I am not a young woman. Truth be told, though I refuse to call myself “old”, I am not even a middle-aged woman anymore. Nevertheless, I feel the weight of obligation to my gender to add mine to the voices of all the other women who testify to sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of men in positions of power.
For me, coming of age in the late 60’s was less about the freedoms that the so-called sexual revolution was supposedly opening up in the culture, and more about the license it seemed to offer in the minds of predatory males, who now could freely cross the boundaries of consent that had customarily limited women’s exposure to assault from perfect strangers.
As a teenage girl riding the Chicago transit system to parochial school I had my first nauseating experiences of leering lechers who took advantage of the crowded conditions to press their bodies against me before I could extract myself from the throng. That probably was commonplace long before the sexual revolution, but as the decade advanced, there seemed to be an uptick in easily witnessed breast and ass grabs in passing and crude remarks loudly exchanged amongst snickering groups of men in ties and coats.
Summer jobs provided an ideal opportunity to learn about misogyny in the workplace, as junior file and supply clerks routinely vented their feelings of inferiority by sexually harassing the only candidates that they could bully: teenaged girls who were trapped by their low status and “shameful” lack of experience at deflecting such unwelcome behaviors.
Each invasion felt profoundly confusing and humiliating for me as a kid. I could think of no defense other than to hurry out of reach with my head down, face burning in helpless anger.
I guess I was lucky. Perhaps the worst experience I had was with an x-ray technician working for the Dept. of Immigration in Canada who exploited his official job in order to grope me as I stood in my underwear for the required chest x-ray. I was only nineteen but I had a keen sense of injustice and realized at once that he must be fondling all of the women who passed through his x-ray room. They, like me, would feel unable to protest, for fear that he might do something to affect their immigration status. My silent outrage was off the charts.
The experiences weren’t flattering or even remotely pleasurable for me. As I grew into adulthood, I reached a saturation point with no warning, and, one day, I simply snapped.
At twenty-four, I was living in Berlin, Germany. My boyfriend Mark (now my husband) and I were climbing hurriedly up the crowded subway exit stairs. We became separated in the shuffle and suddenly, as I reached the top step, I felt a hand grab my bottom from behind and give it an almost painful squeeze. Without thinking, I whirled around, grabbed the perpetrator’s arm and twisted it forcefully behind his back as I pushed him against the wall; then slugged him in the face as hard as I could with my free hand.
It all happened in an instant without anyone observing the initial assault. Suddenly the man cried “Was ist los? Was ist los?” Roughly translated, he meant, “Why? Why?” There were plenty of witnesses at this point as I replied, “You know damn well ‘was ist los’; you grabbed me!”
He was a pitiful sack of human rubbish; a poor excuse for manhood; and he took off at a brisk trot as soon as I released him.
My husband was quizzically looking back at the scene in confusion until I told him what had happened. When he heard the whole story, he was utterly delighted with my reaction, but I was shaking with lingering fury and the growing realization that something quite dangerous had been unleashed in me.
Months later, when we were walking on the street late at night, a group of drunken teenaged boys jostled us as they passed. My husband is rather small in stature and I don’t think they realized that he was a man. One of the boys grabbed both of my breasts as he passed me and ran away with his friends. I snapped once again.
I happened to be carrying an umbrella and I took off at a dead run, waving that umbrella ahead of me like a sword. I don’t recall if I said anything, but I pursued them for a block and a half until Mark caught up with me and persuaded me that I could get hurt if I actually connected with the umbrella and started a fight.
I realized in an instant that he was right but the adrenaline flow was almost overpowering.
That was pretty much the conclusion of my vendetta against gropers. I found it very disturbing that a deep well of violent potential clearly existed in me and had twice been provoked into eruption. It took me days to recover from that last episode, and I have to say that I haven’t revisited those feelings in the forty years since; but I had clearly turned the corner on my vulnerability. I would no longer be the humiliated victim of unwanted contact. After that, I think the message to stay clear must have wafted from me like a pheromone.
I realize that my complaints are relatively minor when compared with those of other women, but I also realize that it is a mistake to dismiss any of these lesser assaults as unworthy of that designation. It is a mistake that we women of the past have made far too often and for far too long. For our silence we owe an apology to our daughters and our granddaughters for whom generations of misunderstood victimhood have set the table for the continued mistreatment of women.
Can you imagine what would happen if men behaved to other men as some do to women? There would be blood in the streets in short order because sexual abuse isn’t about sex, it is an act of violence, whether great or small.
During our annual Halloween party, when my son was in middle school, the most popular boy in the class, a “star” hockey player, upended the smallest girl into our dense shrubbery. Everyone laughed hilariously, including the victim who was flattered by the attention and struggled feebly to extricate herself. When I came upon the scene, I put an end to it and promptly sent the boy and his crew home. Then I sat all the girls down on the porch steps to explain why it was never a good idea to succumb to a boy’s bullying, even if it seemed to be all in good fun. I explained that soon they would be dating, and a relationship that begins with that kind of flirtation could one day end in the girl’s very real victimization.
That lecture had been building up in me for about forty years. I don’t know how much penetrated their hormone flooded brains that day, but I hope the timely intervention made some lasting impression on the little gal in the bushes. It felt really good to do what I could to empower the next generation of women against precursors of abuse that had been quietly accepted when I was young.
This is my testimony and I urge every woman who reads it to give her own.