The first time a male exposed himself to me I was five years old, and it was below the lunch table in our kindergarten class. Hey, look, he said and there was a tiny five year-old dick, right out in the open, lolling around in its owners grasp. I am thirty-six now, and I can still see it, clear as in that moment, that unwanted visual assault.
The first time a male attempted to force unwanted physical contact, that I’m able to remember, was when I was eight. My third grade teacher and I had been at each others throats all year–I the disciplinary problem, he the unskilled educator. We were a match made in hell, and our daily power struggles usually culminated in his red-faced panting and my ejection from the classroom. On one particularly contentious afternoon, he followed me into the hall, roaring about my bad behavior just inches from my face. After school, I went back into the room to collect my belongings and he tried to put his arms around me ostensibly as a way to assuage his own guilt. I resisted his attempt at a hug and he pulled me in tighter. I stood completely rigid as he murmured some things I can’t remember, willing the contact to end. We were alone in the room.
The first time a male took advantage of me when I was drunk I was eighteen and a freshman in college. I’d recently discovered alcohol, and as is well-documented in previous posts, I used it to excess only, a black-out drunk from the beginning. What started out as a couple of shots of gin on an empty stomach before going downstairs in the early evening to meet up with my crush in the dorm lounge turned into lights out, a vague recollection of sitting on my crush’s lap (an unwanted advance by me), of being tucked into bed, of someone on top of me kissing me and putting his hands all over me. I suddenly sat bolt upright in my own bed, stone sober, utterly confused. The clock said 1:00 a.m. I called out for my roommates and they came in looking serious and sick. They reconstructed the night for me: tired of my sloppy flirtations, my crush had carried me upstairs, tucked me into bed in his room and left, calling my roommates to let them know, where later his roommate found me and climbed aboard. The scene ended only when my roommates kicked open the door, screaming at him to get off me, that he knew damn well I’d mistaken him for my crush and had no idea what was happening.
The first time a male grabbed me by the pussy I was eighteen, dancing in a packed nightclub. Sure, we were moving in close on strangers, letting them into our personal space. But twice that night, someone began to grind his dick into me from behind, reaching under my skirt, fingers slipping into my underwear, trying to get in. A face I never saw. I simply moved away, heart pounding, pulling the hand out from between my legs and getting between my girlfriends, safety in numbers. My first time in a club, I had no idea what to expect. Was this normal? Was I to accept this as part of the deal?
I can’t remember the first time a male cat-called me, leered at me, put a hand on my ass or made an unwanted sexual overture because it’s happened more times than I can count, for as long as I can remember. It’s the grizzled man in the raincoat, hood up, who emerges from the shadows in the deserted parking garage, walking deliberately toward my car as I’m parking. It’s the rich old white man at the work holiday party who slips a hand down low on my hip during a picture, allowing his fingers to graze where he desires. It’s the middle aged man who asks me what I’m doing later, if I have a boyfriend, when I’m seventeen and ringing up his purchases at the GAP. It’s the man who circles me with his car while I’m walking through the large empty parking lot, grinning, ogling as he makes another pass. It’s the man who pulls up next to me when I’m standing on the corner, car windows and pants down so I can see him furiously working over his erection, blocking the intersection and me from crossing. It’s the classmate who sidles up to me while we’re working as school office assistants, whispering in my ear that he wants to know about my sex life, to be a part of it.
What do each of these scenarios have in common? That in some way I was physically or socially captive, sensed as quarry by men who sought to victimize, to grab, to take, to get their rocks off. And this is what our society protects, the privilege of men and boys to treat women and girls’ bodies as playthings, extensions of their own. Because we are there, we can be taken. And now we have elected President a man who believes women are decorative objects at best, ugly trash at worst, there for the grabbing, taking and raping. And fifty-four percent of white women, my demographic, voted for this man, a known sexual assailant. Talk about institutionalized sexism. His behavior and attitudes are so common, we don’t reject them. We don’t consider them, even.
I sobbed in fear on election night, when the winner was called. Reality blurred into a surreal sense of passing into some sort of collective waking nightmare. My husband and I walked out of the apartment to get some air, to get away from the TV and our phones. As though by taking in fresh oxygen, our heads might clear and the first woman President would have just been elected. It didn’t work, and I doubled over with a sickening feeling of total exposure, that I am of a gender that is no longer safe by any social convention (laws, ha!) from being grabbed by the pussy at will, at any time, by any man, behavior condoned and supported by the President-elect. I lashed out at my husband, shoving him away, crying, shut up, white man! You have no idea how this feels. I had to get away from him, away from all of it, and so I snatched the house keys from him, stumbling away, tears streaming down my face. Please just don’t lock me out, he said, and I swore I heard him say under his breath, not that I’d blame you if you did.
And now I’ve redoubled my efforts to protect myself in public. I’ve written before about girls and women being taught assault prevention strategies, while no one talks to men and boys about their responsibilities to prevent assault. I fear things have just gotten much, much worse for us. It’s not as though sexism and misogyny haven’t been simmering below the surface all along, exploding when a high-profile rape case is covered by media. It’s that now perpetrators of their associated behaviors have been emboldened by the powers that be.
A couple of weekends ago I was at a conference in Vegas, that included an evening event at which cocktail attire was required. At one point I stepped out of the ballroom, walking out on a program thick with sexist and bigoted remarks and imagery, a room full of rich white Trump supporters. As I walked through the large, long atrium, I became acutely aware of the absence of people. I looked down at the small, mincing steps the tight hem of my dress and tall heels afforded and realized if someone were to advance on me I would not be able to run. I scanned the deserted corridor, looking for anyone, safety in numbers, just in case. Then I realized if someone advanced, it was unlikely that witness would intervene.