What I Was Reading When A Stranger Assaulted Me #NotOkay

notokay

Yesterday, 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.

23 thoughts on “What I Was Reading When A Stranger Assaulted Me #NotOkay

  1. This was a very personal post you wrote. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for being brave to write about it. You are right in your assessment about Trump. The reason most give for voting for him is the Supreme Court Justice “argument” and frankly that ship had sailed .

    1. Thank you for the comment. I was very reluctant to share this story even though it happened ages ago. Far too many women (and men) have similar experiences. I think a silver-lining of this election is that it has encouraged people to talk about it.

  2. That is a sad happening in your life. I don’t remember ever having an assault of any kind in my young life, but being in a male dominated field later in life, I have been on the receiving end of quite a few sexist remarks, cat calls and men saying very inappropriate things about women. I feel it is something a part of the office and construction “jungle” unfortunately and it is how the woman responds to those remarks that will further encourage this type of verbal abuse directed at them. Not that they cause it, but rather play the victim making an easy target. I sassed back in a funny way, cutting their remarks to dust. It was easier getting along and not making a big deal of the comments they made about women. Strong women rule…

    1. Thanks, Donna. I’ve responded to harassment in different ways, but I can’t say it’s had much of an impact. I’ve never experienced workplace harassment, though (I’ve only worked in female dominated offices).

    1. Thanks. It’s hard to talk about these types of experiences, even though they’re so common. My children have now read the post. It sparked a very interesting and very important conversation with them.

  3. The day the vast majority of decent men start speaking up to condemn everyday sexism (that leads to harassment and worse) then attitudes may change. We stay silent too often. Fathers need to set an example to their sons. Women alone won’t succeed in changing Neanderthal behaviour.

    1. Yes, men have to speak up too. I hope we’re making progress on this issue. Perhaps the only silver-lining of Donald Trump’s candidacy is that his behavior is making us talk about sexual harassment. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I wanted to hug Michelle Obama after I heard her speech.

    In 9th grade I had a math teacher who, every day when taking attendance, would remark upon the appearance of the girls. If you wore a skirt or low-cut blouse you got extra praise for being pretty. Those who did not look feminine enough to the teacher would either be told they should wear a dress sometime or were completely ignored. I hated that class and felt uncomfortable and humiliated but never said anything because at the time (1983) sexual harassment wasn’t a thing and I didn’t know I could say something and thought it was my own problem.

    I am so sorry about your own experience. How terrifying it must have been and to not have shared it for all this time. Hugs!

    1. I am sorry that happened to you. Teachers are such an important influence in children’s lives, and it’s awful when they treat students that way. I do think we’ve made progress since 1983, but many schools still don’t seem to know that they have an obligation to prevent and redress sexual harassment (whether it’s peer or teacher perpetrated). Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. It was my first day in high school. I didn’t know a single person. I was standing in the hallway. A football player came up to me with a few of his friends. He grabbed my breasts and said “frosh t*tt*es” and his friends laughed. The shock and shame wore off with their cackling and I asked him if he liked it. He guffawed again (hands still on my chest) and said “Frosh t*tt*es were the best”. I said I was glad he approved. Then I punched him in the face. They all stopped laughing and called me a string of names. I then spent a good portion of the morning getting to know the Vice Principle.

    1. I am so sorry to hear that happened to you. Thank you for sharing it. Did the football player get to know the vice principal that morning too (my guess is that he didn’t have to)?

      1. Your guess is very correct.

        But it was OK. I spent four years fighting, and four years with the vice principle who I came to really respect and admire. The cool thing was that because it was always self-defense, I was never suspended. Today it’s a bit different, but back then it wasn’t.

  6. Michele Obama’s speech was very powerful and the multitude of women stepping forward to share very powerful experiences and testimonies has been moving and hopefully a call to reality and a call to action. I cannot possibly imagine how this has impacted you. Thank you for sharing a very personal experience.

    1. Thank you, Brendon. Michelle Obama’s speech is one for the history books. It’s one of the best speeches I’ve heard in a long time (probably since her speech at the convention!). She’s an amazing speaker who is able to give a voice to millions by tapping into shared emotions and experiences.

  7. I remember many incidents in my past of men behaving in a way they shouldn’t. Some of them I can’t even explain; I just knew they were wrong, and they were either talking to or treatment me badly.

    Women are assaulted in our society every damn day, in a myriad of ways both large and small. I don’t think it will ever end, but a presidential candidate being so public about this blows me away. It also gives some men a license to continue acting out and being horrible to females.

    That I would live to see the day a Trump (he’s not even a person to me; he’s a nasty ol’ thing) would be in the running for president is mind-boggling. Like everyone else, I keep asking “What is wrong with this country?”

    1. I just can’t believe Donald Trump is a presidential candidate from a major political party. In 2008 and 2012, I disagreed with the Republican Presidential candidates, but I didn’t worry about the safety of people in our country and in the world if the Republican won. Now, I do. Trump is too erratic to have any degree of political control. Most of the Republicans in my life–whom I respect and, in some cases, love (family members)–agree with me on Donald Trump. They are either voting for Hillary or a third party candidate. However, there are a handful of people in my life who are Trump supporters, and I just can’t understand it. Usually, they say that what they care about is the Supreme Court, but how do they know he’ll actually appoint conservative Supreme Court justices? Trump is a liar who constantly goes back on his word. I don’t know why anyone thinks he actually “tells it like it is,” except when it comes to that 2005 tape and Howard Stern. There’s just too much evidence to suggest he actually commits the sexually aggressive crimes he brags about. So many women have come forward with their stories. If there’s one silverlining about Trump’s candidacy, it’s that it has encouraged women to speak up about what happened to them.

  8. I watched the speech last night and was moved by her words. I love her speeches and I will miss Michelle Obama as our first lady.
    I have had one, which I believe was an isolated experience with sexual harassment. Of course I will never forget it, but other than that one incident, nothing else has ever happened.
    However, the threat of sexual harassment is real for millions of women and I wish society as a whole would accept this as reality. Why are their voices and stories discounted by so many? It’s baffling. But if makes sense, as we still live in a society steeped in rape culture. We cannot let Trump become president. America will be shamed for generations to come.

    1. I am sorry that you’ve had your own experience with sexual harassment. It should never happen to anyone. I suppose the one silverlining of Trump’s candidacy for me is that his abhorrent behavior has encouraged people to speak up. I am so glad our First Lady focused on sexual harassment and assault in her speech. I will also miss her when she is no longer in that role.

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