Trigger warning: Sexual Harassment & Assault
I considered for some time if I wanted the first thing I posted for my business to be about sexual harassment and assault. Is that topic the first thing I want people to associate with me professionally (or personally)? To be honest, I don’t know. What I do know is that the fear of being sexually harassed and assaulted follows me everywhere I go. I can’t be alone and not think about it. In many situations, I can’t be in a group and not think about it. What’s worse- a woman in my demographic (white, cisgender, middle class) is one of the least likely to be the victim of sexual assault or harassment, so if this issue is impacting me this much, it is deeply troubling to me what other female-identifying folks are likely experiencing.
A conversation that I’ve had with many men is trying to explain why I’m scared and why they probably can’t understand what it feels like to walk around with that weight all the time. I walk in groups. I check all the bathroom stalls before I go into one if I walk into what appears to be an empty public restroom. I don’t run outside at night, anytime near dusk, or even in the morning if the trail looks too empty. I don’t walk near vans. I always have my hands on my keys in parking garages or lots and I walk quickly and I continually check over my shoulders. I look in my backseat every damn time I get into my car, and once I’m in, I immediately lock the door. I don’t make eye contact with men when I walk through crowds. I sleep with mace next to my bed. And honestly, that’s kind of just the tip of the iceberg. “Safety work” has become a habitual part of my daily routine.
Recently, in the middle of explaining the “safety work” that I personally do, a man asked me, “Well, is it because something happened to you?” That is a very inappropriate question that you should never ask anyone, but since I have taken it upon myself to speak on gender issues, (specifically this one) I’ll answer it. Yes. Dozens of times. More than that. So many times that it’s not “if it happens again” its “when it happens again.”
Once a man put his entire arm up my knee-length dress (not that the length matters, but knowing the questions women get when they share these kinds of experiences, I will put that in there for the victim-blamers out there) and grabbed my butt. It was in the middle of the day while I was crossing the street and there were easily 50 people around. I yelled at him. He kept walking. I started crying. No one acknowledged me.
Once I was dancing in a bar and a guy slapped my butt. I turned around to confront him and all of his friends hid him and then scattered. They had planned it.
More times than I can count a guy has walked by me and stroked, squeezed, "tickled", or forcibly grabbed my lower back or waist.
A couple weeks ago I was walking through a crowd and a guy ran his hand up my inner thigh and across the zipper of my jeans. There was a guy about two feet in front of me. I was holding his hand. It didn’t matter.
(These are just a few instances. I am not willing to share the examples that have had the most severe impact on my mental and physical health at this time for a variety of reasons.)
To some, these might seem like minor offenses. They aren’t. Another person systematically feeling entitled to violate another human’s personal space is a big deal. I have been out with guys I’m dating and had other guys feel like they can touch me inappropriately when I’m literally holding another guy’s hand (that has actually happened to me on two separate occasions), so where does that stop? Where is the line for those men? I don’t know, and that terrifies me. It makes me feel like I don’t have control over what happens to my body. It makes me feel like I don’t have autonomy. It shakes my confidence. It is distracting and exhausting to fruitlessly try and prevent it from happening. It’s dehumanizing.
It’s also rampant. When that man asked me if something had happened to me, I was in the middle of speaking at a conference and there were a handful of people in the room. I said, “I would rather not answer that question in this room of people, but I want to stress that even if a woman has not experienced sexual assault personally, someone she knows has.” This is why I want to talk about it- because if we want to create spaces that are equitable and equally welcoming environments for all gender identities, everyone has to feel safe. Men need to know the short and long term impacts of sexually assaulting or harassing another person. They need to know that at your organization/business/club, that kind of behavior will not be tolerated. They also need to know that that kind of behavior outside of your organization/business/club will not be tolerated. Right now, they face little to no consequences.
I should know- I have helped perpetuate that.
I haven’t reported things that have happened to me.
I didn’t get help.
I just kept walking.
I stayed friends with them.
I was scared and embarrassed- I still am. I tell myself every time that the next time it happens I’m going to do something- I’m going to make a scene or go tell somebody who is in charge so they can handle it- anything to make the perpetrator think twice about ever doing something like that again. But then a man touches me without my permission and somehow, after everything, I still freeze.
It shouldn’t be on me. I shouldn’t have to walk around with the fear and also the responsibility for correcting this issue and teaching these men that what they are doing is unacceptable. None of us who are experiencing this should. I don’t know that I’m even in a place yet where I will be able to effectively create a consequence in-the-moment, but I’m working on it, and while I’m working on that, I want to start these conversations. The spaces that we participate in need to be incubators for better practices in general society. If a person is assaulting or harassing women outside of work, they are bringing that to work with them and it does impact how others feel in that space. If a person is unlearning harmful, sexist ideas at work, they can bring that knowledge and awareness out into the world. Men are learning this behavior somewhere, they need to unlearn it somewhere too.
And yes, I’m saying “men.” I’m not saying “some men,” I’m not saying “people.” I’m saying “men.” Do all men sexually harass and assault women? No. Are there systemic structures in our society that all men are exposed to that teach them that women are less than men and display women as overly sexualized objects that they are entitled to touch? YES. Whether a man is acting on that implicit bias or not, on some level, it’s there. I know, because I have that implicit bias, too. We all do. That is why I didn’t report. On some level in my brain, I think that I deserved what has happened to me. I think people won't take me seriously or will blame me so I tell myself I'm overreacting. It is work to actively unlearn that and shut those thoughts down, but together we can start making dents in these long-held, deeply entrenched ideas by asking these kinds of questions in order to make the spaces we are a part of more equitable (links are to resources):
Do the men in your organization have effective sexual harassment and assault training? Do they know exactly what it is and why it matters? Do they know the statistics of how many women are assaulted? Do they understand the concept of “safety work”? Do they fully (and I mean 100% fully) understand consent?
Then, do they know what to do when they see another man harassing or assaulting a woman? Are they empowered to say/do something, even if it is their friend? Their boss? A stranger?
Finally, do women know where to go/who to talk to if they are harassed or assaulted? Do they know what exactly constitutes harassment or assault? Do they know what the next steps will be when they report? Do white women know that women of color are much more likely to be harassed and assaulted and how to support them? Do women who identify as cisgender know that women who identify as LGBTQIA are more likely to be harassed and assaulted and how to support them? Do all the women in your organization know they will be believed?
No space is going to be free of sexual assault and harassment if it is not actively talked about. This issue permeates our society, and no matter how great the people in a space are or how good their intentions, we’re all impacted and all carry (either consciously or unconsciously) the ideas that lead people to harassing and assaulting others. If you aren’t experiencing it, someone you know probably is. Make sure they feel safe enough to come forward. Make sure you are actively working to be a part of the solution- validate women, create awareness, zero tolerance.
If you would like to discuss sexual harassment and assault policies, trainings, or general practices in your organization, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.