "HEY C***." I looked around because I couldn't believe someone was already throwing out the C word before kickoff. I locked eyes with the man and he said, "YEAH, YOU B****". I don't know what else he said after that, and no, I had never met that man before. I knew wearing a Pitt jersey in Beaver Stadium would make me a target of harsh words, however this was totally uncalled for. Thank God I was surrounded by Greg, his brother, and my brother - aka some of the best men I know. Men who will always keep me safe and never let anything happen to me.
I took my seat and began bawling. The cold, indifferent eyes of that man combined with sitting in a stadium where sexual harassment and assault occurred for YEARS stirred something up within me. I have only ever felt an icy stare like that before, and that was the third time in my life I was sexually assaulted (I've lost count, but the number of times I've been physically touched/grabbed/etc by a man I did not want to touch/grab/etc me is now reaching close to 20). That is a story I'm not ready to share just yet. It's a story that makes me retreat to the darkest part of my anxious and depressed brain. It turns me numb. And it makes me forget any progress I've made thus far in my mental health journey. I tried really hard to write that post and re-tell it as a recovering woman. But I was too afraid I wouldn't get the words out right. I was afraid Penn State fans would further harass me. I was afraid people would call me a liar or a baby and tell me to get over what happened to me. That I need to suck it up and move on.
I feel that that's the most common phrase when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. "Move on."
I have a number of feelings about this movement. I applaud my friends who share their specific stories of harassment and assault. Your bravery is everything and I will continually show you love and apologize to you for the things someone else's actions and words made you feel. In line with that, I support those not ready to share their stories and simply post the hashtag. Just having the courage to speak out and say "this happened to me as well" is incredible. And I want you to know that I believe you. I don't need you to spill the details of the event that so badly hurt you. I know how much pain it causes, I just send love and vibes to help you move forward in your life. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I know there are numbers of women who aren't hash-tagging at all. I want you to know that doesn't make your story and pain any less real. It doesn't mean it didn't happen and it doesn't mean you've forgotten either. It is your choice to share, no one else's, and just know I am proud of you for trying to live the best life you can despite the negativity that tries to bring you down.
As a woman, I have been conditioned to apologize for a number of things - the way I look, my intelligence level, the clothes I wear, the way I walk, the way I hold myself, the way I think about myself, etc. And that's the biggest conversation topic that I am so glad is being talked about. Why are women constantly apologizing? Why are the women in sexual harassment and assault situations always to blame? Why is it that if you have boobs, you are solely accountable and responsible for what happened to you?
The first time I was ever truly assaulted, I was on the University of Dayton's campus. I was 19 years old. I was walking to the house where my group of guy friends lived and took a short cut. UD is a bubble school and I always felt safe there - even in an unlit alley, alone, at night. I passed a group of men, who ranged from slightly intoxicated to pretty blacked-out. But I specifically remember not being afraid of them. Until that point in my life I hadn't had much experience with harassment. Most of my experiences were men and boys giving me the one over, but never saying or doing anything else. "Harmless." Anyway, the group I passed were singing and laughing and chanting and "just being boys." I was in sweats and a grandpa sweater, with no makeup, minding my own business. As I was close to passing them, one of the guys in the back of the group noticed me and said, "Hey sweetheart, don't look so down, I have something to make you feel much better." Looking back, I should have kept walking. I shouldn't have stopped. I shouldn't have acknowledged this guy. But I did.
One of the first unofficial rules of being a young woman is to never give a man a reason to hurt you. Ignore Tim from IT, politely smile and nod at Michael from marketing. Make any man that's speaking to you feel important and powerful. Don't reject him or hurt his ego. Don't put yourself in a situation to get hurt. Sure this situation sucks, but he could make it so much worse if you upset him and actually give him a reason to hurt you.
So I looked at Mr. Sweetheart and politely smiled. He then grabbed me by the arm to pull me close, pulled his dick out of his pants, and whispered in my ear, "This is the medicine to cure all your ailments." I froze. Thank heavens one of his friends realized what the hell he was doing and grabbed him. I think he started to apologize for his drunken friend, but I wasn't there to listen. I bolted. I seized my opportunity to get out of that situation and ran as fast as I could to the safety of my friends.
When I got to their house, I was red, out of breathe, and on the verge of tears. They asked what happened and I told them everything. I kid you not the first thing said to me was, "And you were wearing that?"
Yes. I was wearing that.
I understand that he was trying to make sense of the story I had just told him. That it's much more common for a girl dressed to the 9s - in a little black dress and a smokey eye - to get hit on, harassed, and maybe grabbed. In his brain, maybe he thought that because I wasn't "putting it out there" I shouldn't have been messed with. But that's the point, and I think part of the point of this whole movement. It doesn't matter what you are wearing, the way you carry yourself, if you engage in eye contact or conversation or whatever. Harassment and assault happen because we let it happen. And not for lack of trying. Before this week, I've heard countless stories of women coming forward about their experiences and the result is always the same. The woman always get's in trouble or is looked down upon. "How dare you come forward and create this huge, awkward situation for everyone." "It's not even a big deal, why are you getting so upset over this." "Men are pigs, you have to get tougher skin."
You. You. You. Never. Him. Him. Him.
No wonder we shove these incidents under the rug. No wonder we stay silent. Because actually trying to deal with the issue and make any progress is exhausting. I'm mentally exhausted just trying to put my thoughts together. We continually blame women and make excuses for men and I'm over it.
Tim isn't just "being a boy". Michael isn't just "too immature". That old man at the game isn't just "an old sexist." Mr. Sweetheart wasn't just "too drunk to realize the consequences". They are all simply jerks, dare I say a**holes, and need to be held responsible for their actions.
One of the saddest things I read in regards to all this was another tweet which read; "I hope I live long enough to see the day when my female friends are writing #MeToo on social media to mean "I finally feel safe in the world".
I worry that I won't ever see that day. I would love to live in a world where I'm not afraid for myself or my fellow women - especially the young girls I teach. I would love to be able to walk with my head held high. I would love to be able to take an alley way or a short cut. I would love to walk to my cars with my keys in my pockets, rather than held between my knuckles like a sad Wolverine cosplay. I would love to not think about what message my outfits are sending. I would love to be able to walk down the hall at work and not be ogled at by the young reps if I have a skirt on. I would love to be able to get my car fixed without old men mansplainning and flirting with me. More importantly I would love to live in a world that when I am harassed or assaulted, it won't be seen as my fault, strangers would come to my aid and defend me, and the man would have actual consequences to his actions.
Basically, I would love to be able to just live.
That is my hope in all of this. But unfortunately, right now this is just a hashtag. A hashtag that won't do anything if there aren't actions behind it. I want to give a lot of credit to my male friends that are doing their best to make a difference. The #HowWillIChange campaign has started and I hope it gains momentum. I hope men out there will start to change. I hope they (and anyone else) will start speaking up when they see another human sexually harass or assault another human, rather than laugh or pretend it isn't happening.
Mainly, to my fellow victims of harassment and assault, I want you to know how loved you are. I want you to know that whatever has happened to you, no matter how big or small you think it is, it counts. I do not want you to shame yourself or think your story isn't as worthy to share. You were still hurt too. Perhaps you are STILL hurting. You have feelings and emotions tied to an event that changed you in some way. And for that I am truly sorry.
I'm validating your story.
I'm validating you.
And for me? I'm going to stop letting my offenders write their endings to my life's story. I'm holding the pen now. And it's a brand new chapter.