Like so many others, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught of #MeToo posts that flooded my feed toward the end of 2017. Reading other women’s stories, it hit me: We're all so convinced these things are normal—because they DO happen to everyone— that we downplay them when they happen to us. And in doing so, we contribute to the message that it's normal. Just boys being boys. It becomes a cycle none of us know how to get out of.
My friend and fellow mom.me writer Katie Bingham Smith shared her story online today, and it just added to that reminder of how endemic this all is:
From too early an age, women are told to be quiet when they do speak up. We’re told to shove it down. That it’s normal. That it happens to everyone. That we shouldn’t talk about it. Because it makes people uncomfortable. And even those who love us—perhaps especially those who love us—don’t want to be uncomfortable.
I believe you, Katie. Because it’s happened to me, too.
When I wrote my own #MeToo, I didn’t want to skimp on details. I didn’t want to simply raise my hand and add my name to the pile. I wanted to give concrete examples. I wanted to ignore the discomfort, the potential for being judged (because I certainly haven't made perfect choices) and I wanted to be a part of bringing to light just how systemic this issue is. Because it started so young for me.
I tend to be fairly wordy, so I won't share all the details here. Feel free to head over to my original post, if you want the full impact. But this is how it starts:
* When I was in 6th grade, the boys started a game where they could slap the asses of any girl they wanted. There were rules involved (which they arbitrarily made up) that dictated how long they were allowed to hold on. And the girls allowed it. Because we wanted to be cool. We wanted to be fun. We didn't want to be the ones ruining the game. And maybe because we even thought of this as flirting. Even then, we were under the impression that if a boy grabbed us without our permission, we should be flattered. Which is why I didn't say anything when one boy bypassed my ass completely and grabbed me right between the legs instead.
* When I was in 8th grade, riding on the school bus for some field trip or event, a boy I had considered my friend held me against the seat and forced a kiss—my first—on me at the encouragement of his friends. He shoved his tongue into my mouth while holding my arms down and a leg against me so that I couldn't push back. And I remember thinking that this was not what my first kiss was supposed to be. But I laughed it off. Because everyone else was laughing, so wasn't that what I was supposed to do too? There's an entry in my childhood diary from that day that speaks to how devastated I was. But I never said a thing to anyone else. Because a cool girl doesn't make a fuss.
I didn't want him to be fired. I didn't want to be "that girl." I just wanted him to stop.
* In high school, I had this little waist and these big boobs; curves that belonged on a woman several years older than I was. One boy in particular liked to comment on my breasts. Regularly. At first I thought it was flattering. Flirting. This was how that happened, right? But over the years, it got mean. And incessant. He even shouted comments in the middle of class, when I was trying to give a presentation I had worked so hard on. I flushed with embarrassment and jumbled my words. But when people asked me afterwards if I was OK, I said I was fine. Because wasn't it all in good fun? Besides, if I didn't want the attention, I should have been covering myself up more. This was totally on me.
* I worked in bars and restaurants for almost a decade, mostly for male managers at least twice my age. All but three crossed various lines with me over the years, starting when I was as young as 16 years old. But smiling and going along with it was part of the game. I knew that was what was required of me to get the best jobs, the best shifts, the best tips. So, I played along. And knowing that made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to speak up when more egregious things occurred.
* When I was 22, I went to the house of a man I was dating with the intention of having sex. This was not our first sexual encounter, but for some reason, he got rough. Really rough. And as I cried and begged him to stop, he kept going. And when it was over, he wrapped an arm around me and acted like everything was normal. Even though I was crying. And bleeding. And confused. And the next morning I snuck out while he was still sleeping. I went home and called into work, because I was in physical pain and I couldn't wrap my head around any of it. I told only one person what happened. I didn't know what to call it. I just knew I had begged him to stop and he didn't. When he called me a few days later to hang out, I told him I didn't want to see him again, that he had really hurt me. He apologized. Said he'd been high/he didn't realize/most of the night was a blur. I accepted that as an apology, somehow in my head equating it to things I'd done and regretted while drunk. I kept seeing him for a few months. At the time, I think I wanted to pretend that what had happened hadn't been as bad as I remembered it.
* When I was 23, I was roofied. A bachelor party was doing a scavenger hunt for a bunch of sexually explicit things at a bar I happened to be drinking at. One item on the list was to get a girl's underwear. I was in a fun and wild stage of my life, and immediately said, "Oh, I can do that! Hold my drink." It was my first drink of the night. It was stupid. I handed my drink to this group of guys I didn't know and went to the bathroom to take off my underwear to give to them. Because one of them was getting married, so clearly they were all harmless and this was just in good fun. When I returned and finished my drink, everything went out of focus. The only reason I made it through that night unscathed was because my boyfriend at the time happened to work at that bar. He immediately recognized that something was wrong and pulled me from the situation, spending the rest of the night taking care of me.
* When I was 24, I was walking home from work one night when a truck pulled up next to me. I looked over, expecting to see a friend—but instead I saw a man with his pants down and his dick out, asking me if I wanted to touch it. I screamed, he drove off and I ran to my neighbor's house. My male neighbors couldn’t stop laughing. Not wanting to seem like a baby, I laughed too—even though in reality, I was shaken.
* I entered my first corporate job excited to be out of the bar industry and in a grownup world where I thought I would get to prove myself based on my work ethic and intelligence. Instead, I had a boss who liked to "tease" that I should wear low-cut shirts or flirt a little bit with the men we did business with. "See if you can get a deal," he'd say with a wink. When men would come visit our office, he'd always comment on how they were there to check me out. When I developed a sincere friendship with one of my male co-workers (a married man who I never had any interest in beyond friendship), our boss started "joking"—to us and to other people—that we were having an affair.
It was something he repeated several times over the course of several days before I finally went to HR. Because this was not OK. Because it completely undermined my skills as an employee, it threatened to ruin both of our reputations within the company and it had the potential to deeply harm my friend's marriage. But after I got to HR, tears in my eyes, and explained everything that happened, I ultimately backed down on filing any official claims.
I didn't want him to be fired. I didn't want to be "that girl." I just wanted him to stop. The HR team put together a mandatory sexual harassment workshop for the entire company. After the workshop, he walked into the office and said, "I don't know why they make us go to those things. The office wouldn't be any fun at all if we were all so uptight."
And I still so often feel like I was to blame for much of what happened to me. I made poor choices. I dressed inappropriately. I laughed it off when I should have said, "Stop."
I know that none of this is unique. These stories all run fairly in line with things I've heard every other woman I know say has happened to them. So many women have experienced so much worse. THIS is the stuff we’re supposed to just shake off, so that “real victims” aren’t ignored.
And I still so often feel like I was to blame for much of what happened to me. I made poor choices. I dressed inappropriately. I laughed it off when I should have said, "Stop." I questioned myself. Assumed I was in the wrong for feeling uncomfortable. And told myself not to cause a scene.
Not to stop being "fun."
Even in writing all this down, I've had to push past the part of me that worries about how any one of these men might feel if they were to read this. If they were to recognize themselves in one of these stories. I've had to ignore the part of me that is worried about upsetting them. Or hurting THEIR feelings.
This starts so early. This message we send to little girls that their voices don't matter. That speaking up will make people stop liking them. That if they're uncomfortable, it's probably their fault anyway. That by saying something, they may be making a bigger deal out of whatever happened than it deserves. Most women ultimately decide it's better to stay silent.
I think it's a message we somehow send to little boys too—that girls are for their entertainment. That flirting requires crossing certain lines. That it's only wrong if she says no. And that, even then, she really should just lighten up.
I'm honestly not sure it's their fault. I don't know how the little boys on the playground grow into the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, or what separates those who keep testing how far they can go from those who realize that certain lines should never be crossed. I don't even know how we figure out where normal behavior ends and predatory behavior begins.
How do we start training our sons and daughters to begin approaching sexuality in a healthier and more respectful way, when the truth is, most of us never fully learned how to do that ourselves?
I just know that in the past, I've been part of the problem. Because I've smiled when I've felt like crying. I've laughed when I've wanted to shout no. I've sent mixed signals and have contributed to the message that cool girls won't object. That certain lines are OK to cross. I've even taken advantage of a system that I recognized as rewarding girls with small waists and big boobs and a willingness to laugh along. There were certainly times when I played right into the brokenness and was happy to reap the benefits.
Even when I wasn't happy, even when I felt like I was no longer playing the game and was instead a victim of it, I can't think of a single instance where I truly stood up for myself the way I should have. The way I pray my daughter will, if it ever happens to her. That ends today. That ends now. I'm done being silent in the face of these things. I'm done pretending they are OK.
I don't know how we fix any of this. But I do know it doesn't start with silence.
So ... me too.