As soon as I published last week’s post on my experience with harassment, I was flooded with doubt. I worried I was telling a story that didn’t have enough “oomph.” Here we are, in the middle of a convergence of stories about big cases of assault, and rape, and harassment, and I chime in with my story. My experience was so very minor compared to some of the truly horrifying experiences other people have faced in their lives, that I wondered if sharing my story would look like I was hoping for a seat on the bandwagon of victimization.
The doubt quickly passed. My experience was minor when compared with the experiences of other people, but I think it’s the perfect story to use when illustrating how systemic, and ingrained this expectation of silence is. I was intimidated, and told to deal with it. The bully/intimidator/asshole who was perpetrating the behavior was given a pass. Par for the course.
I know I’m not alone in these experiences. From the comments on the post:
Rachel said, “I was just starting 8th grade and there was this guy in my grade who would regularly try to hold my hand, wink at me in the halls, and other types of unwelcome behavior. I was really uncomfortable but I really didn’t know what to do…”
Ashleyvanessa added, “I was sexually harassed in high school…I told my friends. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents or any authority figure. It led to months of self harming…”
It’s been my experience that if you talk to 10 women, you will hear 10 slightly different, but essentially the same stories (my experience with this conversation, as is related to sexual harassment, is limited to women, but I suspect men and trans people will share some variation of the same story). As mistressofboogie (side note – if you all aren’t reading her blog Adventures in Boogieville you should be. Her cultural commentaries make me jump up in agreement) points out,
“It’s just awful, isn’t it? This thing we all go through?…that we all go through it only makes each individual experience more important, more worthy of note. I don’t know about you, but this was sold to me – and every other girl I grew up with – as just what boys do! You know, and it means they like you and that’s good because whatever they do to you it is not as bad as what they’ll do if they don’t ‘like’ you.”
And she’s so.fucking.right. We are sold this bullshit. As girls, we are told that this attention: the comments, the gestures, the touching, these things are how boys behave. (Actually, we start getting sold on the “boys will be boys” trope when they come out of the womb. I’ve been hearing it applied to my son for a hundred different things since he was a 2 day old infant.) Which, of course, serves to normalize the bullshit. So when we are uncomfortable with the bullshit, and we ask for the bullshit to stop, either directly to the perpetrator, or to an ostensibly protective authority figure we slam straight into this cultural conditioning. If we dislike being touched in the hallway, we are reminded that our bodies are not ours to define, “He’s just trying to be friendly!” or “You know you like it when I do that.” If we dislike a sexual gesture made across a room we’re told that our discomfort is OUR problem, “He’s just being stupid, ignore him.” If we ask for someone to help us feel safe, we’re admonished to protect ourselves because, “You could have walked a different route.” All of these responses, all of these excuses, serve one purpose. To teach and remind women that we are NOT ENTITLED TO FEEL SAFE. Fuck that noise.
I don’t think of this experience I wrote about as being particularly large in my life. It’s stuck with me for 20 years because it’s such a clear case of silencing. But Jay commented, “You referred to this incident in a comment at my blog over a year ago,” which gave me pause. (I’m about to start digging through her archives to see what I said.) For a week I’ve been wondering why it’s the story I bring up whenever I talk about bullying, or silencing, or harassment. And I think it’s what I use to remind me, and anyone who is listening, that the stories we read about in the paper, or hear about on the news, are the big stories. But the big stories don’t do justice to the whole picture. Harassment can, and does, happen to nearly everyone. It’s not isolated to certain areas of the country, or specific socio-economic classes, or some schools but not others. It is EVERYWHERE.
And I hope to Maude that I can create an environment of safety and respect for my son so that he never has a story to tell, and so that if he witnesses his friends engaging in bullying behavior he will have the confidence to stand up and ask for it to stop.