Over a year ago, a celebrity asked women to respond to a tweet using #MeToo if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Women responded with a roar. In the year since dozens of harassers and abusers have been stripped of their cultural or political power. Yet, as I started writing this post, allegations of sexual misconduct were headline news in a partisan drama. #MeToo has the potential to permanently and meaningfully change our culture and social norms, but institutionalized change takes time, it still feels too early to know what permanent change, if any, will emerge. The way I describe these years to my children has yet to be written. I see a lot of potential in #MeToo, but I’m worried the message will be weaponized by both extremes in a political melodrama and the heart of the movement will be drowned in the storm.
So many times you hear people say “think if it was your mother / daughter / sister / friend, how would that make you feel?” Like many others, I’ve never been a huge fan of that adage, it makes it feel like men need a relational reminder in order to recognize the humanity of women. But over the years, for reasons you’ll discover below, I have become very vocal with my male friends about what’s happened to me. I’ve been astounded by how many of my men have been astounded.
My theory is that these good men view me as someone undeniably worthy of respect. They are sick at the thought of anyone treating me inappropriately and, as such, overestimate the share of men who also would never treat me like that. Good men are prone to project their good behavior onto other men and end up accidentally missing reality.
It’s clear that, even in the era of #MeToo, good men don’t realize the prevalence and persistence of piggishness. But ignorance doesn’t help women and it doesn’t help decent men.
With that, I’ve decided to tell my story. I’ll start by saying it’s comparatively mild. I have never been raped, and I do not believe the experiences I detail below went so far to be described as attempted rape. A few constitute assault. Like many other women, I have comforted a friend after she was raped. Like most other women, recognizing and mitigating potential harassment and assault are a significant chunk of my daily routine. Perhaps like all other women, my growth into adulthood is strongly characterized by my journey learning to deal with sexual misconduct. It has had a dramatic impact on my self-narrative.
The summer after high school graduation, a few dozen graduates stuffed ourselves into the cabin house belonging to one of our friend’s parents. There were many more people than beds. As 18 years olds do, kids overstuffed together in beds and were strewn about the couches and floors. I was lucky enough to snag a spot in one of the queen beds. In the early morning, I woke up to one of the guys on top of me, groping me.
I ran out to the living room, accidentally waking up a few friends along the way. I was visibly disturbed and told them what had just happened, then I curled up on a chair and fell back asleep. Looking back, I think I remember one of the friends I awoke, not the others. I can’t remember exactly what I said, would they?
I left a few months later for my freshmen year at CU Boulder. Twice that year, with different male friends, after falling asleep alone, I again woke up after a night out to hands searching my body. I was again shaken. I ended my friendships with each of them, without an explanation or conversation. I just started avoiding, stopped texting back.
Separately, I also gained a reputation among my friends for always chatting with the “weirdos” at the party. Of course, my friends meant it endearingly. They loved me for always being open and warm. I was known for always being friendly, much friendlier than they would be. Coldness just didn’t come naturally to me.
Years later, while I was volunteering at an NGO, I was enjoying after work beers with my coworkers. It was hot out and we were dressed casually, wearing dresses, shorts, sandals. A superior was sitting across the table from me. He kicked his shoe off and casually slipped his foot under my dress and far up between my legs. My stomach dropped when I realized what he was doing. His eyes met mine and he smiled.
Quickly I oriented and calculated; my boss — our boss — was two chairs away. Was he seeing this? Did he think I wanted this? What would be the cost to me if I caused a scene by revealing my inner indignation? No, I thought, I’ll be done here soon, best to leave without a reputation. After I politely excused myself, he texted me asking for me to join him in bed. I ignored his texts and never directly addressed his behavior.
I fell asleep wondering if maybe this was just normal behavior in the NGO world. I wasn’t a naive college kid anymore, right? A man had seen me as a woman, I thought, not as a college kid, and I was overreacting — he was just being flirtatious. Actually, he was probably being flirtatious back, he must have thought I was flirting with him before. I am after all, as readers personally familiar with me know, expressive, light-hearted, talkative, and, even as I age, giggly. I made a note to curb those tendencies around new men and men I’d be working with professionally.
Months later, I was a graduate student and out for fieldwork, interviewing people about their stories throughout disaster recovery. For one of the first times in my life, I felt confident in my profession. I knew I was good at establishing rapport. It felt like my skills were employed in the right direction. I felt alive as an empathetic, humorous, curious and insightful interviewer.
But then during one of the interviews, everything changed. Usually, I conduct my interviews during working hours in the interviewee’s office, but I had known this interviewee for several weeks. I felt comfortable relaxing the setting and grabbing a few Pilsens while we chatted. We conversed in the cafe of a hotel over a late dinner.
By the second beer, he started reaching out for my hands, my knees. He asked if I had had sex and how many times. He suggested we get a room upstairs. I denied, but he refused to drop it. Things had gone too far. I calculated the professional cost if I was to draw a hard line and offend this man — a gatekeeper to much of the research. Not yet, I thought, you need him. I ended the interview, yet he was my ride home. I demurred, unsuccessfully. Again I thought: You need him, don’t blow it all up. Along the unnecessarily slow drive, he persisted in his questions about sex and continued to try to caress my hand, my thigh.
Once alone in my hotel room, I emailed a colleague waiting for me to phone into a scheduled Skype call:
Can we postpone the meeting? Normally my reaction would be to either work through my current feelings or to make up some excuse. I’ve thought about what just happened though, and how I feel, and somehow I feel you’re one of the few people in the world who would understand. Because of that, I think there’s probably space to do what I really feel like, and that’s like retreating into the seclusion of my room.
It’s not a big deal at all, but I think that’s part of what’s unsettling to me… that it’s never a big deal. I finally got to interview REDACTED, over a few beers at a local hotel. I was looking forward to the interview… but after three beers tonight he started over-probing about my relationships with boys and when I told him I had to leave to have a meeting with you he said we should just rent a room and I can use the hotel’s wifi. Maybe I can’t write it all into words but there’s an overwhelming sense of awareness when a situation takes a turn like that. When you know a man you trusted is a man you can’t trust at that moment at all.
I want to retreat because I feel confused and sick. What began as a night of getting great data because he feels so comfortable with me turns into a night of my closest father-like figure turning creepy — also because he feels so comfortable. One moment I was feeling so grateful for how easily I can talk to people, the next I was cursing it for getting me into that situation. I feel at fault, maybe other women can identify and avoid these situations better than I can. Was I too welcoming?
I feel like I can’t tell my family because they’d be overprotective, and I can’t tell my friends because I’m genuinely embarrassed. But I feel like I can tell you that I don’t feel in the right mindset to focus. I’m so sorry this is the second time I’ve moved it. I can literally do any other time at all, it’s up to you.
Her response was perfect. Swift and compassionate. However, three times in her email, she wrote in all caps: YOU DID NOT ASK FOR THIS. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
That rocked me to my core. Before I read those words, it had never, never once then or any time before, occurred to me that it wasn’t my fault. The most striking thing about her response was what I never even considered independently: that it wasn’t my fault. It was so logically true and I was ashamed that my mind had only been racing through my behavior and what I had possibly done wrong. After previous comments and moments, ranging from uncomfortable to assault, I felt an immense guilt. I would replay all of our previous conversations over and over in my mind. I would dissect them moment by moment, trying to pinpoint my faults. Clearly, I had been too friendly. I would identify my errors and vow never to get myself in that position again.
I spent the next day with all lines of communication off, wallowing in the pain, confined to my bed. I felt exhausted by sexual harassment (an Americana walking on Tacloban streets get catcalled every five feet, and even though it is culturally different and presumably well-intentioned, I still loathed it). I was emotionally empty after the realization that I had been masquerading as an empowered and confident woman when in reality I was habitually and self-destructively blaming myself for everything that was NOT MY FAULT.
In the days and weeks that followed I maintained contact with him, but at a distance, trying to balance my professional goals with his unprofessional intentions. He started to grow angry at me for not texting back immediately or inviting him to evening social functions (mind you, he was more than twice my age). Still, I stayed quiet and kind.
Everything came to a head when I visited his office to pick up a form I needed. He was visibly angry at me. He told me that I was selfish and that my research was a sham. He threatened to pull it all out from under me. In the office, I held my ground. Yet I left shaking. I stumbled to the nearest coffee shop and broke down in the bathroom. My rental home was far, and I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t yet have any friends in the country to tell. I felt ashamed, scared, and disgusted. My friendliness and warmth were twisted against me, and, despite the reminder that none of this was my fault, I hated myself for the role I thought I had in cultivating the situation.
In the following days, I told my advisor and, on a whim, emailed several girlfriends what happened. I included a few I admired but hadn’t talked to in months. In response, I received overwhelming love and support. I felt solidarity, as they consoled me many shared their own experiences. In their stories, I recognized that feeling uncomfortable as a woman is a radar, we just know when a situation is wrong, even if the sum of all the little things don’t seem to add up.
Back in Colorado
Sharing that experience and listening to the experiences of my friends ignited the beginning of a major shift for me. I was sick of feeling guilty about my own behavior and sick of feeling trapped in polite behavior. So, so, so sick of kindness being misconstrued as an invitation. That email began my own personal year of the woman. When I returned to Boulder in January of 2017, I resettled into my home, which I shared with four of the women I admire most in the world, with a newfound passion for (obsession with?) female friendships and girl power. Everything was about The Court, our household nickname and the moniker for how we would treat each other and expect to be treated. We were the Ladies of the Court — honorific, venerable, powerful. Everything was about The Court. Well, almost everything.
I also returned to classes on at CU Boulder. In one of my classes, I was assigned to a group project. Have you ever waited for group project assignments to be announced and, even though you would struggle to articulate why, queasily waited thinking “please, don’t let me be placed with _________?” Me too.
I was placed with him. Outside of class, we shared the same office assignment. He sat by the coffee maker and along the path to the door. He was the first and only person to turn as I walked in and out. I saw him constantly. He lived by me, a few miles from campus, and yet frequently biked to school without a jacket. Before all my woman spidey-senses ignited, I offered him rides. Once they went off, I started sneaking in and out of the office, pretending to take a call so I could escape his request for a ride home.
This is January of 2017. I recently started seeing my ex (now current, and amazing) boyfriend, Eric. Eric and I were still figuring out our reconnection, we had yet to define the relationship. Only a week in, however, I told this man Eric was “my boyfriend” in the way that women do when they want to still be nice while putting up a barrier. A few weeks later, I showed up and loudly recounted to my desk mate the fact that I had just run into an old professor from undergrad and announced to him that I was just arriving from Eric’s house. No one needs to blurt out to their professor where they had stayed the night before, and I was really embarrassed by the encounter. But I made sure to share it so vocally with my friend because, of course, I was hoping she wasn’t the only one listening.
As the semester goes on, I feel an increasing but subtle discomfort. Like, my desk is at the end of a row. It has a cubicle wall on one end. He would frequently come to ask a benign question but ask it while clinging to that wall, hovering over me. I agree…that’s nothing to raise the alarms about, right? There are many more moments I could write, but as I write them none feels like the moment. Its a collection of tiny moments that are only uncomfortable to the person that’s lived them all, me, and that never clearly cross a line.
When I decided to write this post, I decided to be truthful. But some of the things are much harder and, admittedly much more embarrassing, to reveal. They are the truths that no one else might understand, but that dominated my mind. Logically, I knew that sum of all the little things didn’t add up. Illogically, I started to hate showering because I felt that he thought about me while he showered. I started to avoid school. I told my friends I didn’t feel safe inviting him to our home for my birthday party, but I also didn’t feel safe excluding him (which, logistically, would have to be purposeful and likely public). By May, for the first time ever before a presentation, I puked before standing next to him to report on our final group project. After the semester ended, I didn’t go to campus once until I knew he was out on his summer travels.
I had nothing to report. Nothing had happened. If I was to tell my story to anyone, I was likely to come off as self-centered, deluded, weak, or presumptuous. At the time, it didn’t really feel like a story to me at all. It was a string of events that, at that point in my life, I was accustomed too. Sure, it was amplified and my woman spidey-senses were off the radar, but I was just happy he was gone for the summer.
My summer relief disappeared when an officemate returned from a conference, one she attended with him just before he left, and warned me to stay away from him. She described to me how, after a few beers at an evening networking event, he separated her from group conversations and started to aggressively question her about women. She recapped his animosity towards several of the women in our office, but his hatred for one of us was sharp. With glazed and angered eyes, he described to her how he and I would be perfect together. How I just didn’t see it, but I would. He recounted twisted memories. For instance, he recalled my birthday, and how I had clearly been dancing with “some guy” just to make him jealous. Eric, my boyfriend, was the “some guy”.
She didn’t have a clue that I had felt uncomfortable around him. After the conference, she was so rattled that she took time to re-set and reflect in her hometown. She added his aggressive behavior to all the other times he had thrown her…like the time he guest-lectured and then obsessively talked about the attractiveness of the undergraduate girls. Or the time, in casual conversation about another colleague’s research, he added how nice her rack is. Upon reflection, she showed up to tell me I need to stay far, far away from him. To this day, I still don’t know the extent of what he said to her. She never felt comfortable restating it word for word to me. I probably didn’t feel comfortable hearing it. I know that he implied he intended to force me to be with him or punish me for rejecting him. She didn’t know I had already started keeping my leatherman in the office, behind a frame on my desk, knife out. Other women in the office joined in…”Wait, did you say he cornered you to ask about women and then projected a weirdly aggressive attitude towards women? Me too!” Once we combined our stories, we knew we had to elevate it.
We set out to tell the institution, to simply share our stories and, we thought, let the processes kick in from there. We told our advisor, who was incredibly empathetic. She checked into the procedures and routed us to the appropriate office. At our appointment, they separated us and asked us to narrate our stories. I remember I made the mistake of listing mine, emphasizing the small moments, none of which individually looked all that troubling. I didn’t understand that they would be recounted nearly word for word back to him. I didn’t understand that a stranger would be owning my story, and, with that, all the raw moments I felt scared or unsure would disappear into oblivion.
Without prior experience with the school’s processes for sexual assault and harassment, I think we assumed we would tell the authorities-at-be, and they would take it from there. In the months that followed, we were asked to join a mediated session with him and consulted about how we would prefer his case to be handled.
Looking back, we were very naive. I felt like my voice had been taken from me. If the school was just going to recount my narrative (with presumably an empty, soulless tone), without added explanation or consequence, yes, I would have preferred to do it myself. I would have preferred to look him in the eye. I would have preferred to say “I know what you said about me. I know what you said about undergraduates. I know what you feel. I am done pretending with niceties. In not shutting off your passive-aggressiveness, I have only hurt myself. I could not think less of you.”
Of course, I never said that. Rather, I was disheartened by the institution and conversely immensely inspired by our advisors. I learned that action really comes down to a few really, really good people. A few advisors who believe you and, at a potential risk to their own careers, refuse to tolerate sexual misconduct, are committed to a department culture of equality, and actively defend your truth to the university. That said, not much happened. Although I don’t believe this man should ever teach your future daughters or mine, he’s on track to be in such a position.
A lot of this was happening over the fall and winter of 2017. While at home with my family for Christmas, I took a call from my advisor updating me about the case. When I got off the phone, my parents were visibly interested and confused. Okay, I thought, I’m going share. I need to tell more people what’s been happening. I took a deep breath, and I told them that I had a problem at school with a male peer who had I felt had been harassing me and had threatened to hurt me to another student. The only comment my dad had? He questioned if my actions were destroying this guy’s career.
I do not think my dad is sexist. Few men in my life are. On the contrary, and at the risk of revealing my favoritism, I think I’ve cultivated a band of exceptionally good men. My dad has always been and will forever be my hero. I already love my future brother-in-law like he is my brother. My boyfriend is my teammate and I love the way I look in his eyes: intelligent and capable, by default. Thanks to the gender disparities in both engineering and the military, I have numerous deep and enduring male friendships. I would not be where I am today without such admirable men beside me.
Across the board, I believe most men are good men who, as my theory goes, are so good they have no idea how the others truly can be. They think of sexism so infrequently, consciously witness it so infrequently, they just don’t know what to do or say when bluntly confronted with it.
In all honesty, neither do I. So can I really blame them?
I may be a woman, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to societal views. As I wrote my stories above, I felt an intense urge to preface it with a reminder that I was a good student, at school on a scholarship, following a path to serve my country. But of course, such statements would underline the events with the implication good girls (like me) don’t deserve it, while other girls might.
No one deserves it.
And yet… there I go giving in to my tendency to fight and to teach. On one hand, when it comes to the #MeToo movement, my teeth instinctively grind together. I feel instinctively armed to fight. I feel angry, I am ready for change.
On the other, when I decided to tell my story, as simple and common as it may be, I had to continually fight the urge to pepper it with “nevers”, “how to’s”, and “do nots”. As a woman, I’m often burdened with the role of teaching men how to be men. I’m asked to explain stories, boundaries, appropriate conversations, and consent. I date a good man, a really good man, and as much as I feel he stands with me on these issues, I doubt he’s ever had to explain to a woman how not to scare a man. I doubt he has been pressured to detail to a woman why her actions traumatized him — retraumatizing him in the process. He’s never told me about canceling a night out with friends because he was too exhausted to repeatedly, forcefully — but ever so politely! — physically push away women on the dance floor who, unsolicited, grab him from behind and grind. Surely, he’s never debated between “If I am blunt now, will I come off as a presumptuous bitch?” and “If I am not blunt now, will I be deemed complicit later?” I wonder if he, or my dad, or my brother-in-law, or my guy friends, have ever looked in the mirror after being harassed — after being grabbed while their professions hung in the balance — and seriously contemplated “Was that my fault?”
Here is what I do know:
- I don’t feel sympathy for men worried they will need to start watching their words, scared of how women might interpret their behavior. I’ve been watching my behavior for a long time, scared of how men might interpret it. I look forward to spreading the burden.
- Not a single action that I have ever taken or ever will take will justify sexual misconduct. This one I learn from and practice with my friends, as we talk each other down from moments of self-blame.
- What was traumatic for me might not be for another. What’s traumatic for another might not be for me. Regardless, at the end of the day, no one should place their hands where they are not wanted, aim sexually-suggestive words where they are uninvited. If I hear someone felt victimized by actions that cross those lines, I believe them.
- I do not foresee myself ever joining a coalition of women signing a letter endorsing the character a male associate facing credible accusations of misconduct. I’ve seen enough to know that how a man treats me has little to do with how he treats another. I am disgusted by the swapping out of women’s experiences and the push to use examples of a few good female friendships as proof that a man is incapable of harassing behavior. To all the men I’ve ever had a congenial relationship with: my friendship does not give you the moral permission to mistreat another. Never use our friendship to explain away events outside of us.
- I have faced shit because I am a woman. But that’s all. I am white, Christian, comparatively wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, and well-educated. No one has ever said a hateful remark to me because of my skin color or ethnicity, poverty level, physical limitations, lack of education, how I pray, or who catches my eye. Even if someone did, with a look of repulsion and vile tone, approach me to tell me that “all white people should die” their viciousness is unlikely to rattle me too much because I live in a country (and a world) where my identity almost perfectly matches the archetype of power. It’s far from fair but, on a personal level, being a woman is the only thing I really have to be scared about. I acknowledge some people in the world might not only disrespect me but actually hate me for reasons other than being a woman, but those people are woefully unequipped to do something about it. I haven’t lived it, but I do not doubt for a second that adding a discrimination dimension multiplies the shit. I believe it would also multiply my indignation.
For the past three years, my work has involved years of interviewing individuals forced to relocate after a disaster (some wanted to move, others didn’t, all were essentially offered relocation or bust). On an individual level, each interviewee had little agency over their own relocation trajectory and in many cases, their recovery experiences were lacking. Given those circumstances, you might think that when someone shows up and says “Please, tell me your story” they would. Not the case. We struggled immensely to elicit honest, open, complete perspectives. People were guarded, or they doubted our motives, or they were exhausted of sharing without seeing reciprocal actions. All in all, if societal power is a hierarchy from top to bottom, individuals on the lower rungs were not eager to vocalize their grievances.
Right now, I see a lot of suspicions that Nobodies are attacking Somebodies just to capitalize on either the other’s rise or a perceived faddish-wave of anti-strongmen attitudes. Nothing in my lived experience, from the fact that I waited to tell my story until I left Tacloban City, to the mulling I did about this post and its potential hit to my professional goals, to the hundreds of conversations I had with disenfranchised relocated individuals, suggests to me that the Nobodies want to individually highlight the injustices they’ve faced. This is not fun. This is not profitable. This is far from a guaranteed victory.
Before diving into my story, I said that my experiences with sexual misconduct have had a dramatic impact on my self-narrative. Over the years I plunged from naivety into moments of confusion, self-hatred, and exhaustion. When I look in the mirror today, I see a newfound but hardwon sharpness in my eyes. The hint of a glare that wasn’t there at seventeen, lit up with an internal anger. In my chest, it feels like my heart literally grew. I feel a love and responsibility for other women I never knew before. It’s a visceral love, it feels tribal.
But this can’t be a tribal squabble. So, readers, I’m inviting you in. You are invited to believe me. To believe not only the particulars of what I’ve been through but the impact it’s had on me. To take that queasiness and horror you felt for me while reading and recognize it’s a fraction of what I felt living it. And then to look up and look around. If all this happened to and shaped me, what’s probably happened to and shaped all of the women around you right now?
I’ll end with the ending I wrote to my friends after I emerged from the Tacloban bathroom two years ago. Thinking of them, then and always, fills me with the grace and determination to carry on in times when it seems the hardest:
I have the most amazing network of friends. When I take a moment to think of all of your accomplishments, the trials you’ve endured, the literal glow you each project — I’m nearly brought to tears. You’re all very different: some of you are working tirelessly for a well-defined end goal, some have no clue what the end goal is or how to get there, but are doggedly undeterred by uncertainty, charging ahead with grit and hope. I’ve seen many of you in your own dark moments and watched you shine through them with unwavering love and compassion. You are all so giving, so intelligent, and so determined to be good friends and good people. My current hurdle is sexism, but in channeling the lessons I’ve learned from you are I know that everything will be ok. Thank you all for contributing to making me, me. For being the living evidence of smart, beautiful, strong and powerful women.