They Don’t Have to Touch You for It to be Abuse

When I was 22, just graduated from college, I couldn’t find a full-time job. It was 2008, i.e. the year the economy went to shit, so I tried to piece together a living by working part-time at a bookstore and getting any freelance writing work I could find.

I was hired to write copy for an educational website. The interview was done at a Starbucks with one of the founders of the company, who after having me write some practice copy on the spot, enthusiastically hired me and started sending assignments my way. He asked to occasionally meet with me at the Starbucks to check in on my work, which I was happy to do. I felt like a “real adult” for the first time, juggling multiple jobs and actually getting paid to do what I had studied in college.

After one of these check-ins, this man, who was twice my age, which at the time felt like he might as well have been my father’s age, asked if I wanted to go with him to see the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. This wasn’t exactly a dream scenario for me—I mean, I wanted to see the new wing, but would have preferred to go with my friends—but I said sure, to be nice, because he seemed nice enough, because he was now helping to pay my bills and this seemed like some sort of bonding experience. This must be what real adults do.

About halfway through our visit I started to fear that the outing, to him, was a date, though I didn’t give any inclination that I was interested in him in that way. But there he was, asking about my family, my hobbies, my favorite books, what I liked to do on the weekends, smiling at me in that lingering way that feels a bit beyond friendly. I pushed the idea out of my mind and figured I just had to make it through this single day.

The next time he asked me to meet up with him “for work,” I got to the coffee shop and he immediately asked if we could go for a walk, during which he told me that he knew it was inappropriate—that he was significantly older than me and was also my employer—but that he had feelings for me and felt like I had them for him in return, so what were we to do? I lied and said that I had a boyfriend because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. After that he never asked to convene in person again, and soon the freelance assignments dried up. It didn’t matter—I had already decided freelancing wasn’t for me, not when it meant being put in extremely uncomfortable situations with strange men where there was no protocol, no HR, no protections in place.

I am one of the lucky ones. He didn’t assault me, didn’t molest me. He didn’t rape me. I don’t even recall him ever touching me. At the time I didn’t tell anyone about this incident because I was embarrassed—why did I walk into that museum with him, making him think I was interested? It was my fault for leading him on, my fault for losing that influx of cash I needed so badly at the time.

It wasn’t until more recently that I realized what this was—a man in power attempting to use that power to accommodate his sexual needs. When it became clear that I would not be fulfilling that role for him, my professional services were no longer wanted.

I shared this story on my Facebook page last night after taking in the hundreds—hundreds—of posts from my friends participating in the “Me too” campaign. Started by Alyssa Milano, who costarred on Charmed with Rose McGowan, one of the many women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, the campaign suggested, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

If you’re on Facebook (or Twitter for that matter) I probably don’t have to tell you what happened next. Our feeds became flooded with me too messages, sometimes simple ones just sharing Milano’s original message, and plenty more that delved into stories of harassment, assault, and rape. Friends of mine posted about experiencing these things as early as 8 or 9, 11 or 12. There were stories of being masturbated on in subway cars, movie theaters, airplanes. Stories of women being chased home by strange men. Stories of people being fondled by relatives. Instances of being catcalled, verbally assaulted, groped. Stories of being assaulted, raped.

And then there were the stories we didn’t hear, the me toos that weren’t posted because the survivor still doesn’t feel safe enough to do so.

I went back and forth between posting my own story, knowing that it doesn’t compare to being physically abused, knowing how incredibly lucky I am—and that’s all it comes down to, pure luck, not the way we dress or act or make our livings—that I’ve never experienced something more severe. But it did derail my career. It did shut down one avenue of options for me, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. In response to my post, one friend wrote, “I have had some experiences that border on sexual assault but much more (maddeningly) frequent have been experiences like this, where men took a professional interest in me that they assumed could and should accommodate their sexual interest in me—even if they didn’t say so, their actions showed they wouldn’t take one without the other. I’ve hit so many dead ends in my career because of this pattern.”

Another wrote, “It was very upsetting to read about this experience, even though I’m also sad to say that most women reading this have had a similar experience at some point in their lives. I think it’s important to be vocal about this particularly to show younger generations of women that this sort of behaviour is NEVER ok.”

That’s the thing with these me too experiences: They come in every shape and form, every level of seriousness, insidiously affecting the lives of their victims. This campaign set out to show us how widespread this problem is, and that it did, devastatingly so.

Now the question is, what happens next? Once we are made aware of the problem, what can we do to fix it? One proactive response has been another campaign on social media called #IWill, which asks for people—especially men—to say what they will personally do to actively fight against systemic sexual harassment and assault. From believing victims’ stories to calling out peers, coworkers, and superiors when they see incidents of abuse and mistreatment, there are plenty of concrete actions we can take to begin turning this cycle of abuse around.

I can only hope those actions will not fall solely on the victims themselves, who shouldn’t have to fight for their own bodily freedom—who shouldn’t have to beg to just be left the fuck alone.

Image via Flickr/Mia Nolting

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