- Posted August 24, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
I have been sexually harassed since i was 12 years old.
(Note: this story contains examples of times where I have felt threatened by the desires of male strangers. It is a sampling only, if I took the time to explore every instance of harassment, especially as a pre-teen, that I experienced, this story would not fit the character limit.)
When I was 12, my mother left my side at a Panda Express to get some napkins. An old man sitting at a nearby table began telling me how gorgeous I was, that I could be a model, and would I like to come pose for some photos? He scurried away as my mother came back.
When I was 15, a man followed me from shelf to shelf, masturbating, as I tried to find a place to hide in my local public library. I wanted to scream but I was so shocked and ashamed, nothing had prepared me for this. He eventually climaxed in his pants and left quickly. I never went back to that library.
Around the same time, strange men began telling me to smile. It happened while I was working the minimum wage job at a fair, where hundreds of men every day would hand their tickets to me and command me to smile, no matter how cheerful I thought I was trying to be. If I let my face relax for even one moment the commands would intensify. Then on my days off, strange men on the street would come up to me and tell me to smile---as if I was some performing pony doing a trick. No matter what emotions I was feeling at any given moment, strangers felt entitled to demand a cheery, submissive, open, accommodating performance from the unsmiling female they'd spotted.
When I was 16 I attended a rock concert in Switzerland. I was so thrilled that my favorite band just happened to be playing in the town I was staying in. I was pressed right up to the front of the stage, but I paid for my great view of the performers when I realized a young man behind me was squeezing my behind. Every time i tried to turn around he would duck back and I would glare at the sea of smirking men behind me, but as soon as I turned back the furtive squeezes would resume.
Around the same time, back in the states, I began working at a diner. After a few months the owner asked me "so, when you are by yourself, do you, you know, use one finger or two?" Worse, one of our regulars began stalking me, watching me through the glass window and following me to my car, telling me how cute I was and wouldn't I please give him my number, and then calling me a whore when I wouldn't respond.
When I was 18 I moved to the city and started taking public transportation, and walking for the first time by myself on a regular basis. A man followed me in his van and, after asking me dozens of disgusting sexual questions, threatened to hurt me if I didn't get inside. I ran into a store and he sped off. Old men who should know better would leer and hit on me from their stoops. One day I was walking my dog around the various apartment buildings in my community, a very conservative hasidic neighborhood. I sat down on a bench next to an old man, wanting to relax and give my dog a chance to rest in the scorching heat. The old man struck up a harmless enough conversation, but eventually began asking me how many boyfriends I had, touching me, stroking my shoulders, and eventually trying to reach down my shirt. He demanded that I come inside and "have some fun". Another man walked by, saw me push his hands away and just chuckled. I was so humiliated and overwhelmed. I ran back to my apartment and called my mother, telling her about it as if it was funny, needing to hear someone else tell me it was a joke. She was furious and asked me what did I expect, *sitting next to old men on benches*, and told me it was my fault, that I should have known what to do. I cried and felt ashamed. The next day I met my girlfriend for lunch and, as I was telling her what happened, another old man walked up to our table and told us how much he enjoyed looking at two young women together. I wanted to tear his eyes out. I wanted to scream "IS THERE NO RESPITE". Instead I just glared at him until he left.
One summer I was doing research in our local library, a beautiful building that I enjoyed spending time in. Another old man spent 15 minutes leering at me before walking up to my table and finding ANY excuse to talk to me. Nothing I said would make him leave me alone. He insulted my intelligence by assuming I was barely literate and proceeded to try to get me to go out with him for drinks. The experience so soured my memory of the library that I've never gone back.
Another time, I was in a Barnes and Noble reading when a young man yanked my book out of my hands and told me pretty girls don't need to read.
I've stopped smiling in fear at strange men. I've stopped responding to their attempts to make conversation. And I've stopped dressing like a schoolmarm, a habit formed young in an attempt to disappear from the hungry notice of these men. It doesn't work. I wear whatever I damn well please. I ignore the come-ons and the complements when I take the lightrail. I don't try to make myself seem submissive, deferential. I don't treat their humiliating attempts at seduction as a harmless joke. And for this I get called a bitch, rude, unsociable, a stuck up cunt, an ugly whore. The men who do this desperately need to put women in their place. They think their desire for us is a power we hold over them, and lash out at us when we reject their advances.
I don't know a single woman who hasn't experienced this. When trading stories with a friend, she told me she was sitting in the lobby of a bank when a young man whispered in her ear "I want to destroy your cunt".
Another friend told me she can't take the DC metro to work every morning without passing a gauntlet-like bus stop full of hissing, catcalling men.
There came a point when I realized the men in my life, the men I trust and love, had no idea this was the background radiation of womens' lives. They were completely, blissfully unaware. After all, if it didn't happen around them, it just didn't happen. They feared being mugged, maybe, but they didn't treat a trip to the grocery store like trench warfare the way the women I knew did. They weren't exhausted from constantly monitoring the other men around them when taking public transportation. They didn't agonize over their interactions with strangers to see at what point might they have inadvertently consented to being treated like a dancing pony. Strangers didn't bother them. They could complete their errands in peace.
I go out a lot less by myself. In my research, I've come to understand that many cultures have long believed that a woman by herself on the street is enough to condemn her as a prostitute. That in the late 1800's, a woman's virginity and good name would come under intense scrutiny should she appear unchaperoned on a street corner---even if all she was doing was buying groceries. This attitude has morphed into a default distrust of women's testimony when there are no male witnesses to corroborate her story. Our stories of harassment and rape are constantly picked apart and not believed by men who have been raised in a culture where women are hysterical, irrational liars before they are human beings. That constant incredulousness from men who cannot even begin to imagine what life is like for us becomes exhausting. This vast, howling gap between our experience of every day life is so obvious yet many men insist that it does not exist---and if it does, it is a gap of our own making. After all, who doesn't want to feel attractive? Who doesn't want to feel desirable? Isn't being desirable, (rape-able), the ultimate goal for a woman? These humorless feminists just need to shut up and take a compliment!
And I think part of my tears as a teenager, part of my shame, was that I DID want to be desirable. I lived in a culture that told me male approval was more important than being the hero of my own story. I wanted boys to like me. I wanted to be pretty. I didn't realize that meant it was my fault if I couldn't go to the library without a strange man jerking off over my shoulder.