Friday, October 13, 2017

The Exhibitionist

Because of Harvey Weinstein, women's stories of experiencing sexual harassment are all over the media these days. These tales come as no surprise, at least not to the female half of the world. Which doesn't mean they aren't sad and terrible and wrong. It's just so close to home that we can't ever be shocked.

I enjoy reading Joanna's Goddard's highly popular blog, "A Cup of Jo." Today's post featured her own story, which included being kissed on the neck by her boss when she was 14 and working in his restaurant. It hit a nerve for me. She writes:
Last night, I was wondering, how have all these experiences always added up in my mind to nothing? That I’ve chalked them up to just part of life, part of being female? That I’ve brushed things off again and again and just tried not to think about them? Have you done the same?
“One of the cruelest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you,” wrote Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker. “If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide that it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak. If you’re talented, he thought of you as an equal. If you’re ambitious, you wanted it. If you’re savvy, you knew it was coming. If you’re affectionate, you seemed like you were asking for it all along. If you make dirty jokes or have a good time at parties, then why get moralistic? If you’re smart, there’s got to be some way to rationalize this.”
That all made a great deal of sense to me. As I've been reading the news, in the back of my mind I've been thinking, "Thank god nothing like that has ever happened to me." And then I began remembering all the things that did happen to me. As a teenager. As a working woman. As a theater student and actor. While walking city streets. 

I think we women try to forget these experiences as soon as we can. But deep down, we all have a list. Some incidents affect us more than others, but I believe they all have an impact, altering our daily behavior, diminishing our freedom. They teach us how to react or not react, what to do, what not to wear, when to keep quiet, what places to avoid, when to cross the street or change seats on the subway. Self-protection becomes more elaborate as we experience more harassment, we just forget why as it becomes instinctive. We are not safe or free in this world the way men are.

I will never forget what happened to me when I was about 14. 

In the 1970s, I was a skinny girl in glasses and a Catholic school uniform, walking a mile home every day along a busy road. I had worked out "escape routes" all along the way because men in cars would follow me slowly, turn around when they had to pass me, and follow me again. This happened often enough, with different cars, that I'd gotten used to it. I felt safer knowing that, if I had to, I could disappear into a series backyards and alleys to get home, so they'd never figure out where I lived. 

Sometimes I had to.

One day, a very young man in pulled over to the curb and asked me for directions to Carlisle Street. I remember thinking that he seemed cute, with a pleasant face and dark, curly hair falling over his ears. I went up to his car window so he could hear me, and saw that his pants were down and he was playing with himself as he watched me. I was 14; I knew next to nothing about men.* I backed away and he took off. 

As I continued walking home, shaky and sickened, my horror was mixed with surprise that a guy who looked nice and normal could be so nasty and sick. What a shame, I thought. I wondered what I should have said or done to stop him from trying it with another girl. In my head, I heard Peggy Lee singing: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is, my friend . . ."  "Yes," I thought. "I should have sung that to him. Damn." 

I look back and admire my 14-year-old self. I doubt I'm that smart and tough now. It's been downhill all the way since then.

I never told my parents about the exhibitionist or the men who followed me in cars. My mother was nervous and over-protective as it was, and I loved walking by myself. I was afraid I'd be forbidden to go anywhere alone. I never told a friend; I kept it to myself.

That night, my Dad and I visited some old friends of his, a kind, elderly couple who lived in a farmhouse in the country. It was the only time he took me to see them. I don't remember what we ate for supper except that it was good. I had no appetite, but I ate. I was quiet at the table because I was busy telling myself over and over, "You're safe now, you're safe," as I sat beside my father in their cozy, old-fashioned kitchen. They had a large collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. 

I remember how hard the wind blew across the fields on that cold March night, and how bright the stars were on the ride home. I didn't sleep much that night. 

I felt bad — different, uncomfortable — for days afterward. I couldn't make sense of it because I didn't know the word for my emotional state. Now I do: violated. Back then I probably thought women had to be assaulted physically to feel that way.

Eventually, the shock wore off. I never walked up to a stranger's car again. I learned that good-looking people weren't always as nice as they looked. I was even more alert when I walked alone. For years I searched that stretch of road for his rust-brown Toyota coupe so I could get his license plate. I tried in many ways to be more careful, as we all do, but in time I learned that being careful doesn't always help. If a man wants to harass you, he will if he can. It happened to me (and my friends) on my college campus, as we worked in offices, during acting class, while walking alone on a nice day. Sometimes I talked about it and sometimes I didn't.

I hope there are women who don't have such stories, but I doubt it. Many, if not most, have worse experiences than mine. We all know it. But we'd still like to know — Why?



* This happened before the incredibly weird high school sex-education/religion class.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is a deep and complicated topic. Going back to when the female was worshipped as a goddess in prehistory, to the male-dominated organized religions that made Eve the originator of human sin. I am sorry that you had that experience; when I was pinched on the butt by a man while shopping in KMart as a little girl, my father asked me where the man was, then told to ignore it. Can it be that parents need to raise their boys as caring souls, and their girls to not take any guff? I wish I knew the answer; I chose NOT to have any children of my own. Poignant post

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