In October 2016, Michelle Obama delivered an incredibly powerful speech that captured how it feels to be a woman living in a society with men who believe they can do anything they want to women. She said:
It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen — something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.
We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are in 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. [For a transcript of the full speech, see here]
Are there any women who don’t know the feelings Mrs. Obama describes in this speech? I doubt it. When writer Kelly Oxford asked Twitter users to share the first time they were assaulted, she received two responses per second, resulting in millions of Twitter interactions.
I’ve never publicly shared my own experiences with sexual harassment, not even when writing about the subject on this blog. I’ve avoided it for at least two reasons. One, it’s deeply personal, even though it’s such a common experience, and two, I find it hard to isolate the experiences, perhaps as a result of trying to forget them.
However, there are a handful of incidents from my childhood that I recall vividly. This is one of them:
I can’t quite remember how old I was–whether I was 10 or 11–but I remember the book I was reading. It was The Call of the Wild by Jack London. The cover was yellow. I was reading it on the steps in front of my house on a fall afternoon. A teenager I’d never seen before walked up to me and asked if my family needed someone to rake leaves. I said I didn’t think so. Then, he walked off, and I went to the side porch. We had a swing there. While I was reading, the boy returned. Startled, I stood up, letting the book fall to the floor. The boy grabbed me, pulling down my shirt and putting his hands on my developing breasts. I was so scared. Then, he let go and left, maybe because we were outside in broad daylight. I never told my parents (until now). I was embarrassed, as though it had been my fault.
This experience happened more than two decades ago, but I still think about it every time I see a reference to The Call of the Wild.