Two simple words, meant to do wonderful things. They let someone know that you are connected—that you share an experience, an idea, a belief. That you both want the same thing, need the same thing, or have been through the same thing. These two words can bring people together. They are, in a way, comforting. They confirm that we are not alone.
Yesterday, I found myself typing “Me, too” on my social media, and it made me feel anything but comforted. Within seconds, women were adding their own Me, toos. It was chilling. I thought, naively, that the women I care about wouldn’t have reason to add their voices to this cacophony taking the internet by storm.
I was wrong.
I watched with a broken heart as the women I love confirmed that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. Too many women—family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances—chimed in with those two seemingly lovely words.
Today, those words are evidence of an ugly, systemic problem with sexual harassment. They shine a light on how many women have felt it. It is an epidemic, an unnatural disaster. Is it any surprise that we have an admitted sexual predator in the White House? Is it shocking that this continues to go on unchecked, unpunished, and even encouraged?
I understand why women don’t always speak up, because it happens so often it has become normal. Mundane. Expected. In considering why I wrote Me, too, I realize that I cannot boil it down to one experience, which I suspect is true for most women. I never told anyone. Not once. It never seemed important.
But it is. Now more than ever. So here goes...
My very first experience with sexual harassment was as a little girl, in my favorite neighborhood in Rochester, NY. Our neighbor was an old, perverted man who drank a lot. He used to stroll up and down the sidewalk out front, just pacing. He had a vegetable garden, and dropped cucumbers and tomatoes over the fence into our yard. He often invited me in and gave me candy. He and his wife seemed nice. But he always tried to kiss me when I left. I would refuse, but it didn’t stop him from grabbing me, pulling me close, and trying to put his lips on me. I kept going back to his house, because I was six (and seven, and eight, and nine) and he had a ping pong table and a cherry tree I could climb. I didn’t know that he was harassing me.
Next, the male babysitters who crossed the line. One used to encourage me to play “tag” with him inside the house, but in his version, the way to win was to tag the other person’s genitals. I had to tap on the crotch of his pants, and he would grab my crotch, often from behind, as I ran away from him. It didn’t feel sexual. I was probably ten. Another one laid on my bed once and pulled out his penis for reasons I am still not sure of. I may have asked him to do it (I was a kid, after all). But that is the point. I was a kid. He had been entrusted with my care. This wasn’t two kids playing “I’ll show you mine…” He was seventeen, and he should have known better.
High School. Mostly it was boys who thought they were flirting. I had my ass grabbed, my chest touched without consent (sometimes in the hall, with people around), and had suggestive invitations whispered in my ears. Once, it poured rain during cross country practice, and I was wearing a white t-shirt. Heading back to the locker room, several football players standing around outside commented on being able to see my breasts through my shirt, and thanked me for the show. (My male teammates offered me their shirts and blocked me as we walked in. That is what real men do)
College. Sophomore year, I was a resident advisor at a dorm. One of the other RAs was a big, muscle-bound guy who thought it was fun to wrap his arms around me from behind and tell me, quietly, that I should give him a chance, that I didn’t know what I was missing. He whispered, “why are you afraid of me,” when I would try to wriggle free. I couldn’t over power him, but luckily, we were never behind closed doors, and he always let me go, a predator toying with his prey. I avoided his floor all year.
There are more. Mostly in the form of comments about my clothes, hair, body, face, that have been lobbed at me in professional settings where the last thing being discussed should be my appearance.
I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. I have never been physically assaulted or raped, and for that I am grateful. I have had amazing men in my life who are supportive and kind and completely appropriate. But none of that changes the fact that as mild as my experiences may seem on the spectrum of sexual harassment/assault/rape, they still aren’t acceptable. It’s part of the bigger problem. And what’s even scarier is that my stories are not unique. Too many women have made it known: Me, too.