As I approach my year anniversary as the director of public policy and communication for a statewide sexual assault coalition, I am encouraged by the amount of public attention and advocacy that has occurred, nationwide, during the last year. From campus sexual assault to #yesallwomen, there have been a lot of conversations about sexual violence and “rape culture”. While this is certainly progress, we need to do more to understand the everyday sexism and harassment that occurs in order to truly understand and change the culture we all live and grow in. It is in that vein that I share my few experiences out this summer, sans kids and husband.
In late June, I was invited to a friend’s house for drinks on a Friday evening when my husband happened to be away. Since she only lives a mile from my house, I decided it would be best to ride my bike instead of take the car. So, after the babysitter arrived, I hopped on my bike and took off. Apparently, that decision was unacceptable to three young men, who, after getting out of a cab as I was biking home that night, began to yell at me from the sidewalk that it wasn’t safe for me to be out alone. I decided not to press them on why it wasn’t safe, seeing as there were three of them and one of me, but the subtext was clear.
I was pissed at how entitled they felt to share their opinion and over the insinuation that if I did get attacked that night it would have been my fault. I was also annoyed that they upset me and added an element of fear to what was an otherwise beautiful bike ride on a perfect summer evening. I told a few people about the experience, but that was it. I wrote it off as a fluke occurrence and took it as a sign that my work is important.
That is, until this past weekend, when I went to Massachusetts with my college girlfriends for a surprise 30th birthday party. A group of us arrived early and decided to grab lunch. Within the first 2 minutes of getting to the Marina, we passed a group of 10-12 high school boys. As we walked by, one of them yelled at us, “how much to cop a feel?” I was shocked, horrified, and immediately began to question if it actually happened. Some of his friends laughed at the comment, but they went on their way and us on ours. My friends didn’t seem to notice or hear him, so I just kept it to myself and allowed my internal dialogue to run wild with thoughts about pack mentality and how terrifying it was that a young man felt completely comfortable saying that to a group of women he didn’t know.
Then, my internal dialogue was interrupted by yet another group of men calling out to us. This time, it was three older men who were sitting at a bar facing the marina and boardwalk. “Hey ladies, there’s 3 of us and 3 of you…” I didn’t know where to look or what to say, so I looked down. The board walk we were on was coming to an end and we hadn’t made a lunch choice yet so this meant that we would have to turn back and pass these men again. All of us sort of awkwardly laughed and made comments about how uncomfortable the situation was under our breath. And so, as we turned around and passed them for a second time, they once again yelled, “ah, you made the right decision…” as if we were in fact coming back to join them. We took a table away from them, but it was awkward and very uncomfortable.
The weekend, as it pertains to sexual harassment, only got worse. My friends and I like to dance, so imagine our excitement at discovering that there was a band at the bar where the party was taking place. Unfortunately for us, there were two older men who kept trying to grind up close to us on the dance floor. We tried to box them out, a classic move that most of us have probably had to use at one point in time, but to no avail. This one guy just didn’t get the memo on the box out, or better yet, he didn’t care. He had one objective and he wasn’t going to let our discomfort get in the way. This ass hat actually decided to reach his arm around my lower waist and started to shift his hand downward. Well, that did it. I turned toward him and let out an animalistic, “Nooooo, get off of me,” to which he recoiled and retreated. He did come back again though, to grab my friend’s ass, at which point she yelled at him prompting another woman on the dance floor to turn to her and explain that he was harmless and we shouldn’t be getting so upset.
Huh? Come again?
In relaying these stories and others from over the years, I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I am being too sensitive or that the actions of these men should be viewed as a compliment, but I don’t see it that way. Having a man call out sexually charged things at you in public isn’t a compliment, it’s offensive, sometimes terrifying, and indicative of a culture in which epidemic numbers of sexual assaults are allowed to occur.
I suppose I am writing this blog because for the most part, I didn’t say anything when the occurrences took place, and that makes me angry. But the truth of it is, I feared what would happen if I did. In the case of the men on the sidewalk that night, I was in fact alone and there were three of them. In the case of the teenagers at the Marina, they were in a large group and I didn’t know if anyone else had heard them or if I’d be backed up. And, in the case of the men on the boardwalk, what if we did say something and then they started yelling even worse things at us. And when we finally did say something after being grabbed on the dance floor, we weren’t supported, we were reprimanded.
Those aren’t the best excuses for not saying anything, but they certainly highlight the underlying issues of power and control that are at the root of sexual violence in this culture and cultures throughout the world. Often times, our conversations surrounding sexual violence start with a discussion of consent- when and how someone can or cannot give consent. But culturally, we need to start the discussions much earlier than that. Why is it acceptable for men to yell their unsolicited thoughts, wants, and desires at women in public places? And why are there no consequences?
I am just one woman, who holds a great deal of privilege, enough so to be able to theorize about the experiences I’ve had this summer. But, my experiences are happening within the same culture we all live in, which means there are a lot of people living with the repercussions of this culture in a lot worse ways than I am and with a lot more frequency. If we are ever truly going to address and prevent sexual violence, then we need to understand how our culture supports it, we need to question it, and we need to want to change it. And I suppose, that is just what I intend to do.