I have had so many ideas for blog posts. So many things I’d rather talk about than this. However, as much as I’d like to tell you I ran a half-marathon or had a great vacation in wine country, this issue seems to be much bigger than me and I think I will regret not being able to address it. So, here goes.
A few weeks ago, J and I traveled to Napa and Sonoma for a vacation with his family. While we were gone, I was blissfully unaware of the shooting that happened at UCSB, the subsequent campaign #YesAllWomen that spread around social media and then the backlash to #YesAllWomen that was basically men saying “No, you’re wrong” in various ways. It was only when I returned home from California that it came to my attention and I was horrified. I clicked link after link, reading about so many women and their experiences, their viewpoints on what had happened in Santa Barbara, misogyny in our society, men refusing to acknowledge any of it, how enraged and tired we are. I can’t come close to articulating what so many women already have. The only thing I can do is share my own experience and join in the chorus of voices.
I was about 14 years old the first time I was sexually harassed and made to feel unsafe and small. I was performing in a play at a local community theatre, the cast a mixture of other kids and adults. A man in his 40′s named Bob would constantly crack comments backstage about how I looked in my costumes and to call me when I turned 18 and how far away was that and did I want to date him now? It was framed as a joke but I knew in my gut that it wasn’t. I never could find words for what it was so my cheeks would burn and I would smile uncomfortably and attempt to move anywhere that Bob wasn’t. Eventually another adult (female) brought it to the attention of the director and Bob was told to stay away from the kids. Because that’s what I was: a kid.
The second time I was sexually harassed, I was a senior in high school traveling alone on an airplane. Smushed up against the window for a two hour flight, the man in the seat next to me made comments about my looks, what he thought were my best assets (ass, number 1, tits number 2), asked if I wanted to sleep with him when I landed because he and his wife had an open relationship and he was going to a hotel on business. He looked visibly pleased at my discomfort, spilling details of his sex life, inching as close as possible to me. I did not know that I could call for help. It did not occur to me to press a button and involve a flight attendant. I felt trapped and ashamed. At 17, I did not have any tools, any words, any recourse, any understanding that I was entitled to my own space. I was amenable, always putting others ahead of myself, even at my own expense. I was not able to travel in public without being disgusted with the details of a stranger’s sex life, details that were offered to explicitly make me submissive and uncomfortable.
I have told maybe three people about that experience since it happened roughly 13 years ago. The shame of it still stings even though I did nothing wrong. And also, let’s reiterate once again: I was still a kid.
As an adult woman, I could write pages and pages about men inserting themselves into my space whether or not I wanted them to. Physically, verbally, it is not an exaggeration to say that it happens every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m out for a run on a hot day in a pair of shorts or bundled up in the middle of February in a winter coat, gloves and boots. It is not because of any characteristic that I specifically possess. It is simply because I am a woman.
The man who accosted me walking in Chelsea one night, who told me I’d look really hot if only I took off my glasses.
The man who yelled at me as I left the yoga studio. “Keep doing what you’re doing, NICE ASS!”
My male scene partner for my first and only Harold audition at UCB, who made the game of the scene a situation where he just threw insults at me, finishing the scene by calling me a “cunt”. In front of everyone. Because it was funny, right? Actually it was not. I never auditioned again.
A male yoga student who cornered me when class was over and made sexual comments to me that left me so uncomfortable, I went home in tears and he was asked to not come back to the studio. Turns out I was one of many female teachers he had approached.
Men trying to touch me on the subway or whispering something crude while nodding slyly and smiling.
My co-worker at a former company who would stop by my cubicle and make comments about my lipstick, about my legs, about my clothes, telling me I was dressed inappropriately for work, sharing intimate details about his divorce and his dating life. I was still not in a place where I could speak up to his face. But with the encouragement from others, I took it to HR. I had e-mails from him in my inbox that said “Please don’t tell anyone the things that I discuss with you”. I forwarded them on. Soon after that, I left the company for other reasons. As far as I know, he still works there. He was asked to attend a weekend workshop in Connecticut entitled “Employee Etiquette: How To Treat The People You Work With.”
I recently cut all my hair off. Over fifteen inches, gone. I had many reasons for this, my therapist blanketing all of them with a need for change, a need for power, a need for agency over my decisions. When my husband asked what prompted the idea, the reason that came truthfully tumbling out was “I’m sick of men staring at all my blonde hair on the subway.” And it’s true. So I hacked it all off. I guess you could say I hit a breaking point. And while the length of my hair shouldn’t matter and the onus shouldn’t be on me to change myself, the power it has given me is unbelievable. I tell anyone who will listen how empowered I feel, how masculine, how strong, feelings that are mostly alien to me.
My inability to stand up for myself is perhaps its own separate issue and it bleeds into all areas of my life, not just this one. As a child, as a girl, I was never told that I had a right to my body and my space. I was not given words. I’m also an extremely emotional and highly sensitive person which means when I was younger, my feelings would overwhelm me and make it very hard to communicate. This is why I’m really good at staying silent in scary situations, why I’d rather slump down in my airplane seat than call for help or tell anyone to stop. It’s a straight up dangerous way to be.
Now, I practice. I have phrases in my toolbox that I have rehearsed so if I need them, I can use them. My husband is the one who encouraged me to create them. We sat together one evening and made a list of things I could say. They are simple and I feel silly even admitting it but the power it gives me to have something to lob back is indescribable.
“Don’t touch me”, I said loudly to a man recently who was standing on the running path with his arms outstretched, laughing with his buddies, drinking a beer (on a running path? Cool, bros!) offering a high five or a grab, who knows?
Don’t touch me. This is making me uncomfortable. I need you to step away from me. I don’t care.
The last phrase meaning, I don’t care that you like my hair or not (awkward male co-worker who said I looked like King Joffrey! Funny! But also, ????) I don’t care that you think I’d be hotter if I took my glasses off. I don’t care that you’d like me to smile as I walk by. I do not exist to make you happy, newsflash. I don’t even know you.
I’m not sure men need to practice these phrases. My husband admits to me that he barely thought about what women go through on a daily basis until he met me and we had many conversations on the subject. And why should he? He walks where he likes to walk, whether it’s dark or light outside. He’s unaccustomed to strangers shouting crude things at him. He doesn’t need to wonder if the person behind him while he walks home is following too close. He doesn’t need to cross the street to be sure. He’s never slipped his keys between his fingers like a weapon, thinking a stranger might be lurking somewhere nearby.
The messages are clear: The only thing that matters is how I look. How I look is fair game for commentary, from anyone. I am not safe in public. I am not entitled to space or respect. Because I am a woman, I have to be constantly vigilant because there are predators out there who want to invade my space and my body. After all, as women we are told ‘do your best to not get raped’ instead of telling men ‘DO NOT RAPE WOMEN’, kind of fucked up, no!?
So, those are some of my experiences and by no means are those even half of them. Every woman I know can speak similarly. Because #YesAllWomen. And yes, I am completely aware that it’s not all men but the tricky thing is, how do I know? If we’re alone in an elevator, how do I know what kind of guy you are? The point is that as a man, you NEVER have to think about the type of person who is riding in the elevator with you and I do. That is the point. The playing field is nowhere near level. You need to understand that or this conversation can’t go anywhere and nothing can improve.
I’m waving my arms like crazy over here because at 31, I’m finally feeling empowered to take up space, to chop off my hair, to speak back to the men in my life who enter my space without my permission. I’m raising my hand and I’m pushing that call button like crazy.
I think we all deserve at least that much.
More reading, if you need it: