For me, and I’m sure many other victims of sexual harassment and assault, the recent #metoo movement has been a time of reflection. Also like many others, I’m coming to the maddening realization of how garden-variety, standard, all-in-a-day, etc so much of my harassment has been— to the point where so many of the experiences and faces blur together without conscious efforts on my part to really examine and untangle them. And the ones that don’t fall into the blurred together category, I’ve neatly compartmentalized because my relationship with the perpetrator was too complicated, but that’s its own post and not necessarily a Pandora’s box I’m interested in unpacking in its entirety for the general public at this point in time. In turn, that leaves me tempted to do that whole minimization thing I do so well for myself: I’m kinda lucky in a fucked up way; plenty of people I know and love have experiences they remember—and often relive—in vivid, excruciating detail because it was that horrific. But—as we all know far too well—there are always plenty of third parties out there who are all too ready and willing to minimize and invalidate our experiences for us, so it doesn’t quite make sense to do it to ourselves too. And for me, those are the experiences I remember most vividly.
The first time—on paper at least—was relatively benign. I was in third grade. I’m just old enough that that was back in the days when homes still had landlines and each student received a copy of a class roster listing everyone’s phone number. I was the shy, quiet kid who read books during recess, and there was a boy in my class whose favorite pastime was coming up behind me to interrupt my reading by whispering explicit and obscene comments into my ear to try to get a reaction. Where an eight-year-old even came up with some of the shit he pulled out, I have no idea. I don’t remember him ever actually touching me, but he was relentless, taking my silence (since my only recourse was that trite and terribly ineffective “just ignore them and they’ll stop” MO that adults liked to tout as the cure-all for bullying) as a challenge. And when he got the bright idea to use that class roster to call me at home one day, my mom—cluelessly determining that he “sounded like a nice boy” and I “shouldn’t be rude”—forced me to take the call with the ever-helpful suggestion that I just tell him I had too much homework as an excuse to cut the conversation short. Beyond that, my side of the story didn’t matter to her, and she shoved the phone into my hand and waited for me to comply. “She finally talked!” he crowed in delight to his laughing friends in the background when I flatly cut off his hissed, “I heard your pussy is really loose…” with my scripted excuse. I slammed the receiver down, bursting into humiliated tears. If I’d even repeated what he’d said in an attempt to let her know what was actually going on, she would have jammed an entire bar of Ivory soap into my mouth.
Around eight years later (give or take), we were shopping for my prom dress when a man came up, asked for directions to another nearby mall, and then interrupted before we’d even had a chance to fully answer, looking me dead in the eyes as he started tugging at his junk through his pants: “I’m sorry; you’re so cute, I just can’t help myself.” My mother had turned with a snort of disgust and walked briskly away leaving me to chase after her. She’d given me the silent treatment in the car on the way home, refusing to discuss it, and when I brought it up again years later, she denied it had ever even happened, scoffing that I “had a vivid imagination.”
Don’t be rude. Keep up appearances at all costs. Shove your shit wayyyy deep down… and make no mistake that it is one hundred percent your shit and you’re probably either wrong or wildly overreacting anyway. These were the messages planted into my brain early on. While they definitely took root, they never quite flourished there… but they did sprout just enough to keep me mostly either silent or compartmentalizing and rationalizing away my experiences after questioning or rebelling against them proved ineffective.
It didn’t help that many of those around me had accepted similar rationales seemingly unquestioningly: “At least you know you’re hot,” a friend tried to console me with a laugh when I regaled her with the tale of a particularly creepy catcaller who had followed me down the street for several blocks one morning… and the mailman who had exited a store moments after I had finally managed to shake him and cheerfully instructed me to “Put a smile on your face, baby!”
“You can just say ‘no thank you;’ you don’t have to be so mean about it,” another chided me after I witheringly rebuffed a strange man who had ground his denim-clad, semi-erect penis against my unsuspecting ass on a dance floor by way of introduction.
“Well, you didn’t say ‘no,’” the department chair of my graduate program reasoned when my friend and I came to him with complaints about another student in the program who had been harassing me and stalking her.
Getting people in my corner in these instances consistently seemed such a tall order that when a friend with benefits stealthed me, it took me roughly an hour to internally debate whether what had just happened was fucked up before silently shelving it away in the farthest corners of my mind… and another couple years before we stopped our on and off casual hook ups altogether. It was another three to four years or so before the internet came up with an actual term for the experience and finally validated my concerns, several months after that before I spoke it aloud… and it’s taken until now for me to write it down.
Last weekend as I lay in bed scrolling through social media, I came across a headline about Lena Dunham. Normally a topic that holds almost zero interest for me and I’ll keep scrolling, but this time, an accompanying screenshot caught my eye:
“Hey, babe,” I called across the room to my partner before clicking the link (and realizing that the story went a bit deeper), “Did you see that Lena Dunham just pulled an Elise*?” Elise was a former “friend” of mine who had earlier this year proven herself to be a master of gaslighting, invalidation, and narrative re-creation, so she was the first place my mind went upon seeing that screenshot.
I rang in this year of #metoo’s with another benign-on-paper #metoo experience. Know how I said I’m really good at that whole compartmentalizing and rationalizing away thing? My rationale for my New Year’s Eve experience went like this: “If only I’d remembered to pack pantyhose, none of this would have happened.”
It was freezing out, and there was no way I was going bare legged under the sparkly little bodycon sweater dress I’d bought for the occasion so mid-afternoon of New Year’s Eve day, I stopped at our local CVS to grab a black nylon barrier to ward off the chill. As I was checking out, I heard a “Hey, what’s up?” to my left. It took me a moment to place him as the dude I’d briefly met and nerded out over Black Mirror with at Elise’s birthday party a month earlier, and we made small talk about our holiday plans. His were still up in the air, but he’d been debating attending the party I mentioned as some of his friends planned to attend. “Will there be a bar there?” he wanted to know.
I shrugged. “No clue. I’m pregaming at my friend’s apartment down the street. But why don’t you take my number and shoot me a text if you decide to go?” The more the merrier and all that jazz, right?
As I was getting ready, my text alert sounded. Dude wanted to know my friend’s address because he’d decided to join us. Not sure how to broach the awkwardness of “I kinda just meant hit me up if you end up in the same public place, not an open invite to my friend’s home,” I decided it would be easier to just check with her… and being the warm, loving, and generally all-around wonderful person that she is, it took minutes for her to text back a similar “the more the merrier” affirmative. And at her house, the mentality of inclusiveness and celebration held. We all drank and shared in much-needed laughter and camaraderie, Dude appeared to be bonding with my partner and another friend of ours over music, and life was sweet enough to allow the unease that the dumpster fire otherwise known as our recent presidential election had left in its wake to fade into the background. It also gave me a reason to shove my phone in my bag for a much-needed reprieve from the vaguely passive-aggressive texts Elise had been sending my way. She was suffering from a bout of walking pneumonia—the severity of which was evidently outweighed by a combination of intense FOMO and annoyance that “No one at this point will come to me!” After Dude (who she apparently thought was cute, but Elise is one of those girls who tends to view most of her male friends as potential romantic options… even if it’s just to let others know that so-and-so has an unrequited crush on her that she feels so bad about because he’s so sweet, but she just doesn’t see him that way) had mentioned to her that he was
crashing joining in on my plans, she was rallying to drag herself out to meet up with us. She chose to dutifully ignore my repeated “Are you sure you’re feeling up to it?” inquiries (my kinder alternative to “Bitch, stay home if you’re sick! My new health insurance didn’t kick in yet, and I don’t want your germs.”) and made sure to let me know, martyr-like, what a “bad part of town” I was evidently forcing her to come to as she reiterated her plans to meet us at the venue since she “never got [my friend’s] address.” (And no, she hadn’t asked for it; she’d been too busy trying to talk me into changing my plans to an alternative option that would be more convenient for her).
We made our way over to the venue where it was still another hour or so before she showed up with her roommate in tow and mumbled a not-quite-apology that the area wasn’t actually as bad as she’d anticipated as we snapped an obligatory selfie. Dude had presumably found his friends and wandered off. I spotted him again after the band hit the stage and launched into a full set of Bowie and Prince tribute covers and my friends (sans Elise who said she wasn’t feeling up to it) and I joyfully rushed to the dance floor. He was hovering, awkward and alone, on the fringes of our group, and as I looked happily around at my friends all singing along as we moved to the beat—“Put on your red shoes and dance the blues!”—we locked eyes, and I waved him over. After all, I’d kind of invited him, and (misunderstanding over the particular details aside) it had been an awesome night so far. We danced and sang along for several more songs, my partner in front, Dude behind, and me sandwiched between them, the crowd pressing in closer and closer. Usually, that kind of mass humanity is terrible for my social anxiety, but that night, I was unfazed, lost in the music…that is, until I felt Dude’s hand begin to creep up my black nylon clad leg and under my skirt to firmly grip my ass cheek (had I not stopped for that pantyhose, we’d have been skin-to-skin). I jolted and instinctively yanked the back of my partner’s shirt. Thankfully, it didn’t take him long to connect the dots before turning and announcing, “Hey, Dude, you’re pretty much humping my girlfriend into me.”
“Is that okay?” Dude asked inanely.
“Um… no, not really.”
I took that as my cue to exit stage left, and Elise was the first familiar face I encountered. She wanted to know if Dude had just tried to kiss me, and I replied that I didn’t think so; “he just got a little handsy.”
She pursed her lips, studying me for about half a second before pronouncing with a shrug, “Well, it’s New Year’s Eve. He’s probably just lonely.”
And at first—as conditioned as we are, and as commonplace as such experiences are—I mostly succeeded in shrugging it off too, determined not to let it ruin an otherwise great evening. It wasn’t until the next morning when Dude texted to ask whether I’d made it home okay and “is your boyfriend still mad?” following up with an afterthought inquiry of “how did you feel about it though?” that it began to peripherally occur to me how little my feelings were ever taken into account in such instances. Even then, I tried to be diplomatic and “nice” in my response that while it wasn’t necessarily cool, it didn’t have to equal awkwardness if we bumped into each other in a common area in the future. His retort of “That’s good to hear because you very clearly wanted it,” however, finally prompted me to come for him, guns blazing: “Oh, clearly. ‘Cause what woman doesn’t get off on being flagrantly objectified?”
He took the hint. I haven’t heard from him since, and anytime my partner and I have seen him around town, he’s quickly scurried off in the opposite direction.
Elise was another story. Checking in to see how she was feeling after pushing herself to come out, I remembered her comment about thinking Dude was cute and decided to give her a heads up— I wouldn’t wish that kind of toxic masculinity bullshit on anyone, let alone someone I considered a friend. I’m not sure what I expected, but the flood of shit she sent my way in response was something I never could have anticipated.
For a solid two to three hours, my phone vibrated incessantly with her barrage of text messages about how, “Real talk,” she “had seen everything,” had been “the only sober one there,” and “could understand how he would have gotten very mixed messages,” as “the flirting was turned way up.” She had been sure to add how “uber uncomfortable” it had been for her to witness “especially” since she had mentioned to me that she might be interested in him.
I tried at least five times to end the conversation, telling Elise I felt slut-shamed and frankly unfairly judged seeing as how she didn’t in fact have all the details as to how things had unfolded— which she shut down by prissily informing me that she “didn’t subscribe to this conversation being slut shaming at all,” and how dare I “push the feminist propaganda on her” when all she was trying to do was “help me by challenging my perspective.”
“Just stop talking to her,” my partner—who was never a big Elise fan and had been thrilled at the prospect of finally being able to unfriend and unfollow her on social media without threat of eventually being drawn into an inevitable tiresome conversation in which she approached him doe-eyed and asking for an explanation—said wearily, “She’s an idiot anyway.”
And after awhile I did, letting her have the self-righteous last word about how “the right thing to do” would be for me to call her and talk it over or meet up in person to which I conceded, leaving the ball in her court to let me know when she was free and feeling up to it (since I still had zero interest in exposure to those walking pneumonia germs). She never followed up about that… but she did start obsessively interacting with my social media a couple weeks later, acting as if nothing had happened. And once again, my only recourse was that old “ignore it and hope it stops” exercise in futility which—just when I started to think it might actually be working this time around—backfired hard when she “randomly” texted three months later (conveniently a few days before a mutual friend’s event) to say she missed me and oddly enough had just so happened to come across a draft of a message she had meant to send me “after all that weird stuff went down.” Spoiler alert: it was yet another paragraph of preachy, prove-herself-right sanctimony. Oh, and spoiler alert number two, she really didn’t appreciate my calling her bluff on the unfortunate phenomenon of intent vs effect where said “weird shit” was concerned… or my final answer that while I hoped we could be cordial if we bumped into each other, I no longer viewed her as someone I could trust or with whom I felt emotionally safe confiding anything real about my life. Her diatribe of defensiveness went on for another few hours before I blocked her for good. Undeterred, she tried again on Facebook messenger the day of our friend’s event. I reiterated myself and blocked her there as well which led to a Facebook status tantrum and shit talking messages sent to two friends (that I know of). Still, no one had any better ideas than ignoring… and for all her relentless digital discourse, Elise hung awkwardly in the opposite corner at our friend’s event that evening.
It went on that way for the rest of the year: I’d get a couple months at a clip of false security thinking she’d finally moved on before something else would happen. First, I got an out of the blue message from my out-of-state friend of nearly a decade asking if I thought Elise (who had met her once and apparently “written a novel” on her Facebook status about having an available room) might be a good fit for her as a roommate. Towards the end of the summer, Elise wrote my partner a giant Facebook message to pass along to me, and on Halloween weekend, my friend who’d been the recipient of her first shit talk message had some brand new shiny bullshit in her inbox to show me.
On their own and on the surface, written out like this, the details in and of themselves feel so petty and “beneath me”— I’m a mental health professional, for fuck’s sake! I “know better” than to entertain this kind of nonsense, and when clients come to me with similar stories, I even have a sage little speech at the ready about how reacting to such annoyances is the equivalent of giving one’s power away. But below the surface… I may need to re-evaluate a bit to make some space for the added complexities of the situations in which we feel like we have little to no power to begin with.
Dude’s behavior relegated me from subject to object— not only through the action of groping me, but in the footnote-to-an-afterthought approach of his inquiry as to how I felt about the situation. Elise’s readiness to immediately create a narrative that excused his behavior as “loneliness” while judging mine as sending him “mixed messages”—without bothering to fact check with either of us first—further perpetuated the stripping away of any semblance of power or autonomy I might have had in the situation. And each attempt to insert herself back into my world, each staunch refusal on her part to respect my wishes—insignificant and petty as her behavior in and of itself might have been—was another attack, another reminder that my feelings were unworthy of being taken into account.
That’s the problem with the “just ignore it” solution. Yeah, Elise was a shit excuse for a friend, self-righteous and judgmental with a disturbing lack of boundaries to boot. But she’s not Patient Zero; she’s merely a symptom of a much larger social issue when you break it all down, the product of conditioning in a longstanding legacy of rape culture. We’re desensitized into either shaming and blaming victims or keeping silent— and silent support doesn’t often translate in these cases. For me—though I never would have asked anyone to tell her off or shun her in some way on my behalf—I walked away feeling sorely tempted to misappropriate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for purposes of expressing my feelings on the matter (probably since a lot of people still listen to him): “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I remembered Elise’s words, but I also really remembered and struggled with the silence of the friends she reached out to— while as far as I know, no one really engaged, and the most they ever did was laugh about how “crazy” she was as they shared her nonsense with me after the fact, would it have been so hard for even one of them to point out to her how wildly inappropriate and disregarding of boundaries her behavior was? Or even just to ask her not to drag them into the middle of whatever issue she had with me? It would have felt far more effective and proactive than brushing it off with the joking dismissals that Elise was just “crazy” or “an idiot” (a tactic that, while well-intentioned, felt way too similar to those past dismissals whenever I shared my upset over yet another of those all-in-a-day violations)… and they wouldn’t have even had to be mean about it.
In a vague, roundabout way, I included Elise in my story when I added my voice to last month’s online chorus of #metoos:
And I felt more supported in the feedback I received on that than I had during this entire year… or possibly ever. Poetically enough, my favorite response came from Elise’s and my mutual friend’s girlfriend who had never heard the story as the couple had actually met for the first time that fateful New Year’s Eve. She wrote three words: “I believe you.”
And while I know she wasn’t the only one who had believed me, while I know the vast majority of people tend to prefer short and sweet, easily digestible soundbites to larger sordid sagas (so she was already getting off easier than everyone who’d seen it play out over the course of the year), she was the first to actually say those words without any debate or well-intentioned dismissal or request for further details.
So how does this all fit together? Dude’s actions were a clear participation in rape culture. Elise’s slut shaming then perpetuated it, with each refusal on her part to respectfully fade away serving as a small act of further victimization. As for the silence… the best I can come up with is that it’s another case of intent vs effect. While the intent to not engage with someone who so desperately craves a reaction is, in itself, logical, the unintended side effect of the no response from a victim often means a perpetrator will simply try harder. And the silence of those we view as our friends and allies—despite their best intentions—feels isolating and invalidating.
But we are witnessing a movement this year. And perhaps it’s no accident that the song that became the anthem of that movement when millions of women marched on Washington was the product of one sexual assault survivor’s poignant and powerful speaking out, giving voice to her experience, and declaring that she can’t—and won’t—keep quiet about it (and if you have yet to do so, click the linked text above and watch the video. It is goddamn breathtaking).
It’s taken me almost a year to write this down. But I’m finally done putting on a face, and I, too, won’t keep quiet for anyone anymore.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2017